DULUTH-There was no singular moment of revelation, Duluth native Rick Rickert said, no parting of the clouds and a giant beam of light shining down from the heavens enlightening him, but just the natural progression of years spent on the basketball court, a magical journey he knew wouldn't last forever.
"It was about time," he said.
Rickert, 35, recently announced his retirement after 15 years as a professional basketball player. That's quite a run, and the 6-foot-11 forward feels like he's leaving on top, having averaged 16.2 points and 9.6 rebounds this past season for the Ibaraki Robots, averages that ranked 10th and third, respectively, in Japan's B2 league. He put those numbers up in limited minutes as there tends to be restrictions on foreign-born players in overseas leagues.
"Physically, I'm uninjured right now. I could play another five years at this level," said Rickert, who resides in picturesque Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with his wife Cici, and 9-year-old daughter, Pepper. "That's just kind of my body type. I've very durable. I just had one of my best seasons last season.
"But I'm looking toward the future, and there's other things that I still want do. Physically, I'm still healthy, and I want to use my body for the rest of my life, and I'm not going to put it on the line for more than I have to."
A basketball life
Rickert, the son of former Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth basketball player Lew Rickert, played for a Duluth East junior varsity team that went undefeated when he was in eighth grade, but he also suited up for every varsity game. He started all four years of high school, leading the Greyhounds to a runner-up finish in the large-school state-title game his senior year in 2001, earning Minnesota Mr. Basketball and Associated Press player of the year honors.
"Oh man, that seems like a lifetime ago now, doesn't it?" Rickert said, laughing.
It was a glorious time for local hoops, with Rickert's East team battling the likes of Duluth Denfeld's Sean Seaman and Cloquet's Mike Johnson and Tim Battaglia, as well as Superior. Perhaps the most memorable of all those games was when Rickert sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to edge the Hunters by a point.
"That was awesome," Rickert said. "That's when high school basketball in Duluth was popping. We had a great group of talent back then, and I don't know if it's been the same way since. We were selling out the stands, a packed house. It was a great time."
And Rickert was the biggest draw, attracting such college coaches as Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Lute Olson (Arizona) and Tom Izzo (Michigan State). Rickert initially said he was going to Arizona before changing his mind and staying home by committing to Minnesota.
"I was struggling with that for a really long time," Rickert said. "There was some back and forth, and, ultimately, I changed my mind. I went with Minnesota, and the rest is history.
"It's really a difficult situation for a high school kid to be in, not just for myself, but every kid that goes to the next level. It may seem like a no-brainer or easy, but it's not."
From college to pro
Rickert didn't disappoint at Minnesota, becoming the first Gopher to win Big Ten freshman of the year honors after averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds in 2001-02.
It was during this time that Rickert participated in the Michael Jordan Flight School Basketball Camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., serving as counselors along with the likes of future NBA players Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Carmelo Anthony and a high schooler by the name of LeBron James.
The counselors would lead the players through games and drills, and then play pickup games at the end of the day with Michael Jordan, to the children's delight.
"I was on the court playing in front of 500 kids, with arguably the two best players in basketball history on the court together in Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and I was guarding LeBron," Rickert said, laughing. "Talk about a tough guard. He drove the lane, and I'm like, 'All right, I'm sticking with him.' Then he did a step back on me. I swear he was almost in the lane, and he created 10 feet of separation and nailed a 3-pointer, and I was like, 'Man, this guy can play.' What an awesome experience."
It was also at Minnesota where he met Cici Anderson, his future wife and MVP of the Gophers women's tennis team. Rickert averaged 16 points and six rebounds his sophomore season and was taken in the second round of the 2003 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 55th overall selection.
Rickert said if he had any regrets, it was that he didn't opt for the NBA after his freshman season.
"There was a lot of buzz after my freshman year, and I think it would have been a better route for me," Rickert said. "It would have given me one more year as a professional, but hindsight is 20/20. You make your decisions based on the knowledge that you have and then roll with it. Nothing's ever going to go perfect. You just have to make the most of everything you have, every day that you have."
Rickert failed to make the Timberwolves and went to play in Slovenia. Rickert was confident he could make the Wolves, but his fate was sealed with that organization after he was sucker punched by reigning NBA MVP Kevin Garnett in a 2004 pickup game. Rickert later had a stint with the Detroit Pistons and was an NBA Development League All-Star in 2007. Rickert saw enough of the D League to realize overseas provided a better opportunity. "The NBA needs role players, and I have never been a role player," Rickert said. "They're not calling up guys to be primary scorers. They're trying to get someone to take some fouls, take some hits, be a goon, that's how it works. "You played in the D League for the opportunity to play in the NBA; you didn't play in it for the money. I saw playing overseas as an opportunity to have a great time and a good quality life."
Rickert said playing professional basketball allowed his family to live very comfortably. Teams set them up with a house and car. They lived 10 months overseas, two months back in Idaho. Rickert played the past seven seasons in Japan, where Cici homeschooled their daughter, who also took tennis academy lessons.
Cici Rickert talked about all the great friendships they made and all the places they will go back and visit.
"Rick has had an amazing career, and we're so thankful for our world adventures and the special memories we made," she said. "But the adventure continues."
Of all his travels, Rick Rickert said playing for New Zealand in the Australian league was the best. He said the country is gorgeous. It was also there that he started looking more toward the future. In the middle of his first season in New Zealand, in November 2007, he suffered a major back injury that nearly ended his career.
Rickert had played through injury before, but this time was different.
"I was literally laying on my back and couldn't lift my foot off the ground," he recalled. "I couldn't move. It was nine or 10 months where I couldn't do anything. I was laid up. It was the most excruciating pain I had ever been in."
That would put fear into anybody.
Rickert worked his way back to health and is going to appreciate that fact going into this new chapter in his life. He graduated this spring with a bachelor's in nutrition communications from Arizona State, taking online course to finish a degree that he had started earning while at Minnesota. Now the job hunt begins, while Cici is working as a wedding makeup artist at cicibird.com.
"I know how bad it can be," Rickert said of injuries. "I'm back in Coeur d'Alene, and we're loving life here right now. I'm healthy, I have my degree, we're good to move on now. If I didn't have my degree, maybe I would have played another year, but I know it's not worth it. I'm hitting the job search hard."