Marquette junior Aaron Hutchins, baseball cap pulled low over his
brow, teeth gnawing at his fingernails, leans forward on a chair
in his on-campus apartment, eyes fixed on himself.
On the TV set a tape plays of the Golden Eagles' Feb. 28 game at
Louisville. With 8.8 seconds left in double overtime, Hutchins
takes an inbounds pass under his own basket, races upcourt to
the right corner, makes a hard jab step to the hoop and, sensing
the tiniest retreat by the defender, stops to arch a 22-foot
fadeaway. From the couch a few feet away Hutchins's roommate,
forward Zack McCall, sputters and shakes his head at this bold
absurdity he has viewed countless times: the 5'10" Hutchins
shaking free of his 6'5" opponent, the certainty and rapidity of
his release, the extremeness of the shot's parabola. The trey
nestles into the net with three ticks to go. Marquette wins,
80-79. Hutchins rewinds the video, grins slightly and says
Before burying that dagger, Hutchins had taken--and
missed--shots at the end of regulation and at the end of
overtime. Three times Marquette coach Mike Deane had placed the
ball in Hutchins's hands and given him the choice of shooting or
passing to decide the outcome. Three times Hutchins launched.
This sort of stubborn self-reliance has very deep roots,
according to his older brother Anthony. "Aaron doesn't really
trust anyone else," he says. "Except for me."
When Aaron was born and Anthony was two, their mother, Kaye, did
not believe her new baby would survive. Aaron was 90 days
premature and weighed three pounds, one ounce at birth. He had
jaundice and a blood disorder, and suffered a series of heart
attacks. Kaye would watch from the other side of a glass
partition at Memorial Hospital in Lima, Ohio, as doctors tended
to a child no bigger than the palm of her hand.
November 15, 1996
A nurse cornered Kaye one day and said, "Sweetie, I don't think
he's going to make it. But one thing I can tell you is, he's one
strong little boy. We pump his chest and put the paddles on him,
and we're ready to give up. And then he keeps on breathing."
After three months and a half dozen heart seizures, Aaron
stabilized. Says Kaye, "I've always told him, 'Honeypoopy,
you're on a mission. I just don't know what your mission is. But
you are on a mission.'"
When Aaron was eight and Anthony 10, attending services at the
Philippian Baptist Church one morning, they rose at the same
instant and went up to be baptized. "I didn't know if I was
ready, and I looked at Aaron and he didn't say anything, but I
knew it was time," Anthony says. "Ever since then, when things
have gotten really bad, I knew we'd be there for each other."
Lima is an industrial city of 45,000 in western Ohio, and the
south end of town was a tough place to grow up. People lived
densely packed in converted barracks that during World War II
had housed workers who poured steel and made tanks. Drugs were
easy to find there and trouble hard to avoid. To navigate the
hazards Aaron followed Anthony, and Anthony heeded Aaron. "Like
they were two in one," Kaye says.
They raced each other on the stairs in socks to improve their
quickness and spent whole days playing one-on-one. "That's when
I think my heart was the most full, when I was little, and we'd
be outside and it would be real hot and we'd be fighting and
scrapping and you're just so full of energy," Aaron says,
"That's what I like my game to be like: just forget about
everything and just be free."
When Kaye moved 85 miles away to Columbus to find a better job,
her sons remained in Lima to live with Howard, her ex-husband,
and his wife, Kim. Howard was Anthony's father, but not Aaron's;
Aaron's dad was Mack Cooks, and his impact on Aaron's life can
be summed up by the day he tried to pass off broken crayons and
a used coloring book as a gift to his son. Howard, a Vietnam
veteran who worked at Westinghouse, raised both boys into their
teens, buying each of them a car and paying their tuition at
Lima Central Catholic High.
"It's just something I wanted to do for Aaron because his father
wasn't around," Howard says. "And he was so close to Anthony.
Apart, they were unhappy."
When Aaron was 11 and Anthony 13, their athletic reputations
were already established. The talk of one LCC summer camp was
the smaller Hutchins, then not much larger than the ball, who
kept swishing last-second shots. In the championship game, with
the whole camp gathered courtside, Aaron heaved another one in
from 25 feet as the clock ticked down, then stood with his hands
on his hips and his chin thrust out as a tiny mob descended on
him. "Hutch is destined to take that shot," LCC coach Bob
Seggerson says. "There's a quality in him that is preordained."
Late the next year, Cooks was arrested on Nova Avenue on the
south end of town, five blocks from the old barracks. At his
trial in Allen County court the following year, he was convicted
of aggravated drug trafficking and kidnapping, and sentenced to
eight to 15 years in prison. Cooks had held three people captive
for several hours in a crack house after one refused to pay a
drug debt. He held them wielding only a wooden club.
When Aaron was 15 and Anthony 17, they lived apart. Aaron had
moved in with Kaye in Columbus the year before, but he ached to
go back to Lima. "Ma," he said, "I'm on a mission."
Anthony was a senior at LCC, and this would be their last chance
to share a backcourt. Kaye relented. At 5'11" Anthony was a
spectacular jumper and a tenacious defender, the perfect
complement to the smaller and more skillful Aaron. "We played
well together," Aaron recalls. "He averaged, like, 18, I
averaged 17. He could have played 1 and I could have played 2,
but I wanted the ball in my hands so he could do all the scoring
and get all the glory." They roared through the season unbeaten
and led their state tournament semifinal game by five points
with 37 seconds to go. They lost. Aaron cried a little. Anthony
punched a dent in a locker.
A few months later, on a July afternoon, the Hutchins brothers
idled on Pine Street in Anthony's Chevy Blazer, freshly painted
cranberry with gold sprinkles. Anthony had graduated from LCC
and accepted a basketball scholarship to Walsh, an NAIA school
in North Canton, Ohio. As the light turned green and Anthony
accelerated into the intersection, a 74-year-old woman driving
on Vine Street did not stop. Aaron, his head turned, watched as
a gray Chrysler New Yorker going 20 miles an hour plowed into
the passenger side of the Blazer, where he sat with his seat
Aaron smashed into the windshield and then into his brother
before flying into the backseat. Their truck flipped, slid and
landed on top of another car. Anthony was trapped beneath the
wheel with his legs twisted under the dashboard like a wrung-out
washrag. When Aaron regained consciousness, all he could
remember was broken glass and his brother saying, over and over,
"Aaron, are you O.K.?"
Aaron was, though he had to wear a neck brace for a short time.
Anthony was not. He would need 38 staples to stabilize his back
and later underwent surgery for a herniated disk. He attended
Walsh for 2 1/2 years but never suited up. The woman who had hit
them walked away from the accident unharmed.
When Aaron was 18 and Anthony 20, they lived alone together in a
rundown house on Eureka Street. Howard, divorced from Kim, was
involved in an unstable relationship with another woman; their
arguments often turned violent. So Anthony had left North Canton
to get a place in Lima with Aaron, who had just graduated from
LCC. The cash settlement Anthony had received from the accident
helped to subsidize them. "I knew God wouldn't take that much
away from me for nothing," Anthony says. "Without that money, it
would have been so hard on us both. There would have been more
chance something would get to Aaron."
As a senior Aaron averaged 25.3 points, 7.1 assists and 3.5
rebounds, and became the first Division III player in history to
be named Ohio's Mr. Basketball. He lost another heartbreaker in
the state tournament final when, exhausted, he missed a pair of
one-and-one free throws down the stretch. A week later, in a
state all-star game, he went 16 for 16 from the line.
Aaron is 20 and Anthony 22. They live 450 miles apart now but
still speak every day. Anthony is in Columbus, where he does
data entry for an insurance company and plans to enroll in
January at Columbus State, a junior college for which he also
hopes to play ball. He visits Aaron in Milwaukee and sees him
play at least half a dozen times a year. "Every time I watch
him, I want to watch him again," Anthony says. "I watch him
again, and I still don't know how he does it. There's some kind
of strength inside him, even I don't know what it is. I think
about it a lot, though."
"I know if I'm not playing well or I'm not shooting or not doing
something," says Aaron, "I'll look over at him, and he'll just
give me a look to let me know what's wrong. We're still tight,
tight as brothers can get. Everything he has is mine. Everything
I have is his."
Hutchins played sparingly for most of his freshman year at
Marquette, but he emerged during the NIT, averaging 17.2 points
and shooting 53.6% from three-point range. Last season, his
first as a starter, he led the Golden Eagles in scoring (14.0 a
game) and finished 10th in the nation in assists (6.9) despite a
nagging ankle injury. Another medical problem arose over the
summer: Doctors discovered he has sickle-cell trait, a blood
disorder that will require him to get extra oxygen before and
after he plays. But Hutchins remains irrepressible. "He has the
ability to perform at a higher level the tougher the situation,"
Deane says. "And those kinds of kids are hard to find."
It's a toughness born of scar tissue. Those who know
Aaron--including Anthony--speak of the way he can keep his
feelings hidden deep inside. What do you believe in when the
most reliable figure in your life is only two years your senior?
When you can't even drive through a green light without
flinching? You trust in yourself. You trust in your mission. "I
feel like we've already lived this life before anyway, so
whatever I do, it won't be wrong," Hutchins says. "Once
everything unfolds, then I think it will just link together."
And so, as the clock winds down, who better to have handling the
ball? Aaron Hutchins has been calling his own shots since the
day he was born.