As athletes get older, father time and especially injuries have a way of limiting future chances.
For the case of Jerry Higgins — the oldest player on the No. 1-ranked John Carroll men’s basketball team at age 24 — that’s not a problem.
He knows he’s not the player he once was when he led VASJ to two state championships and was The News-Herald’s 2018 boys basketball player of the year.
Multiple knee injuries in high school and another suffered during undergrad play at The Citadel were the culprits.
He also knows the end of his basketball career is near. It could be weeks or another month. Time will tell for the Division III national championship contenders.
But back to Higgins’ injuries. Dealing with his medical setbacks — as well as those by his father Jerry Higgins II, who had his lower leg amputated and a kidney transplant from the effects of diabetes — has inspired Higgins III to become an orthopedic surgeon. He graduates in May with a Master’s degree in biology, and has applied to more than 40 medical schools.
“Hoping to interview very soon,” said Higgins.
Despite those multiple knee injuries, Higgins remains a force on the hardwood in Division III. But there is more to Higgins than basketball skill, and there’s testimony to that. There’s a drive to be a leader, a spark off the bench and do whatever else is needed to help JCU attempt to win a national championship in March.
“We’re going to miss Jerry Higgins more than people realize,” said JCU head coach Pete Moran.
Higgins has proved valuable to the 22-1 Blue Streaks, who next play at Otterbein on Feb. 13. At 16-0 in the Ohio Athletic Conference, JCU has already won the outright conference title and clinched the No. 1 seed for next week’s OAC tournament. With two more wins, the Blue Streaks can become the first team in program history to complete a perfect 18-0 season in the OAC.
Higgins and his teammates aren’t settling. They want more. With guards Luke Chicone (Mentor), Luke Frazier (Lake Catholic), Chase Toppin and a talented stable of post players, there are many reasons why the Blue Streaks can win it all.
Then there is Higgins, one of Moran’s top bench players. He’s a stocky and quick guard who provides instant offense from 3-point range, the ability to drive and hard-nosed defense.
He’s the type of spark-plug player every team that has one values. With Higgins, though, there’s a bonus. In many ways, he’s an extension of Moran and the coaching staff with his maturity, mindset and understanding of the game.
“I think a lot of guys value my opinion,” said Higgins. “Gaining their trust is something that’s been very valuable to me. I try to do that with everyone on the roster so they know they’re part of the team. I think I bring a different wisdom then some of the other guys. I take pride in my leadership role. The best part of being a leader is grooming others, taking that responsibility to others as they come along. I want them to be better than what I was.”
Next year at this time, Higgins — who also goes by “Gene” — is hoping he will be at a medical school working toward his goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But first he and his teammates are hoping to make a long run in the postseason. Helping lead the way will be Higgins, whose greatest impact come postseason time might be off the court.
“Gene is a guy who can change a program to a winning culture,” said Chicone. “Whether he has a big night on the stat sheet or not, the things he always brings are the things that don’t show up on it. He’s a guy who brings a spark day in and day out. He’s a leader. We wouldn’t be where we are without a guy like him.”
Said Moran: “Jerry’s a special young man. He’s a grown-up. I knew this year might be mentally exhausting for him. It’s his sixth year (in college), but he’s so influential for our program, not from a statistically standpoint. You see his energy. We’re a better basketball team because of Jerry Higgins. We’re a better defensive team because of Jerry Higgins. We’re a more unified team because of Jerry Higgins. When he speaks, people listen. He’s the extra voice.”
Moran said Higgins, Connor O’Toole (Gilmour) and Chase Toppin are the vocal leaders on the team when the team needs an additional push.
“I don’t have to give ra-ra speeches before games because they’re doing it before every game,” he said.
For example, during practices, when the atmosphere is low on energy, Moran simply gives Higgins a nod. That’s the signal.
“He knows how to get these guys going,” said Moran.
With Chicone and Frazier tied for the team lead in scoring at 18.7 points, there are five other players among JCU’s scoring leaders in front of Higgins, whose points-per-game average checks in 4.9 points. Sometimes, numbers can be deceiving.
Higgins’ ability to score has always been there, dating to his high school days when he was a 20-plus-points per game scorer and a two-time state champ. At JCU, he averages about five shots per game, but his greatest value goes beyond those shot attempts.
Higgins is also the only player on the Blue Streaks’ roster to know the feeling and what it takes to win a state championship in high school. It’s not about bragging, he said. It’s about knowing what’s needed from a program — the players to the coaches to the support staff — to win it all.
“Our big focus is not getting too far ahead,” said Higgins about JCU’s drive to win an NCAA D-III championship. “We need to take care of everything that’s in front of us. We can’t miss a step.”
Higgins will make sure of that.
John Carroll at Otterbein
When: Feb. 14
Where: Rike Center, Westerville
Records: JCU 22-1 (16-0 OAC); Otterbein 16-7 (10-6)
Ranking (D3Hoops.com): JCU No. 1