By Manny Randhawa
“I was one of the worst shooters on the team.”
That’s not something you typically hear from a man who set records in scoring, career field goals made, points per game, and field-goal percentage for his college basketball program.
But that’s precisely what former Lewis University great and NCAA Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team member Larry Tucker says about his college game.
“I shot 3-foot shots around the basket; I think I worked extremely hard at becoming good at doing one thing very well.”
Tucker certainly did one thing well: put the ball in the basket. He accumulated a staggering 2,120 points over his prolific career at Lewis, making 841 field goals while averaging 20.3 points per game on 67.8 percent shooting from the field, leading the school to its first two NCAA tournament berths in 1982 and 1983.
Tucker is one of 49 former NCAA Division II student-athletes selected from among the 24 Division II conferences across the country, based not only on their performance on the field of play but also on their character and achievements outside the sports arena after graduation.
After his outstanding college basketball career in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, Tucker went into education and is now a high school principal. He regards his time on the hardwood as a training ground for what was to come after his playing days were over.
“When I got into education, I started to realize that you’ve got to work hard at something, you’ve got to become passionate about it,” Tucker says. “To me, it’s taking those same attributes from college athletics: We’re going to work hard; we’re going to know who we’re up against; we’re not going to give up; we’re going to get knocked down a few times, but we’re going to keep getting back up and getting after it.”
Defying the odds and proving doubters wrong is something Tucker has been doing ever since he stepped onto the court at Lewis as a 6-foot-6 freshman tasked with playing the post against opponents two inches or more taller than him. Despite being matched up against larger players, Tucker not only dominated as a scorer but was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1983 NBA Draft, showing that having the odds stacked against him didn’t faze him.
“That didn’t bother me,” Tucker recalls. “All my life I had hung on to the dream of wanting to play basketball, even though people were telling me I’d never do it. So when it happened that I at least got drafted, I thought to myself, ‘This all kind of makes perfect sense: If you work hard at something, I don’t care what it is, people are going to be telling you you’ll never do that, but if you stick to it, it’ll come true.’ ”
It came true for Tucker, who, despite being cut after 10 days in Cavaliers camp, will never forget playing against one of his childhood heroes, Richard Washington. “I kind of idolized him,” Tucker says of the former UCLA great. “When I set that screen on him and he wound up on the ground, at that split second I’m looking at him and thinking, ‘I can do this.’ ”
That confidence and his experiences in defying the odds served Tucker well in life after basketball. After initially going into sales, Tucker recalled the feeling he had when playing the game he loved and realized he didn’t have that passion in his current profession. Then he got a call from an old friend.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you come on over and we’ll play in an open gym,’ ” Tucker remembers. That friend was a high school basketball coach, and before Tucker knew it, he was being offered a chance to return to the game. “He said, ‘Hey, I need a freshman basketball coach.’ ”
The rest, as they say, is history.
“It kind of clicked, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I never even thought about education,’ ” Tucker explains. “They had me teaching business, and I was coaching, and that kind of started me down the path.”
When the opportunity arose for an interview for the principal’s job at his alma mater – Marist High School in Chicago – Tucker thought he’d give it a shot, if nothing else just for the sake of practicing his interviewing skills. “I remember thinking, ‘Well I’ve been told ‘no way’ before; we’ll see what happens,’ ” he says.
What happened was Tucker was named principal of the school he attended all those years earlier.
“I’ve been in interviews where there have been 20 people in the room,” Tucker says. “People ask if I get nervous doing that, and I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That’s like basketball. You’re on the free-throw line, the game’s on the line, people are yelling and screaming for you and against you.’ I thrive on it. And I know competition in basketball prepared me for those types of moments.”
By thriving in pressure situations as he learned to do while playing Division II basketball at Lewis, Tucker has now gained the opportunity to help a new generation of student-athletes pursue their own dreams even in the face of adversity, just as he did.
“The bottom line for me,” Tucker explains, “is telling the kids just to hold on to their dreams. They may come true; they may not. But for me, I just didn’t want to have that regret that I didn’t work hard enough.”
Tucker loves his job and knows that if it hadn’t been for his experiences playing basketball in college, he might not have the life he has today.
“College basketball opened so many doors to allow me to do things with my life and my family’s lives that are so enjoyable,” he says. “When I hear people say some of the things they say about their work, I think to myself, ‘Wow, you didn’t experience the things that I did and if you would have, maybe you would look forward to every day.’ ”