December 1, 1998
by Bernadette Cafarelli
Phil Hickey learned quickly what being a college basketball player at a big-time program meant with all its pressures, demands and responsibilities. He learned early on that once a student-athlete steps foot on campus, that one’s personal life can become very public.
He remembers well as an 18-year-old freshman back in January of 1996 when he sat before several members of the media answering questions about his well-documented fear of flying. It was a reality check for the Wellsboro, Pa., native who has overcome the fear with great fortitude, and has since that time three years ago, travelled twice across the Atlantic to Italy.
“I learned quickly that when you are an athlete, nothing is private anymore,” Hickey says. “It was tough enough being a freshman, but the hardest part was having so much attention focused on me because of what I was going through.
“It was a tough lesson, but I’ve overcome the fear I once had. I’m proud of the way I faced up to the adversity. I learned a lot during a very difficult time.”
Hickey got great support from his family, friends, teammates and coaches during his ordeal. He also received letters and words of encouragement from others across the nation who were experiencing or had gone through the same problem.
While it took some time, Hickey is now comfortable with flying, and he is quick to answer letters and messages from people going through the same thing.
“I’ve tried to make everything I’ve gone through into something positive,” Hickey says. “I’ve helped others who are experiencing what I’ve gone through. I respond to other people’s letters and phone calls and offer them words of encouragement. That is all very important to me. I overcame my fear with the support of others. However the thing that got me over the hurdle most was the realization that if I didn’t correct the problem, I was going to miss out on too many opportunities in my life.
“It’s funny though, people still wonder how I get to games and are curious as to how long it takes me to get to games,” he adds.
Opportunity knocks for Hickey this season. The 6-11 center feels he and his teammates have much to prove. He knows there are doubters. Many preseason publications pick the Irish to finish 12th in the 13-team BIG EAST standings. But Hickey is quick to point out that he and the other members of this year’s team believe otherwise.
“I don’t think there’s anybody on this team that believes we’re going to finish that low,” Hickey says. “Since coming here, the one thing I’ve learned is that you have to ready to play every day and give it the best you have.”
Each season Hickey has continued to show improvement. He went from averaging 5.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as a freshman to netting 10.7 points and grabbing 8.0 rebounds in his junior campaign.
A turning point in Hickey’s career came in January of his sophomore year when he walked into head coach John MacLeod’s office and asked the coach what he could do in order to become a better player. MacLeod made the suggestion to Hickey that he improve his running and conditioning. So every day following that discussion with MacLeod, Hickey would stay after practice to bike or work out on the Stairmaster.
Around that same time, MacLeod made some minor adjustments in the lineup which allowed Hickey to have a greater role. It was a move that proved beneficial for both parties. Hickey was solid down the stretch for the Irish and was instrumental in leading Notre Dame to the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
Hickey remembers well the three games the Irish played during the tournament at the Joyce Center. None was more electrifying than the quarterfinal matchup with Michigan that saw the Irish drop a one-point decision (67-66) to the eventual NIT champions.
“That game will also be one of the most memorable I will ever play in,” Hickey says. “It was a fun game to be a part of. You could feel the excitement in the crowd. It was such a tremendous atmosphere to be around and a great game to play in.”
For the last three years, Hickey has drawn great support from his friends and teammates, but he is quick to admit that the two most important people in his life are his mother, Elaine, and his younger sister, Christine, who is now a senior in high school.
It was his mother who first got him interested in the sport A single parent, Elaine would shoot around with her son and was the one who put the basket up in the yard.
It wasn’t by accident that Elaine introduced Phil to basketball. She herself was a three-year letterwinner at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. His mother, now a health care administrator, played in the early 70’s, back in a time when the forwards couldn’t come across midcourt and the players had to wear skirts.
Basketball seemed to forge a bond between mother and son; one that is still strong today.
“My mom is definitely my best friend,” Hickey says. “We have a very special relationship. She was a single-parent and raised me and my sister alone. I respect everything she has done for me and my sister; she has provided us both with such a good life.”
A BIG EAST fan growing up, Hickey, who had narrowed his choices to Notre Dame and Penn State before his senior, became sold on the Irish once it was officially announced the school was joining the league back in July of 1994.
“I grew up watching BIG EAST games all the time,” Hickey says. “The league has always been known as a physical conference and that’s the style of play that suits me best. One thing that you learn quickly playing in the BIG EAST is that you can’t afford an off-night. There no easy games in this league, especially on the road.”
It was Notre Dame’s 74-72 road win at 20th-ranked West Virginia last season that provides Hickey with a special feeling. The victory was the first for the Irish in nearly four years as the Irish got revenge for a controversial loss in Morgantown, W.Va., the previous season.
One of the heroes of last year’s win over the Mountaineers was All-American Pat Garrity, a player who Hickey has a great deal of admiration and respect for.
“I learned so much from Pat,” he says. “Pat was the epitome of hard work and he showed me the price you have to pay in order to become a good player. I admire him so much because he came to practice every day and gave it his all. He never took any shortcuts. There never was a time when he didn’t give 100 percent. Pat led by example, and that’s what I want to do.”
As one of four captains, the responsibility of motivating the other players on the team falls on the shoulders of Hickey this season. He looks forward the challenges he has this season. With two freshman in the starting lineup, Hickey is well aware of the importance of leadership.
“It’s a great honor to have been chosen a captain,” he says. “The leadership I show both on and off the court is going to be very important to this team. We have a lot of young guys on this team who are going to make significant contributions this season. But, they’re going to need words of encouragement.
“There are a lot of different personalities on this team, but we have tremendous chemistry. We all get along really well both on and off the court.”
Off the court, Hickey, a management major in the College of Business Administration, enjoys living off-campus with his roommate, Justin Meko, a walk-on member of the Notre Dame football team, who Hickey credits with keeping the apartment neat and tidy. Living off-campus has been a natural step for him and was something that he needed to do.
“I lived in Dillon Hall for three years and that was great,” Hickey says, “but I would recommend living off-campus for at least a year. It really helps you grow up; it forces you to budget your time and take more responsibility.”
Hickey’s off-campus apartment has become a hang-out for other members of the Irish team.
“This not only has been good for me, but good for the other guys on the team,” Hickey says. “They have a place to go to watch games or to just hang out. We have a lot of good times there.” For Hickey, he looks forward to the good times he and his teammates hope to share on the basketball court this season.