Determination marked Ohio State champion E.J. Liddell's journey to 2022 NBA Draft

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

E.J. Liddell was just there to watch his brother compete in a rivalry game.

A few weeks removed from the end of his Ohio State career and fully immersed in the process of preparing himself for the NBA, Liddell was at O’Fallon High School. His younger brother, Myles, was suiting up for Belleville (Illinois) West, and E.J. was unsuccessfully trying to blend into the crowd.

Eventually, a phone call was made to Joe Muniz, Liddell’s former basketball coach and the new athletic director at West. His counterpart at O’Fallon had to fill Muniz in on the situation from which Liddell was eventually extricated. More than half an hour after the game was over, the former Buckeye was still signing autographs and taking pictures – even one with the team his younger brother had just competed against.

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“He could have easily said no or just got the heck out of there, but that’s just who E.J. is,” Muniz said. “That’s the way you want kids to be, but it’s just not normal that all kids are. He’s just a unique, special individual that just has touched so many lives in so many different ways.”

Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) hugs guard Malaki Branham (22) following the NCAA men's basketball game against the Michigan State Spartans at Value City Arena in Columbus on March 3, 2022. Ohio State won 80-69.

Michigan State Spartans At Ohio State Buckeyes

It's hardly a unique occurrence for Liddell, a two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball winner and state champion who became a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection during his three seasons at Ohio State. When he was starring for the Maroons, Muniz designated an assistant coach to handle the crowds clamoring for Liddell autographs.

Win or lose, Muniz said, Liddell would be out within a few minutes after the final whistle until those who waited were satisfied.

“He thinks about the children, starting back in high school when he would stay after games, take pictures, sign autographs while all the other kids went to the locker room,” Liddell’s grandmother, Caroline, said. “It made a big impression on a lot of people, and he still does that.”

Thursday, Liddell will realize a lifelong goal and hear his name called in the 2022 NBA draft. Liddell is projected as a first-round pick. And although he wasn’t invited to sit in the “Green Room” in Brooklyn, it’s just as well.

Liddell will be celebrating the day in his hometown alongside those who matter the most to him, a decision he would’ve almost certainly made had the NBA invited him to New York. And when his name is called, they will certainly be cheering for Belleville’s greatest athlete in at least half a century.

But more than that, they’ll be cheering for E.J. Liddell, the person.

E.J. Liddell always has time for 'granny'

At age 73, Caroline Liddell still works as a licensed cosmetologist in the basement of her home because, as she said, there is still plenty of demand for her “young-at-heart spirit.” Wherever she goes, Caroline said she’s not shy about discussing her grandson.

Along the way, she’s spurred more than a few folks to start cheering for both E.J. and Ohio State. One Saturday during college basketball season, she received a surprise phone call from her doctor.

Mar 20, 2022; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) shoots the ball over Villanova Wildcats guard Caleb Daniels (14) in the first half during the second round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“He said, ‘I just wanted to call and tell you I was with some of my other doctor friends, and they started talking about Ohio State basketball and E.J. Liddell, and I had to say, ‘I know his granny!’ ” she said. “That’s what I do because I am so proud of this young man, and I hope to continue to be with him for every step that he makes right now.”

Caroline lives in nearby Fairview Heights and had the benefit of front-row seats to her grandson’s development. Together, she and her late husband, Willie, were able to help their son, Eric, and his wife, Michelle, shuttle their children to whatever game, practice or camp was next.

Willie Liddell passed away in May, 2019. Caroline said E.J. spoke eloquently about his “paw paw” at the funeral but that it’s hard to talk about him now “because it’s a very special part of his heart for him.” E.J and his grandmother have remained close, even as Liddell moved six hours away to Ohio State, where she still attended every game she could get to.

“I hate traveling, but nevertheless I had to do that for my grandbaby,” she said. “Anything over four hours is a lot, but when it comes to E.J. and him playing, I’m going to be there. And wherever he goes in the future, as long as I have my good health and my strength, I plan on doing that.”

And if she can’t be there physically, the two are always a phone call apart.

“I call him all the time, and if he misses a call he says, ‘Granny, I’m gonna always call you back if I miss your call,’ ” Caroline said. “That’s what I love about him. He always makes sure that he calls me back.”

E.J. Liddell shares experiences, not just autographs, with kids

It was within the last few weeks that Muniz was working at the school when he realized his daughters were still playing volleyball in the gymnasium. Addyson and Ava, who just finished eighth and fifth grade, respectively, were on the court with E.J., his brother, sister and cousin for more than half an hour.

E.J. Liddell:Ohio State's star inspires those back home in Illinois while winning with Buckeyes

Liddell was home in between workouts but still had time to hang around.

“Stuff like that, those little interactions go a long way,” Muniz said. “In your mind, you’re telling your kids, you know how lucky you are? You’re playing volleyball, messing around in the gym, with a possible first-round draft pick, one of the best players in the nation. Not every kid gets to do that, but he always takes the time for my kids, for other peoples’ kids, to make them feel special.”

Ohio State's E.J. Liddell (32) blocks a shot by Loyola Chicago's Chris Knight during the first half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Friday, March 18, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

When Bentley Kreher went through a rough spell that saw him lose two grandparents and have his father suffer a debilitating work injury all in the span of a year, Liddell befriended the youngster from nearby Red Bud, Illinois. Kreher, who was 7 years old at the time, latched onto Liddell as his favorite player and the relationship bloomed from there.

Kreher was able to watch when Ohio State and Liddell hosted Illinois during the 2020-21 season and play at Illinois the following year.

“When he comes home for the summers he’s always quick to check in on him, give him a call,” Bentley’s mom, Ashley, said prior to the 2021 visit to OSU. “I can’t say enough good things about E.J. He has obviously tons of stuff going on. He is proving to be extremely successful, which we knew he would be, so for him to take time out of his day to call and check on my son (is great).”

There are numerous stories like those throughout the region. When the daughters of one of West’s administrators was hospitalized with sickle cell anemia, E.J. autographed a pair of his shoes and gave them to her, unprompted.

“He does stuff that parents wish their kids would do without even saying it,” his father, Eric Liddell, said. “Its rare to have a kid like E.J. And I’m not saying it because he’s my son; I just haven’t seen it before.”

Muniz, “Granny” and Ashley Kreher all credited E.J.’s upbringing and the influence of his parents for molding him into the person he has become. Thursday, who that is will be on display for a national television audience as it all pays off and some NBA franchise makes Liddell its newest member.

How many points he scores, how many shots he blocks and how many rebounds he grabs are impossible to forecast. In Belleville, the feat itself will be validation for doing things the right way.

“He goes to church, and right before he left on this last journey to California (to train), they prayed for him and everything,” Granny said. “It’s all going to work out great for him. It’s been a life dream for him and of ours, too, and it’s coming to pass.”


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