When USA Basketball announced its 2018 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year on Nov. 28, the award-winner did not fit the typical profile. He was not an NBA All-Star or an elite high school talent or former Conference Player of the Year in college.
Instead, he was a college walk-on who has played more seasons in the G League than games in the NBA — former Northwestern guard Reggie Hearn.
“Reggie continues to demonstrate his commitment to USA Basketball and his passion for playing basketball,” said the organization’s CEO, Jim Tooley, in a news release. “He has been an outstanding contributor on the court and has proven himself a true leader for coach Van Gundy and the USA World Cup Qualifying teams. We truly are grateful for his commitment, and we are proud to celebrate his contributions.”
Hearn joins an illustrious and elite group of award recipients — from LeBron James and Kevin Durant to Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony. Basketball Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen are also among those who’ve claimed the prize.
The recognition was the icing on the cake of a career year for Hearn. Not only did he win USA Basketball’s most prestigious award, but he made his NBA debut, helped Team USA qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup and got engaged in 2018.
“From a basketball, and really from a life standpoint,” Hearn told The Daily, “It’s been probably the biggest year of growth and accomplishment I’ve ever had.”
Confusion, gold and qualification
Hearn’s journey to becoming the 2018 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year starts two summers ago.
Following the 2017 NBA Summer League, Hearn was frustrated after not getting as much playing time as he hoped with the Sacramento Kings Summer League team. But he was about to receive a phone call that would change his fortunes forever.
It was from Ty Ellis, one of the assistant coaches for USA Basketball’s 2017 AmeriCup team that was set to depart for South America in a few weeks. Ellis offered Hearn a spot on the squad.
“I was confused,” Hearn said. “I was wondering why he even asked me.”
He accepted the offer, joining head coach Jeff Van Gundy and fellow G League players for the opportunity to win the first AmeriCup title for the US since 2007.
Immediately, Hearn discovered that he fit perfectly in Van Gundy’s system, which the guard describes as old-school and structured, but featuring plenty of room for freedom.
“I think he trusts me for the most part when I’m on the floor,” Hearn said. “Because of his trust in me, that gives me a great feeling of confidence on the court.”
That trust was first illustrated at the AmeriCup. While Hearn did not start any of the five games, he tied for third on the team in minutes played and became one of its key contributors.
In the second game of the group stage against Uruguay, Team USA found itself down 11 in the second quarter. With Hearn on the floor, Team USA took control and a 3-pointer from Hearn gave Team USA the lead with about three minutes left in the half. And when Uruguay was up by two in the fourth, Hearn again rose to the occasion. After hitting a game-tying two-pointer, he nailed a go-ahead 3-ball that put Team USA up for good.
Against Argentina in the final, Hearn once again helped Team USA complete a big comeback. At one one point in the third quarter, Team USA was down 20 points. With Argentina up 52-37 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter, the guard entered the game. Hearn played all but one minute the rest of the way as Team USA flipped the script, beating Argentina 81-76 to win the gold medal.
“When we’ve needed his best, that’s exactly what he has been able to deliver,” Van Gundy told The Daily. “In Argentina in the AmeriCup, down big, he leads the comeback. In Uruguay in the AmeriCup, down, he makes big plays down the stretch. Time and time again, he’s been able to summon up his best when we’ve needed it the most. And that’s the mark of a true professional.”
Hearn, who Van Gundy called an “elite” shooter, finished the tournament averaging 10 points on 48 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Since then, Hearn has been a fixture for Team USA on their quest to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup — so much so that Van Gundy called Hearn the team’s most important player.
He has played in four windows of World Cup qualifying, and has been an important piece in each series. In the first game of qualifying against Puerto Rico, Hearn played a team-high 33 minutes, scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and then against Cuba, Hearn netted 16 points and had a plus-minus of +25.
He was also one of three members of the Team USA Qualifying Team to practice at the USA Basketball Men’s National Team minicamp in Las Vegas in July, which featured a plethora of NBA All-Stars — and even a few former MVPs. The experience was a confidence booster, Hearn said, as he felt like he held his own again the best of the best.
On top of playing basketball, Hearn has been able to tour the places he visits as a member of Team USA. On a trip to Panama, Hearn and the rest of the squad visited the Panama Canal and were able to see a ship pass through. In Cuba, he and his teammates were driven around in the old-school cars for which the island nation is famous.
“The guys at USA Basketball … do seriously a really, really great job of making our experiences with USA Basketball a great time,” Hearn said. “That’s part of the reason why I continue to come back, because they make it such a great experience.”
The call-up, the corner three and friendship
After winning the AmeriCup, Hearn spent the first half of the 2017-18 season balling for the Reno Bighorns of the G League. But, after the Detroit Pistons saw three of their wings go down with injuries, the Eastern Conference-outfit called Hearn, and on Jan. 15, gave him a two-way contract.
The two-way deal meant Hearn would split time between the Pistons and their G League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. After signing, Hearn spent time with Detroit but did not find himself in a contest for a few weeks.
Then, on Feb. 5, Detroit was up big over the Portland Trail Blazers. With 2:33 left in the fourth quarter, Hearn checked into the game. And a few seconds later, he received a pass in the right corner — in front of the Pistons bench — and fired away. The ball swished through the net. After the game, superstar Blake Griffin grabbed the basketball and gave it to Hearn in honor of his first game and first make.
“The best moment that we’ve had is when I saw him make his first basket in Detroit in the NBA,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a guy who was a walk-on at Northwestern. I think he averaged (1.9) minutes his freshman year, (2.5) his sophomore year. And a few years later, he’s making a corner three in an NBA game. That’s one of the great stories that I’ve ever been around in professional basketball.”
In total, Hearn played seven minutes for the Pistons over three games, with his only basket coming in that first one.
While he spent more games up with the team then those three, his two-way contract meant that he could be sent up to the Pistons or down the Drive at any time. The uncertainty meant his mother Lisa Hearn, who is a school teacher, was unable to see Reggie play for Detroit.
“It worked out a lot more for me to travel up there on the weekends and go wherever he was going be and inevitably, it seemed like he was more with Grand Rapids when I had the opportunity to go,” she said.
One of the players on the Pistons that Hearn got the chance to learn from and develop a relationship with was Griffin. Hearn and Griffin had two extremely different journeys to the Motor City. While Hearn has been a ‘David’ his whole life as a basketball player, Griffin has always been a ‘Goliath.’
Griffin was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school. Then, he was the National Player of the Year as a sophomore at Oklahoma, declared for the draft and was selected No. 1 in 2009 by the Los Angeles Clippers. Nine years later, Griffin is a five-time All-Star earning around $32 million for this season.
But the two still developed a relationship. Spending so much time around a top-tier player like Griffin, Hearn said, and seeing how he continues to stay at the top of his game was a great opportunity. Hearn even spent a week over the summer working out in Los Angeles with the All-Star.
“Obviously he has a few more dead presidents to his name than I do and so his house reflected that, his cars reflected that, his clothing reflected that,” Hearn said. “But, all jokes aside, he’s been playing this game at a high level for a long time and there’s a reason why he is as good as he is. A lot of natural talent but definitely takes care of himself, his business on and off the court. Getting to see that first hand and then getting to be a part of it was definitely a blessing.”
Thanksgiving, the Grinch and a ring
While 2018 has been the most successful and exciting of Hearn’s career on the basketball court, he accomplished a great deal off the court as well, including overcoming some mental health issues.
“I was dealing with some panic attacks triggered by some anxiety,” Hearn said. “When I would get into close relationships or fall in love with a girl, it would trigger a lot of anxiety for me and that kind of melted over into my relationship with God.”
Hearn said he had to work to understand that he does not have to be perfect in his relationships, learn to forgive himself and be able to make choices without being fearful of the consequences. A lot of people close to him worked with him, he said, to help manage his anxiety and overcome challenges he faced.
One turning point that sticks out his his mind was in April when he planned to ask out Gianna Giorgi, a reporter in Reno, Nevada. After deciding to do so, he started to feel anxious.
“I, through the help of a lot people, made the choice that I’m not going to let my anxious or my fears make my decisions for me anymore,” Hearn said. “So I made the decision that despite what I was feeling I was going to go ahead and stick with my decision because I knew that I loved her and I wanted to be with her.”
Hearn and Giorgi first met when Giorgi was a sideline reporter for the Reno Bighorns and Hearn was playing for the team. They did not talk much the first few years he was in Reno, Hearn said, but began to develop a friendship after he invited her to his church in April 2017.
He asked her out on May 5 and the two began dating. Then, this past Thanksgiving, Hearn decided to take the next step.
The 27-year-old was going to spend the holiday with Giorgi’s relatives and he knew how much she liked Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and how important family was to her. So — after compiling an outfit, doing some research and watching some clips of the movie — he performed a seven-to-eight minute sketch with the help of her younger siblings.
He ended the sketch by getting on a knee and asking if Giorgi would be his wife.
She said yes.
Stockton, the World Cup and what’s next
Still, the year has not been all highs for Hearn. He was one of the final cuts from the Pistons roster in October, a move he said was not super surprising due to his lack of playing time in the preseason.
So Hearn is back in the G League. His old team, the Reno Bighorns, moved in the offseason to Stockton, California and Hearn is again playing with the franchise. While he is not the oldest player on the Stockton Kings — that honor goes to former New Jersey Nets first-round draft pick Marcus Williams — he does have the most G League experience of any player on the team as he enters his sixth season playing in the minor league circuit.
But Hearn hopes to be back in the Association and playing for a playoff team this season. While he waits, Hearn said he wants to help the Kings — who are 7-7 through 14 contests — win some ball games and put himself in a position to get a call-up.
As for his USA Basketball career, there will be one more window of qualifying games this season in February before the 2019 FIBA World Cup takes place in China in late August and early September. While expectations are that USA Basketball is going to bring a team full of NBA superstars to China, Hearn has never been one to rule anything out.
“It could be far-fetched, but if there’s a spot open for me for the World Cup I would more than happily take that. I might even go as a ball boy just to get to have the experience,” Hearn said. “Beyond that, I don’t know what other events or games will come up, but I’m sure I will be in touch with those guys.”
But before he finds out if he is traveling to China, he has to walk down the aisle. Hearn said the wedding is going to come after the season at the end of June.
Hearn said his relationship with USA Basketball is great and down the line, he may try to help out the program in other capacities, like coaching.
Though the future of Hearn’s career on the court is unclear, Van Gundy said the Northwestern graduate’s legacy with USA Basketball is “cemented forever.”
“I find Reggie to be a very serious and humble person. He’s easy to get along with, serious about his game but also serious about his life and what he wants to do with his life,” Van Gundy said. “I’m thankful that he is not only committed to USA Basketball but that he has come into my life and I’ve been able to get to know him. I’m just very, very appreciative of all of that.”
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