Surrounded by community, Ohio State's E.J. Liddell is picked by New Orleans in NBA draft

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

BELLEVILLE, Ill. – The bus was waiting as the two coaches finished their conversation outside.

E.J. Liddell was in the process of defending both his title as Illinois Mr. Basketball as well as the first state title in Belleville West history, and his current coach was talking with his future one. Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann had taken a private jet to watch Liddell, who was signed to play for the Buckeyes in the 2019 class, and as the Maroons boarded the bus he wrapped up a conversation with coach Joe Muniz.

As he did, Holtmann told Muniz what was ahead for Liddell when he got to the Big Ten. He will struggle, Holtmann told Muniz. All freshmen do. But it will be about how he gets through it that will determine whether he becomes a great player.

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Liddell, in other words, would have to prove it all over again. Three years, two first-team all-Big Ten selections and more than 1,000 points later, Liddell was surrounded by more than 200 friends and family members inside the St. Clair Country Club when NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced the 41st pick in the 2022 NBA draft.

Ohio State's E.J. Liddell poses with former Ohio State assistant Ryan Pedon (left) and head coach Chris Holtmann at his NBA draft party at the St. Clair Country Club in Belleville, Illinois.

When he did, and Liddell heard his name called out on the broadcast projected onto a giant screen, a cacophony of sound swept through the room and shook the floor. Liddell was headed to New Orleans, but for the moment he couldn’t lift his head from his hands as he wept.

He had hoped to go higher in the draft. He could feel the collective anxiety growing in the room as 40 other players were selected ahead of him. But now, Liddell has a team and a clear focus on what comes next.

“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole, entire life so this isn’t anything new,” Liddell said, still wiping tears from his eyes a few moments later. “I’m gonna keep doing that until the day I’m gone. I’m happy they took a chance on me and I appreciate them for the opportunity.”

Now there’s work to be done. But as Liddell, his family and his former coaches all said, that’s just fine. He's already proven up to the task.

E.J. Liddell experiences emotional NBA draft before being picked by New Orleans

Three ballrooms were commandeered to house the Liddell draft party. Upon entry, guests chose from a multicolored assortment of plastic whistles and hand-clappers before passing a framed No. 32 Ohio State jersey and a photo of the star of the hour – labeled “Eric Liddell” – dunking while playing for the Maroons.

The entryway featured a photo backdrop as well as a life-size cardboard cutout of Liddell in an Ohio State jersey, although Keith Randolph, current Illinois defensive lineman and former Liddell teammate at West, jokingly disputed his height as he measured up next to it. Each table featured black, gray and red balloons anchored by photos of Liddell. By 6:30 p.m. Central time, the room was relatively full as those in attendance settled in for a meal catered by Buffalo Wild Wings. When Liddell committed to Ohio State, he did so at the BW3’s just across IL-15 from his alma mater where two of his cousins still work.

Projected as a potential late-first-round pick, Liddell and his family arrived roughly half an hour after the draft got underway. So did Holtmann and Ryan Pedon, the first-year Illinois State coach who helped recruit, sign and develop Liddell at Ohio State. Both had visited the day before with Malaki Branham, who was picked No. 20 by San Antonio and attended the draft after receiving a greenroom invitation.

“That family means so much to us,” Holtmann said of the Liddells. “It was as emotional a night, in a good way, as I’ve been a part of with a family. I was just really glad to be a part of it. That’s why I wanted to get here.”

As the stress of the draft increased in the days leading into Thursday, the Liddells have also had to deal with a health scare. Eric Liddell, E.J.’s father, had spent the last several days in the hospital and was unsure if he’d be able to attend the party. Thursday morning, the deacons from the family’s church came to his hospital room and prayed with him. Moments later, doctors came in and gave the word that he could go.

He sat to E.J.’s left and watched, but after nearly two hours he would have to leave and return to the hospital. When he left, Caroline Liddell, Eric’s mother and E.J.’s grandmother, took his seat and helped support her grandson as he waited.

“It was hard,” she said of the wait. “It’s hard because he’s dealing with his emotions for his father right now (as well as) thinking he might have gone earlier in the draft, but patience. Endurance. That’s what we have to have, and it all worked out. We all believe in prayer. We are a big church family here.”

The collective anxiety of the room only grew as Liddell waited. When Chicago passed on him at 18, the crowd booed. Same for when Milwaukee took MarJon Beauchamp at 24. Once Kentucky’s TyTy Washington went to Memphis with the 29th pick, Liddell sat atop the list of best available prospect that continued to flash on the ESPN broadcast. He remained there for more than another half an hour as the bar closed, the cleaning staff started to pick up dirty plates and the wait continued.

Soon, though, word started to circulate that New Orleans could be the team at No. 41. The television cameras flipped their lights on. Those in the back of the room started to stand and chant in anticipation. And when the pick was announced, all the pent-up emotion was released at once. Liddell’s family immediately embraced him. Holtmann pumped his fist. In the middle of it all, Liddell held his face in his hands, using a scarlet-colored cloth napkin to wipe his tears as his mother, Michelle, embraced him.

Later, he was asked: what emotions were those that came out? Relief, excitement, thoughts of family?

All of that,” he said. “Everything bottled up, man. I waited a long time for that. I heard my name called. I went back to school this past year to hear my name called. I’m just grateful for it.”

With NBA opportunity, E.J. Liddell ready to prove himself again

Holtmann’s words to Muniz three years ago proved prophetic. Liddell hit adversity as a freshman at Ohio State, but it didn't last. After playing only 13 minutes in a home loss to Wisconsin on Jan. 3, 2020, Liddell had his lone requested meeting of the season with Holtmann to discuss his playing time. The coach was succinct: practice harder if you want to play more.

“It was the shortest conversation I’ve ever had with a player like that,” Holtmann said. “It was really, really short, because he was just like, ‘OK. I got it.’ He took it to heart. Never heard from his mom. Never heard from his dad. He just responded like you would hope every player would in that moment.”

That’s why Muniz said he has no doubts Liddell will do it again at the NBA level.

“He will use this as motivation, because that’s how he’s gonna roll,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where he was picked. He’s got a place to play and now he’s got to go prove himself, just like he would if he got drafted No. 1.”

Or, as Pedon put it, “When you (tick) that guy off, look out.”

In the end, the community that has supported him throughout had one final gift to give. Bentley Kreher, a youngster whom Liddell befriended while in high school after he went through a difficult time in his life, came to the party with his mother, Ashley, and brought his favorite player a present.

Wrapped inside a gift bag was a card, a letter and a personalized tumbler emblazoned with photos of Liddell with a 16-word message.

It said: “Some people want it to happen/Some people wish it to happen/Others make it happen.”

Now Liddell gets to go make it happen again. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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