EJ Liddell was just 14 years old the first time he took the floor as a member of the Belleville West Maroons. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression.
On the floor, his debut was a memorable one. Listed as a 6-4 freshman, Liddell tallied 19 points and pulled down seven rebounds as West opened its season with a 66-56 win over Ladue at the Vianney Tournament.
The night did have its down side, though. Handed one of those menial tasks reserved for underclassmen, he didn’t fare nearly as well.
“I forgot the ball bag. I was supposed to carry the ball bag that night, but I left it in the bleachers, Liddell said. “I remember we lost a bunch of games in a row after that and finished the season 14-14.
“I didn’t start to become a leader until my sophomore year. I didn’t understand how to be leader until then.”
Three years, 126 games and more than 2,400 points later, Liddell took the floor as a Maroon for the last time. The ball bag was left to the capable hands of a sophomore while Liddell took care of lighting up the scoreboard. With a 24-point, 10-rebound performance in a 71-59 win over Evanston in the Class 4A state championship game last month at the Peoria Civic Center, Liddell helped cement the Maroons’ place on the short list of great Illinois teams.
The win over the Wildkits ended the Maroons’ season with a 34-4 record and a second straight state title. Three weeks later, Liddell joined current NBA player Jabari Parker as the only players to win consecutive Illinois’ Mr. Basketball awards.
“Mr. Basketball, I didn’t know anything about any of those things my freshman year,” Liddell said. “I just wanted to come in and help us win as many games as possible and a state championship as a freshman. That didn’t happen. But my junior year, it became a reality. We had the right players come in and the right system. We worked hard and our dreams came true.”
In Liddell, the Maroons had arguably the best player in the state to lead the way. A three-time Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and two-time Associated Press first-team all-state selection, Liddell was the choice of 12 metro-east area coaches as the repeat winner of the Belleville News-Democrat Class 3A-4A Player of the Year.
Liddell, who helped lead the Maroons to a 100-28 record during the past four years, averaged 20.2 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting better than 62 percent (274-440) from the field. He blocked 144 shots this season, scored in double figures in 35 of 38 games and had 15 double-doubles (points and rebounds).
For his career, Liddell is first in school history in points (2,508), games (128), blocks (500) and rebounds (1,004).
West coach Joe Muniz found out about Liddell when he was playing grade school basketball at Signal Hill School.
“Bob (Keefe) was an official at a game at Signal Hill and said this kid was one we needed to keep an eye on. He came to our summer camps and as time went on we thought that as a freshman he had chance to start and maybe play some junior varsity,” Muniz said. “The time I started thinking that he had a chance to play as a freshman was when we were playing against Cahokia in a (SWIC) Blue Storm Summer League game.
“Anyway, he must have had 15 points and 10 rebounds, but the thing that really stood out to me was how he competed against these older players.”
Four years later, Muniz can’t help but get emotional when talking about the greatest player in Belleville West history.
“”Did I think EJ would win back-to-back Mr. Basketball awards? No I did not. Did I think we would win back-to-back state basketball championships? No I did not,’”Muniz said. “But I will tell you one thing: In my 20-22 years of coaching high school basketball, I don’t think I’ve ever had a player improve from day on to his final game as much as he did. Every year he would improve in a different aspect of his game.
“Now EJ has to improve in a lot of different areas in order to make an impact at the next level. I’m looking forward to seeing him do that in the next four years.”
The next four years will be at Ohio State University where he will play for head coach Chris Holtmann. He is one of a trio of players that includes Alonzo Gaffney and DJ Carton, which is being touted as one of the best in the nation.
Gaffney is a 6-9 forward while Carton was ranked as one of the top three senior point guards in the nation this past year.
“We’re looking to make an impact,” Liddell said. “Ohio State will graduate three seniors, two role players. Hopefully we can come in and win the Big Ten Tournament.”
Liddell will leave for Ohio State on June 15 and will take summer classes while also working out with his new Buckeye teammates.