Randy Kindred column shot


Late in the first quarter Tuesday night, EJ Liddell threw down a dunk with such force the ball slammed against the Redbird Arena floor, caromed high in the air and headed toward a nearby tunnel between the stands.

Credit Dad for the size and the power.

Later in the Class 4A super-sectional, Liddell leaped above the crowd to swat away a third-quarter shot from Bolingbrook 6-foot-8 center Kameron Leonard.

Give kudos to Mom for the spring in the legs.

You see, Liddell, Belleville West's 6-7 star senior forward, is very much a product of his parents, both of whom felt at home Tuesday.


They were at their college home ... the place they met and excelled athletically. Eric Liddell was a four-year starting offensive tackle in football. Michelle (Rucker) Liddell was an all-conference volleyball player whose name still appears on ISU's top-10 list for career blocks.

"Oh yeah, my parents love the Redbirds," EJ said after contributing 17 points, nine rebounds, seven blocked shots and four assists in a 72-60 victory. "They're diehard Redbirds."

There was a time Eric and Michelle Liddell envisioned their son wearing ISU red and white as well. He attended basketball camp at Redbird Arena prior to his sophomore year and Dad was telling him, "You're going to Illinois State."

"I didn't know then that it was going to get this big," Eric Liddell.

How big?

EJ Liddell emerged as Illinois' Mr. Basketball and the state's Gatorade Player of the Year by his junior season.

His talent attracted scholarship offers from all sorts of Power 5 conference schools before he chose Ohio State prior to this season.

"After he saw I was getting better and better, he was like, 'You can go wherever you want to,' " EJ said.

Tuesday was the second year in a row the Liddells have gathered at Redbird Arena for the super-sectional. Belleville West won last year as well and went on to win the 4A state championship.

The Maroons earned a return trip to Peoria on a night EJ was not perfect — he had six turnovers — but plenty good when it mattered.

Leading 65-60 with 1:35 left, he sank two free throws, blocked a shot at the other end, assisted on a basket, then blocked another shot that led to a free throw by teammate Lawrence Brazil III. 

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All of that in a 40-seconds span, putting Belleville West up 70-60 and home free.

Finally, Mom could breathe easy.

"I get so nervous," Michelle Liddell said. "I can't sleep the night before and then all day at work I have the jitters. (At the game) I pretty much sit still. I have to stay calm.

"It gets nerve racking because you want your kid to do his best. You want them to win, but we know how sports go. Somebody's going to win and somebody's going to lose. But as long as you give your best effort, that's all you can ask."

EJ was all smiles afterward. Mom will tell you he's that way most of the time.

She calls him "a fun kid" who routinely clowns around with his 12-year-old twin siblings, Myles and Myah, and his 22-year-old sister, Erica.

It is an outlet from the pressure that comes with being among the top players in your class nationally. 

"I guess his way of blowing off the steam is just being silly and having fun with his brother and sisters," Michelle said.

Eric Liddell reveled in watching him at Redbird Arena, where as a student he joined other football players in starting Bender's Baseline Bunch at ISU games when Bob Bender was head basketball coach.

It was the same time period in which Liddell, a 6-5, 270-pound tackle, met his future wife. Here's how:

"We hit eye to eye when I was on the football field one day," Eric said. "She was in the stands and I was in the middle of a play and I saw her looking dead at me. We went from there."

The burly lineman and leaping volleyball star soon fell in love. She teases him that he has a "credit card jump," that is, only high enough to slip a credit card under his feet. 

"We always say (EJ) gets the vertical from me and the size from his dad," Michelle said.

"I believe that," EJ said after the game. "My dad was a big guy, couldn't really get off the ground. But my mom was a middle blocker and kind of short. She could really get up."

Michelle Liddell is hoping Belleville West reaches the summit of 4A basketball again this weekend. She called it "kind of bittersweet" that the high school portion of her son's journey is about to end.

EJ briefly savored the moment at Redbird Arena on Tuesday, saying, "Man, I mean, it's awesome (to win at ISU). This will probably be my last time playing here. It was great playing here."

For Mom and Dad as well.

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Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred


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