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NYC native Trevon Hughes has come to love life in Badger country

MADISON, Wis. -- A few miles south of the University of Wisconsin campus, inside a place called Barberstown, the poster of hairstyle photos predates the fro-hawk craze, and Trevon Hughes is using a laptop to find an example of his desired cut online. The Badgers' senior point guard's inspiration is, of all things, the Verizon Wireless commercial where a man's mythical "coverage map" pops up and obscures a football game on TV. "You've seen that?" Hughes asks his barber, LaMar Skinner, on a snowy Tuesday morning. "I want a mohawk with dark sides, like the guy with the bad AT&T map."

It doesn't take them long to queue up the ad; Verizon was nice enough to post video of the entire campaign online, although the company probably didn't anticipate this scenario. "You're just talking about a tapered mohawk," Skinner says, nodding, and he beckons Hughes over to a nearby chair.

Within an hour, Hughes' finished cut has a renegade, fro-hawk look from the back, befitting a guard who grew up in Queens, N.Y., idolizing Stephon Marbury.From the front, though, Hughes could almost pass it off as a traditional fade; it looks more serious, befitting a backcourt rock in Bo Ryan's swing offense, which Wisconsin has run so efficiently this season that it's off to a 13-3 start (and No. 13 ranking) after getting picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten. Hughes, who's averaging 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists, hasn't lost all his New York flair since his unlikely migration to the Midwest -- he's just learned how to keep it under control, and has emerged as one of the conference's best floor generals.

The first haircut Hughes received in the state of Wisconsin, eight and a half years earlier, was traumatic. In the summer before eighth grade, he begrudgingly shipped out from the Rosedale neighborhood of Queens, a five-minute drive east of John F. Kennedy International Airport, to St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis., on an athletic scholarship. He showed up with his hair in braids, and the barber at St. John's gave Hughes a cruel makeover. "I think their barber was blind in one eye, and he didn't even use scissors first," Hughes said. He just shaved it and left patches everywhere. Butchered it. That might have been the worst day of my life."

It was the start of a turbulent transition to the rigidity of military school -- rise at 6 a.m., lights-out at 10 p.m., with daily room and uniform inspections, drill-work, classes, a two-hour study hall, and either football or basketball practice in between -- in a place Hughes admits he once couldn't even pick out on a map. It hadn't helped that his friends in Queens ridiculed him before he left. "They said stuff like, 'You're going out into the woods,'" Hughes recalls. "They were calling it 'Wisbumblef---'."

*****

So how did Hughes find his way to a tiny (approximately 325 students), all-male academy more than 900 miles away in Wisbum-- er, Wisconsin? The connection between the five boroughs and St. John's began in 1973, when Gary Richert, the school's new football (and soon-to-be basketball) coach was introduced to Joe Bostic Jr., a New Yorker who was friends with Marquette coach Al McGuire. Bostic's father, Joe Sr., who died in 1988, was a trailblazing figure who became the first African-American ringside announcer at Madison Square Garden, and was also the sports editor for the Amsterdam News.

Joe Jr., who worked with prominent summer-league teams such as Riverside Church and the New York Gauchos, had considerable cred in the city hoops scene. "Kids regarded him as a guru," says Richert, "and he tried to shepherd them to better [school] situations, with the hope that he could save some of them."

The younger Bostic became enamored enough with Richert and St. John's that the school turned into a destination for some of New York's best talent from 1974-80, including Eddie Lee, a point guard who went on to break Oscar Robertson's all-time assist record at Cincinnati; Dwayne Johnson, an eventual freshman starter at Marquette; and Ronnie Williams, who would become the all-time leading scorer at Florida. A Milwaukee Sentinel article on Richert's team from Nov. 16, 1979 -- a season in which Williams and Johnson led them to a top-25 national ranking -- was headlined, "St. John's gets big cage ideas from Easterners."

But in 1980, Richert left to take a job as the coach at Division II St. Leo in Florida, stalling what might have been a hegemonic run at St. John's, and he didn't come back to the school until 2001, when he was rehired as athletic director and football coach. Bostic, who continued to direct an occasional (but usually non-elite) New York athlete to St. John's during Richert's hiatus, called him upon his return with a tip. "There's an eighth-grader I just sent," Bostic said, "that you have to go see in the gym."

Richert did, and he immediately called his two sons, Brian and Tim, who were coaching at a nearby juco, Waukesha County Technical College, and said, "This kid is good enough to start on your team right now."

The kid was Trevon Hughes, and in time for his freshman season, Brian (a head coach) and Tim (his assistant) left their juco posts to take over St. John's Northwestern's basketball team. According to Hughes' mother, Twanna Hutchinson, a parent coordinator at P.S. 251 in Queens, the three Richerts became Hughes' "adoptive family in Wisconsin." He'd been a burgeoning troublemaker in Rosedale, and Hutchinson pushed him toward military school as a preventative measure, even though it meant leaving her, his step dad, a brother and five sisters behind.

"I needed to get Trevon out of New York," Hutchinson says, "because with the company he'd been keeping, I didn't want to lose him to the streets."

What the Richerts got in Hughes, Brian says, was "a young man who was lost in the world." Hughes was quiet, obstinate and distrustful, and was harboring notions of transferring back to New York to play for Christ the King, which had recruited him out of middle school. But the academy's discipline and leadership training, combined with the Richerts' coaching, did wonders for Hughes, who established himself as one of Wisconsin's best prep players by his sophomore year. A four-star prospect, he committed to play for the Badgers the summer before his senior season -- choosing Wisconsin over Iowa, Georgia, Gonzaga and Illinois -- and then led St. John's to its first-ever state tournament appearance. "I think [Trevon] decided to stay in Wisconsin, because he'd made a name for himself there, almost like a celebrity," says Hutchinson. "It was like a home away from home."

Hughes said part of the recruiting pitch Ryan, who grew up in Chester, Pa., made to him was, "We're both East Coasters who made it in the Midwest -- we're made for each other." Ryan first saw Hughes play as a sophomore at St. John's -- Marquette's Tom Crean sat across the gym for the same game -- and the Badgers coach was impressed by Hughes' aggressiveness and athleticism, and figured his tendency to attempt risky, home-run passes could be tempered over time. "My theory is, if you take someone who has ability, but tries to over-create, you can get him to understand what good creation is as a point guard," Ryan says. "Honing someone down is easier that trying to get someone to be more aggressive."

The other guard Ryan had lured in as part of his 2006 recruiting class was perhaps Hughes' polar opposite: Jason Bohannon, a slight, 6-2 shooting guard from Marion, Iowa. Bohannon was also a four-star prospect, and when they met during Hughes' official visit, Hughes thought, "This kid does not look like a ballplayer at all -- he's going to get abused." But the first night they arrived on campus as freshmen in June 2006, they went to the Kohl Center, where Bohannon proceeded to hit 11 straight threes in a make-it, take-it 1-on-1 game before Hughes scored a single point.

A mutual respect grew from there; Hughes considers Bohannon (who is hitting 41.6 percent of his threes and averages 10.6 points per game) to be one of the game's most lethal shooters, and Bohannon says, "Trevon is one the best point guards to ever play at Wisconsin."

Hughes, Bohannon and sophomore Jordan Taylor, a star-in-waiting, have been the Big Ten's best backcourt trio this season. They combined to score 57 points in handing Purdue its first loss on Jan. 9 at the Kohl Center, and as a team Wisconsin has the country's fourth-lowest turnover rate, giving the ball away on just 15.9 percent of possessions. Hughes is the Badgers' designated defensive stopper -- he plays a physical, non-gambling brand of man-to-man D -- and his signature performance came in Wisconsin's 73-69 upset of Duke on Dec. 2, when he held Blue Devils point guard Jon Scheyer to a season-low 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting. Scheyer has otherwise played like an All-America this season, averaging 20.1 points per game.

Hughes, who also scored a team-high 26 points in that game, had obsessed over a rematch with Duke ever since he flopped at Cameron Indoor Stadium as a sophomore in 2007, shooting 4-for-13 from the field for 12 points in an embarrassing, 82-58 loss on national TV. He saved the Adidas shoes he wore that night and wrote an "F" on each of them, in memory of the letter grade his performance had received from Ryan. And Hughes mentally saved a quote Scheyer had given to UW's Daily Cardinal; Hughes had been held 7.7 points under his average, and Scheyer told the paper: "We wanted to make him work for everything. He's been doing really well early in the season, but he hasn't had to work for a whole lot."

In interviews after the 2009 Duke game, Hughes said he contemplated stating that Scheyer "hasn't had to work for a whole lot," partly as a jibe, and partly to see if anyone would get the reference. But, in a senior move, he said, "I decided to just let my defense speak for itself."

*****

Before Hughes could speak, he was given a nickname that's stuck with him to this day: "Poppy." Its provenance -- that it came from a Puerto Rican grandfather, who sounded it out like the Spanish word "Papi," has been reported incorrectly in numerous articles. He has a Cuban, not Puerto Rican, step-grandfather, but he's not the one who coined the nickname, either. It came, Hutchinson says, from Webster.

Baby Trevon had a medical condition, induced by his worst crying fits, that required surgery once he was old enough (at about four months) to go under anesthesia. In the meantime Hutchinson had to do her best to keep him as tear-free as possible, and one way to get a guaranteed giggle was to say "Papadapolis" -- the surname of Emmanuel Lewis' adoptive family on Webster. Papadapolis begot Poppy, which later begot "Pop," the shortened version St. John's cadets gave him that's currently used in Wisconsin. In New York, Poppy is still the preferred usage.

In the living room of Hughes' childhood home just off the Sunrise Highway in Rosedale, Hutchinson has a set of his portraits from St. John's on display. They show a progression of a boy barely tolerating life in military-school dress (as a freshman) to one who seems genuinely proud (as a senior). She holds up the photos and says, "You can see the difference in maturity level."

As his stature as a hoops star grew at St. John's, Hughes became less and less interested in mixing with his old running mates from Queens during school breaks. "There would be times," Hutchinson says, "where he'd even say, 'Don't let them know I'm home,' and he'd be itching to get back to Wisconsin."

His bond with the Richerts remains so strong that at least one of them is present at every Badgers home game; Gary sat in the parents' section for last Saturday afternoon's win over Purdue, and afterward, Trevon drove with his girlfriend to Delafield to see Brian and Tim coach St. John's in a night game. Tim, who at 37 is the younger Richert boy by five years, can still recite an e-mail that Hughes sent him while at the academy. It said, "I just want to thank you. You're like an older brother to me, your brother is like a dad to me, your dad is like a grandfather to me, and your mom makes the best cookies."

Hughes has the distinction of being the last player from Joe Bostic's talent pipeline to have a full career at St. John's. In 2003, Bostic, who's now 75, suffered a stroke and has been relegated to a Brooklyn nursing home, unable to work with basketball prospects. Bostic's initial connection to Hughes had been through his paternal grandfather, Eddie Barnett, and before Hughes' graduation from St. John's in 2006, Gary Richert decided to tell him a story about the Barnett side of the family.

Hughes was six years old when he first met his real father, Sidney Barnett, who has played a limited role in his son's life. Barnett was a P.S.A.L. basketball standout in the late '70s and early '80s, first at Brooklyn's Bishop Loughlin High and later Queens' Andrew Jackson High. Barnett, whom Richert recalled was a 6-foot-4 wing player who could "shoot your eyes out, and jump to the moon," ran with Eddie Lee on a number of Bostic's summer teams, and had once come up for discussion as a candidate to be sent to St. John's. "Sid's a great player," Bostic told Richert then, "but he's got some problems."

Richert had to put players through a screening process before setting them up with scholarships, and Barnett -- who'd had drug issues in the city, and didn't seem ready to handle military-school discipline -- failed the test. " 'Nothing against Sid, Joe,' " Richert said, "but I can't risk ruining this program on him."

Barnett went on to play at a local junior college, but his career never reached the level that Trevon's has at Wisconsin, where he's started 72 straight games and, in December, joined the Badgers' 1,000-point club. In 1988, the year after Trevon was born, Barnett was sent to jail at Bare Hill Correctional Facility in Malone, N.Y., for attempted manslaughter and attempted robbery, both in the first degree. Barnett, who was unreachable for comment on this story, was paroled in 1993, but went back to jail in 1999 for attempted robbery in the second degree (this time Ulster Correctional Facility in Napanoch, N.Y.), and was paroled again in 2001.

When Richert explained to Hughes why St. John's had passed on his father, Hughes said, "I understand. I don't think my dad would've made it here, either." Still, a few weeks later, when Barnett appeared in Delafield for Hughes' graduation ceremony, Richert sought Barnett out to apologize for not bringing him to St. John's in the '70s. "It was just something that we couldn't swing at the time," Richert told him. What St. John's couldn't save in the father, it saved in the son. For that, Wisconsin is forever grateful.

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