Inside the modesty that guides Elijah Hughes on and off the court

first_img Published on March 23, 2020 at 7:32 pm Contact Michael: mmcclear@syr.edu | @MikeJMcCleary Facebook Twitter Google+ He asked a lot of questions that day, so Elijah Hughes sat among his family and just giggled along. Hughes was home in Beacon, New York for Thanksgiving, which meant one thing: It’s family game night, and Hughes is the one who has to plan it. To make the contest work, he needs to talk to a lot of people. He asks around a few days in advance by text. The day of, Hughes maneuvers through the house, gathering last-minute intel from quick conversations and observing quirks among family members. He jots them down on a piece of paper and loads his findings into Kahoot!, an internet trivia game he first played while preparing for a test at Kennedy Catholic (New York) High School. His family members enter codes on their phones and play along as questions pop up on the TV in the main room. Hughes stays quiet and snickers as they stammer through, as questions like “What does Mommy do when she washes the dishes?” (Rub her feet together), “Where was Daddy’s first job?” (Jack in the Box) and “What color is Mommy and Daddy’s bathroom wall painted?” (Blue; not even his parents got that one) pop up in multiple-choice form.“Just little family things that we all should know,” Hughes said. “You get kind of exposed when you’re together, (everyone) knowing that you don’t know your own mother’s birthday.”Hughes created hundreds of questions for the game, but hardly any about himself. In fact, there’s a house rule: No talking about basketball. The Syracuse star is the school’s most intriguing draft prospect in years. He was SU’s first Atlantic Coast Conference first team selection in five years and the conference’s leading scorer with 19.0 points per game. He provided highlights for a team desperate for them. He took on his first leading role since high school with a nonchalant acceptance and thrived.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textHughes can be quiet, but he’s certainly not shy. He can hold a conversation with anyone and charms with his dry sense of humor. Yet when the discussion points to him, he shuts down. But sometimes his name comes up anyway.“Well, you know, you should see what Elijah did —” Hughes’ father, Wayne, remembered he said to his family on Thanksgiving. “Dad, Dad. Let’s not talk about that,” Hughes interrupted.“Alright son,” Wayne said, chuckling. “You got it.”Conversations rarely get much further. Not at the dinner table when company leaves, either. And nights like these, he asks the questions. It’s game night, and Hughes has more important things to talk about.• • •Rob Balch expected that if he told his class one of his “corny” jokes, there would be some blank stares. But the 10th-grade English teacher at Beacon (New York) High School could always count on a chuckle from the big kid in the corner.At that point, Hughes didn’t draw much attention. He was just marginally taller than his classmates and quiet as ever. The idea that he could sit in the front of any classroom could make anyone who knew him only after his growth spurt chuckle, yet the thought of having a potential NBA Draft pick in the room wasn’t even considered. In fact, it was Hughes’ humorous sarcasm that Balch noticed first. Other than that, he blended in. When Hughes was younger, organization and time management required extra attention from his teachers. He’d miss homework and shun extra help sessions. But he was a kid. He loved basketball, and sometimes did that instead of keeping up with his schoolwork.In seventh grade, Hughes and his mother, Penny, sat in a meeting with his middle school principal, Brian Archer, who informed Hughes his grades had dropped too low to participate in middle school sports.“Alright,” Penny said. “Then he doesn’t play.”Penny was firm. Hughes had to learn to care. The message in his household had been clear: If you’re going to do something (anything at all), you better be prepared. With the help of his teachers, Hughes stayed on top of his planner. Yet when Hughes arrived in Balch’s English class, Balch noticed restraint when Hughes entered conversations, tabling every answer with uncertainty. But then the class opened a new book titled “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers.The fiction novel follows 16-year-old Steve Harmon, a Black teenager wrongly accused of murder. It is written in diary format, and Balch made his class submit diaries of their own. Harmon was the same age as Hughes. Balch noticed Hughes became more unapologetic about his responses and opinions. He quickly became Balch’s “sidekick.” Balch poked fun at Hughes for being tall. Hughes poked back at Balch for being short, and bald. “He’s just an idiot. That’s my guy, though,” Hughes said, laughing. Hughes came in for extra help, too.In Rob Balch’s 10th grade English class, Hughes’ dry humor stood out. Photo courtesy of Rob BalchHe unearthed a confidence that was always present, yet rarely showed in the classroom. Years later, he speaks in moments that he knows he can add insight. When #NotAgainSU’s movement began on Syracuse’s campus in response to hate crimes and bias-related incidents in the Syracuse community, Hughes expressed quiet support at first — he wore the hashtag on his shoes and accompanied Jim Boeheim on his first visit to the Barnes Center at The Arch sit-in — and was the first SU basketball player to show solidarity on Twitter.The way he carries himself on the court isn’t much different than the way he does off it, family members said. He talks little and makes his words count. His expressions remain reserved no matter the game situation. After a three-quarter court shot against Duke last year, he barely reacted. Hughes ran into Balch when he returned to Beacon Middle School in May 2019. He was working out in the small gymnasium before giving a speech to a group of children about, well, school. How he could have given more effort. How they should. But he talked to Balch about one of his toughest tasks yet: Trying to box out former college basketball phenom Zion Williamson“He’s my height but he has 60 pounds on me,” Balch remembered Hughes joked.Balch laughed. He was proud. Many at Beacon were. Balch recollected some of the moments he’d observed from Hughes’ career, at Syracuse and beyond. He told Hughes that everyone at Beacon has been watching and rooting for him.“Really?” Hughes asked.• • •It had become clear that he had lost the argument, so Hughes pulled his hood above his grown-out hair, leaned forward in his chair and draped his hands over his face. It was March 7, before the start of the second half against Miami. Hughes bumped his head against Bourama Sidibe’s knee in the first half. As he headed toward the locker room at the end of the period, he softly rubbed the skin above his cranium. He was lightheaded and blurry, but ready to play.“I’m good. I’m good to go. I’m fine,” he pleaded.As his teammates warmed, team physician Brad Pike refrained eye contact as Hughes ranted beside him. “I was mad at Brad,” Hughes said. “I was mad,” he repeated with more emphasis. But he wouldn’t return. Pike couldn’t risk it. So, Hughes became unrecognizable as his head faded into an oval-shaped silhouette on Syracuse’s bench.On the court, Hughes complements offensive prowess with a calm, reserved approach.  Corey Henry | Photo EditorIn different circumstances, Hughes would cherish the anonymity. After South Kent (Connecticut) High School’s first conditioning session, which perhaps intentionally fell on the same day as pizza and wings in the school’s dining hall, Loren Brill sat with Hughes out of breath and in a sarcastic mood of reflection.“Man, do we even like basketball?” Brill asked. Hughes looked up, turned to Brill, and they both cracked up. “Yeah,” Hughes said. “I love it.” The response rolled off Hughes easily, and seriously. Brill, another teammate, Aziz Essa, and practically everyone Hughes came into contact with saw how simply the game came to him, how it hardly seemed like he was even trying. He made friends in a similar way. He has an adaptable personality and even bonded with some by offering candy and snacks from a square-shaped laundry basket that somehow is always full.But for much of his time in the public light, Hughes has embodied the caricature of a basketball cliche, sticking to the same talking points: Staying focused, propping up teammates, loving the game. His voice reaches incredibly low volumes after Syracuse losses. The depth of his lows never went too far, and his highs weren’t much higher. In his best games, he maintained a steady stoicism that gave that same illusion of effortlessness seen in previous stops. “When I’m on the court, I’m in my comfort place,” Hughes said. “It’s not really that deep, I guess.”The chatter, the attention and the expectations never mattered to him. So, he never discussed them. Not in the locker room, not at family game night. Nowhere. After years of watching him shut down in the backseat of her car, it was the bad games, like the one against Miami and the rest of Syracuse’s 14 losses, where Penny would look at Hughes from the stands. He’d shake his head back, and that’s all she needed to know. Hughes could recover from these lows on his own now. And Penny would know to talk about something else at dinner. Commentslast_img

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