Remembering Dedric Willoughby

Dedric Willoughby was the MVP of the last Big 8 Men’s Basketball Tournament. And now he is gone.

The news hit me like a ton of bricks Thursday afternoon, like most of Cyclone Nation.

Dedric was one of those rare Cyclone supernovas that entered all of our orbits. He was here, he was electric and he was gone with an unforgettable flash.

Willoughby entered the Cyclone scene after transferring to play for Tim Floyd from New Orleans in 1995. The expectations for Iowa State were zero and lower.

Second year head coach Tim Floyd had lost his golden geese, Fred Hoiberg, Loren Meyer as well as Julius Michalik and what he had returning were a rag-tag group of JUCOs, transfers and guys nobody had ever heard of.

It was the epitome of the movie Major League come to life, “Who are these effing guys.”

The point-guard was a kid from small town Kansas who Floyd tried to recruit over until he ran out of eligibility. The small forward was an outside linebacker looking guy who couldn’t shoot.

The power-forward was a 6’3 dude who couldn’t shoot and couldn’t jump, but would never lose in a back-alley. The center was a gangly, 7 footer, who preferred to be named 6’10 in the program because he was self conscious, yet was more intimidating than he ever realized. 

But the shooting guard was the smoothest, most protypical shooting guard I have ever seen. Like if Jimmy Chitwood and Steph Curry created a college guard. 

Dedric Willoughby played Cyclone basketball like Breece Hall played college football. I have no idea how he made it look so easy. 

The Cyclone Basketball team in 1995-1996 is still my favorite Cyclone team ever. Maybe that’s childhood nostalgia, but as a then 12 year old, very few things in my life have topped the raw emotion of that group of once-unknown Cyclones doing the impossible and defeating future NBA stalwarts Raef Lafrentz, Jacque Vaughn, Paul Pierce and the juggernaut Jayhawks to win the last-ever Big 8 championship. 

You could do the unthinkable even at Iowa State. Like a real world Mighty Ducks. 

That group with Willoughby at the helm advanced to the round of 32 that season, but the entire squad was back for the next season and expectations for Iowa State basketball were the loftiest of my lifetime.

Iowa State rose to as high as #4 in the polls in 1997, starting 10-0 and my TV heroes Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were including Willoughby, Cato and the gang in Sportscenter highlights twice a week. 

The Mighty Ducks story continued as this rag-tag group of Cyclones upset Cincinnati and Bob Huggins to advance to a Sweet 16 for the first time since 1986.

12 year old me was ecstatic. I had never seen Iowa State at this level. My parents let me stay up past school-night bed time, as Iowa State led 37-25 over second seed UCLA at half with Willoughby lighting up the Bruins making five first half threes! The Cyclones were destined for the Elite 8 and my Iowa State alum dad was on the dial up Internet looking up flight options to San Antonio.

The second half went sideways, but there was Dedric fighting for every last possession. 

After Cameron Dollar floated up a backbreaker over Cato to give UCLA the lead 74-73 with 1.7 seconds left in overtime, Iowa State had almost zero time to make any type of miracle happen.

With no real time to go the length of the floor, Willoughby set a fake-screen on the baseline, trying to catch the defender (and official) off-guard and potentially draw a free-throw clinching foul.

Willoughby crashed to the floor like he was going to fall through it, 12 year old me and Cyclone Nation were all waiting for the whistle……it was not to be. Five second violation called and the game, season (and Willoughby’s Cyclone career) were abruptly over.

Willoughy’s final stat line: 44 minutes played, 11-21 (8-17 3P) 7 REBS, 1 Turnover, 34 Points. And I was not prepared to go to school the next day. 

The ensuing summer I was at the Tim Floyd Basketball Camp and Dedric was brought in as a camp speaker as he was preparing for an NBA tryout and it was if I witnessed Michael Jordan in his prime.

Dedric was assigned to our sixth grade group basket and asked to play all of us kids in a game of knock-out. I now realize knock out wasn’t particularly useful in skill development, but Dedric played on.

Somehow, the few people in the game of knock-out that made it the finals were me, some kid that had hit puberty way-too early and Dedric Willoughby. Dedric eliminated the big kid and it was only me and my idol remaining. I had never seen Dedric miss a shot in a big-moment before, but he missed his initial shot with me behind him and I splashed in a heave to win a game of knock out over my hero Dedric Willoughby. It was a highlight of my childhood. I remember it like it was yesterday. 

I always told myself next time Dedric made it back to Ames for a game I would tell him that story. How he impacted a kid who hadn’t ever really seen Iowa State win anything in his life, how he taught that same kid what sports pain really feels like after you do ascend the mountaintop. And how you can make a kids day by showing up at a random camp when you don’t even need to. 

Dedric reportedly passed away on Wednesday at age 49 while playing a game of pick-up basketball. He doesn’t know he ever met me, but I’ll never forget the impact he had on me and so many in Cyclone Nation. RIP #22.