Twelve years ago, Connor McCormick first stepped into Naasz Gymnasium to watch the Central Cobblers basketball team. As he entered, his eyes widened and his breath halted while he took in the atmosphere of a high school arena, which, to a six-year old, can be quite exhilarating. The stands were full, the band was loud, and anticipative energy electrified the building. This was not the YMCA court he was accustomed to, and these weren’t boys just learning the game. This was much bigger, much better, and Connor wanted a piece of it.
Now it’s senior year, and Connor is no longer a boy observing Glenn Jackson and Coach Purcell from afar. The dream he chased of playing with the big kids is now a reality, and instead of watching the court from the stands, he will seize its spotlight.
Connor began playing basketball at age four with the Upward and the YMCA programs. He then moved to Amatuer Athletic Union (AAU) basketball in the fourth grade, as his feelings towards the sport strengthened. “I fell in love with basketball from the moment I picked a ball up,” Connor said. “It’s been an addiction my entire life, and it’s only gotten stronger.” Connor also played baseball and football until 8th grade, but none of those compared to basketball, where he excelled.
When McCormick wasn’t playing basketball, he was watching it, specifically Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves, his favorite team at the time. “Kevin Garnett was my favorite player as a kid. His intensity and how hard he worked was something I admired, something that made him my guy. Even when KG went to Boston I had to jump on the Celtics bandwagon.”
Connor brought the intensity he praised through his middle school career at South and into his underclassmen years at Central, until he met one setback that could have ended it all.
“I fractured my back in two places sophomore year. I had a Parrs fracture on my L4 (a vertebrae on the lower part of the back), which is a stress fracture. A disk also popped between my L4 and L5, so I had bone on bone contact going on. Shortly after, I fell going up for a layup and fractured my L5, giving me two fractures in my back.”
For six months, Connor wore a brace–something similar to a turtle shell–for the majority of the day. After shedding the shell, he attended physical therapy for two months, fully recovering the summer before junior year with no further issues.
Coach TJ Hay, Central basketball’s former assistant who has taken over the head job, acknowledges the challenge of McCormick’s injury: “Connor broke his back the year before I came here. He sat out a long time, missing the second half of the season and that whole summer. That time between sophomore and junior year is pivotal, so he was playing catch-up last season.”
Not only did Connor have to play catch-up, he had to tweak his style of play for his own health. “My mindset on the court changed after I broke my back. It used to be a ‘what I can do to pound and score’ approach. Now, it’s a smarter attack, but I still go at it when I need to. I realized my time playing this game can end any moment, so I need to be careful with what I do with my body.”
The talent Connor displays on the basketball court was not just a gift at birth or something acquired overnight. Connor’s ambition and drive towards the game, on and off the court, has shaped him into the player he is today. “He has really worked on his game and he shows up to all our workouts,” Coach Hay says. “I’m trying to teach these kids not only fundamental skills, but the ability to break the barriers they set on themselves. Striving to work hard is huge in this game–in any game.”
“I’m hooping every day,” Connor says. “Whatever opportunity I get to play, I take it.” As evidence, Connor participates in something called The Breakfast Club, a program run by Coach Hay for his basketball team. “It’s basically athlete-run workouts,” Coach Hay explained. “Each kid has a workout on paper we do on Monday and Thursday mornings. It’s called the Breakfast Club because it’s early, and it’s much more appealing on a calendar than just ‘workouts.’ ”
Paired with that work ethic, Connor is physically equipped to get the job done. “It’s nice that he’s grown,” said Coach Hay. “There aren’t a lot of players in this state that are 6’3” and play on the wing like he does.”
Connor added, “I think I score better than anybody I face. I think my height and elevation give me an advantage to get over defenders and to the rim.”
But with strengths, come weaknesses. “I’m definitely not the strongest guy in the world, and I’m not the quickest,” Connor says. “But I believe being smart on the court can make up for not being strong and fast.”
McCormick’s respect for the game determines his philosophy as a scorer. “I’m not going to be the guy who’s pounding my chest and in your face, but I’m going to show my confidence through my play.”
Connor believes he has the ability to play college basketball, and is already being recruited by some schools, including South Dakota School of Mines & Technology here in Rapid City. “I was invited to scrimmage with Tech a couple times. It’s not exactly coaching; it’s more just getting out and running with some older guys. It’s a big deal for me. Again, I’m not the biggest and strongest guy and playing out there helps me get better physically just by playing with great competition.”
Aside from progressing physically, the mental aspect of the game also improves by playing with Tech. “From senior year to freshman year (in college) there’s a big jump, especially in basketball intelligence. Tech’s players are saying stuff to me while we’re playing, and I’m just like ‘I don’t even know what that means.’ There’s just a lot of stuff to be picked up at the next level.”
However, that’s in the future, and McCormick’s focus is set on the present and what the Cobbler squad can accomplish this season.
“I don’t want to hype it up but I think we’re going to be pretty good this year,” Connor says. “I think we have some advantages that not many teams have in the state. We have depth, and this senior class has lots of chemistry. It’s been the same guys since freshman year, and we’ve been through a lot.” Motivation from family and friends has played a massive part in his success so far, but there’s one player who sticks out to Connor: “The player who motivates me more than anyone has to be Justin [Kraemer]. He’s always going hard, always grinding, always challenging me. He’s someone who’s been there for me since we were little. We’ve been playing together since day one.”
Along with chemistry, there’s another force Central owns. “We have height,” Connor added, “I’m 6’3”, Derric [Tiller], D’kota [Segrist], [Tanner] Aberle, Preston [Anderson], and [Trenton] Multz all have size and it will definitely help on the court.”
Kailleb Walton-Blanden is another weapon on the Cobbler squad. The 6’2” point guard, whom Coach Hay describes as an “athletic freak,” will join Connor in Hay’s aggressive but unstrict run-the-floor offense, built for athletic teams who know how to score.
In addition to Connor’s vision of the Cobbler’s success, Coach Hay explained Connor’s role on the team:
“Connor’s definitely going to have to be a leader. We have no returners after losing seven seniors and we have one freshman who played a little bit towards the end of the season. Other than that, none of last year’s juniors have any varsity experience. McCormick has been around this summer and fall because he’s not playing a fall sport, so he has to carry that leadership role on the team.”
Connor also explained his job on the court:
“I’m a 2 guard, similar to a point guard. I don’t necessarily run the offense, but it’s my job to make sure everyone else is doing their job as I bring the ball up the court. The first thing I’m looking to do is to score. But, if [scoring] is not there right away, I’m not going to force it. I get just as much of a rush grabbing an assist as I do scoring a point on my own. It’s whatever I can do to help the team.”
McCormick averaged 15 points per game on Central’s JV squad last year, along with four assists and seven rebounds per game, evidence of his being an effective force on the court.
Central basketball’s home opener will be December 18th against Mitchell, offering Connor his first chance to be one of the big kids that his six-year old self admired. Though it’s a few weeks away, he knows what he will be doing that day of the season opener: “We always have school on game day, so I have to find a way to stay focused during that. After school, I have to get a nap in lasting under an hour, otherwise I get sluggish. I get back to Central, or to the bus. I heat my back, throw on the headphones and listen to a little pump-up music. I give my dad a hug, and he gives me his last minute words of inspiration. Then it’s game time.”
Austin Lammers is the editor-in-chief of the Pine Needle.