The latest subject in our Hoops Q&A series is USC junior Daniel Hackett, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who grew up in Pesaro, Italy, where his father, Rudy, played professional basketball. (Rudy is now the Trojans' strength and conditioning coach.) Daniel moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 for high school, but hasn't forgotten his Italian roots; he returned to Italy to play for its Under-20 national team two summers ago in the European Basketball Championships. Hackett overcame a broken jaw and a stress fracture in his lower back last season to play in 29 games while averaging 8.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Luke Winn: You graduated from St. John Bosco Prep in just three years in order to come to USC a season ahead of schedule [to help the team in the wake of point guard Ryan Francis' death]. That happened in 2006. How come we haven't seen any other kids follow your path, by cramming in enough high-school credits so that they can start college basketball a year early? Is it just too difficult to pull off?
Daniel Hackett: Doing that took a lot of time and a lot of energy out of me. The courses I took [online and from a junior college] were challenging; the tough part was passing English class over here in only two months. And then in the end, we still had to see if the NCAA would allow me to graduate and get admitted to USC. So there were a lot of factors that had to work for me: I was able to get my work done in time; I had a good SAT score; and the NCAA cleared me. I also had to sacrifice a lot. I sacrificed my last year at ABCD camp. It was hard to leave high school like that, and hard to pull it off. That's why, as far as I know, I'm still the only one who's done it.
LW: How long did the whole process take, from the time you talked to USC about actually making the leap, to the time you got cleared?
DH: The NCAA had me waiting until about September 12, while they made sure everything was legal. I had done my part. They had the last word. We had decided to start with the project in late May, as soon as high school ended. The work went all through June and July. Those were long days [he said 12-14 hours, between basketball and studying].
LW: Brandon Jennings, a kid who was once committed to USC, has recently started playing for Rome, in the [professional] Italian league, this season rather than play college basketball. He's the first player to take that route. Was this a good decision? And as someone who grew up in Italy, do you ever think about whether that would have been a better route for you, too, rather than the U.S. college system?
DH: As far as me coming from Italy, I already knew what it was like to be there and play on a club team, and I was interested in getting to college in the U.S. That's what I wanted. As far as Brandon, I think he made the right choice, for him. For a kid who maybe had problems getting into college with his grades, going overseas and playing in a top league, that's a great move, and I'm not surprised that other kids are looking into it too.
Those guys don't play around over there [in Italy]. It's tough basketball. You get a sense of what life as a pro is like -- it's very different from college, you start getting your paychecks, you've gotta take care of your money, and learn how to be a man on your own. But college teaches you [how to be a man] too, in different ways.
LW: What's the most impressive thing you've seen so far out of [USC's] new freshman phenom, DeMar DeRozan, in the short time you've been able to play with him?
DH: There's a lot I can tell you already about DeMar. I've never seen any kid jump that high, so I'm excited to have a backcourt teammate who's so athletic. That's not the only thing about his game, though. He's crafty, and he knows how to pass the ball and make other teammates better. When we play pickup, it gets really competitive, [because] he wants to win. I'm sure that once we get on the court for real, he's going to be great.
LW: Can DeRozan be better than O.J. Mayo was last season?
DH: They're completely two different types of players, so that's tough [to answer]. O.J. took a lot of shots, and had the ball in his hands a lot. But DeMar can be a really good player without the ball. Both are tremendous players, but I would say that DeMar has more upside because of his athletic ability.
LW: What do you think the dynamic will be like, with you and DeMar in the backcourt, as opposed to how it was when you and O.J. were at the 1-2 positions together?
DH: We hope that this year is going to be all about winning. I'm not saying that O.J. wasn't about winning, but there were nights that it was tough to do that, if the team wasn't working well together. Hopefully this year we can get better, and DeMar is going to do his part. I think we're going to get up and down the court much more this year. I told coach I want to run; we're going to push the ball like Memphis did last year. They really got up and down the court, and we have a long team and we can do the same thing.
LW: When you came back from your broken jaw last season, you were happy that you only had to wear a mouthpiece during games, because, you said, "a mask, it shows weakness." Explain that one.
DH: It's a weakness because guys know that you have an injury and they're going to try to attack it. Some teams in the Pac-10 will try to do anything to win. And a mask is a big weakness -- it's hard to run and breathe and shoot with that thing on your face. I tried it for a week, but couldn't do it. I'd never played with a mask in my life. I just wasn't up to it. So eventually I went out there with a mouthpiece, and got to put my colors on it. I put the Italian flag colors on it.
[Ed's note: We regret missing that in the Style Archive.]
LW: Now that you're a year removed from the incident, and your roster has changed, can you finally explain what really happened with O.J. Mayo breaking your jaw? You always said it was an unintentional elbow, but obviously there were a lot of other folks who said it was something more intentional, like a punch ...
DH: Um ... [pauses] ... it was an elbow. [Laughs.] I can't say what goes on in the gym when we work out in the summer. Let's just say it wasn't a brawl or anything like that. I've been saying it wasn't intentional the whole time, and I'm going to stick to that. Maybe one day if you and me go out for a drink in New York, we'll grab Danilo [Gallinari] from the Knicks, and I'll tell you about it.
LW: That's cool. I just wanted to see if, you know, a year's time had changed anything about it.
DH: I just don't like to talk too much about the past. It happened. It was just a bad episode. That's how I label it: a very bad episode. And I leave it at that.
LW: On to something else, then. A pretty strong rivalry has developed of late between USC and UCLA in basketball, especially after Josh Shipp said the Bruins were a "unity team" whereas the Trojans were more selfish. A lot of the national hype, though, was over the showdown between Mayo and Love, two future lottery picks. Can it remain a high-profile rivalry now that they're gone?
DH: USC-UCLA will always be a heated rivalry. Especially this year, because we feel like we have a chance to take over the conference, and have a shot at the championship, if we play the right way. [UCLA] is always the team to beat. It has great tradition and it's a great program, and everybody looks at them when they play. USC, we're on the come-up. We're playing well, we've been in the tournament, now we want to make a statement that we're an elite program, just like them.
LW: When you said, earlier, that some teams in the Pac-10 would do anything to win, did you mean UCLA?
DH: They do anything to win. It gets chippy, there's a lot of trash-talking, a lot of elbows, but in the end, we all know each other and we're all cool with each other. But on the court it's war. I don't even look at anybody's face. I just do whatever it takes to win.
LW: There were rumors last year that you were contemplating jumping to Italy to play pro ball for a year or two before going to the NBA. But you came back for your junior season at USC. How much did you consider going overseas after sophomore year?
DH: There was interest from some teams overseas, but I really never thought about staying overseas and ending my college career like that. I want to try to win at college level and take my chance with the NBA from there.
I'm a loyal guy. I went to my high school for three years without changing it. And now I'm here [at USC]. It would have been hard to leave the school that gave me a chance, to have a scholarship, earn my diploma and get a degree. I thought it was not the right thing to do, to go to Italy.
LW: You have a shoulder tattoo that says "Italian Stallion." When you go back to Italy to work out with the Italian national team -- as you did for the past two summers -- how does that go over with the guys there?
DH: [Laughs.] They love it. It's a nickname that even they use sometimes. I carried that nickname from my high school; they'd do an "Italian Stallion" chant when I was at the free-throw line. Since I left them early, I decided to get that on my arm to remind me about my high school time. I mean, I do get a lot of people making fun of me about it, especially the older guys in the pros. But Danilo [Gallinari] has a tattoo of a rooster. So you might want to go and ask him about that. He's nicknamed "The Rooster" and he has a rooster on his back.
LW: Italy missed out on the Beijing Olympics. You weren't a roster member for the '08 team, but do you plan on being part of the club in 2012?
DH: Of course. I plan to go back this summer when Danilo is healthy again. I was out there for July and August when he had a disc injury, and had to take care of his back, so he didn't work out of anything. Our team has got things to do -- we have to qualify for another European Cup -- so we're going to get busy and turn things around.
LW: You and Danilo are good friends, I take it?
DH: Yeah -- we're the same age, and we grew up around each other. Our dads played against each other for a long time overseas. He's a real cool kid and a stellar talent. You guys are going to have fun watching him in New York.
LW: Is there anything about your game that's distinctly Italian, in style?
DH: I would say there's a mix of Italian and American basketball. I just like to hustle hard out there. I watch a lot of basketball, I study the game. There's nothing better than playing basketball. Some of my game is probably Italian, but it's not all about Italy.
I used to watch guys like Michael Cooper, who do a lot of little things. Like James Posey, too -- the kind of players that are quiet but really help the team. I just like the guys that hustle and understand their role on their team and play it well.
LW: This year at USC, you'll probably have a chance to go from role player to star, though.
DH: This year I know my responsibility. I'm going to have the ball in my hands a lot. I've talked with coach about that. I want to take my team deep the in the tournament, and I'm ready to have a breakout year, injury-free.