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College men's basketball: This small town shaped Wisconsin signee Connor Essegian

He's from Fort Wayne, Indiana, but Albion, Indiana, is where he spends a majority of his time. It's a one-stoplight town of about 2,300 people.

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. — University of Wisconsin men's basketball incoming freshman Connor Essegian is a fighter.

He was born eight weeks premature and spent a month and a half in the NICU.

It didn't get any easier for his parents, Jody and Rich Essegian, when Connor left the hospital. He stopped breathing three times shortly after coming home.

His path to the Badgers wasn't easy. He often was overlooked coming from a small high school. He played for a small AAU team. But no matter the roadblocks, he never stopped chasing his dream to play big-time college basketball.

"He just started out having to fight, and it's never stopped," Jody said.

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Second home

Essegian started every morning of high school — in and out of basketball season — in the gym. He'd wake up at 5 a.m. and have one of his parents drive him to the Police Athletic League building, a 17-minute drive from his house. He would get up 1,000 shots a day in the two-room building with a hardwood court and workout room in the back.

Pictures of former Police Athletic League players — all football — are all over the gym. Essegian's photo will be placed on the wall later this summer, the first basketball player added. A basketball player hadn't been deemed worthy of the honor until Essegian.

The building, with its wood-paneled walls, has been around since 1958. It's the court Essegian calls home.

It's even where his graduation party will be held in June.

He eventually moved his morning workouts to his high school gym during his senior year because it was easier. One less stop in the morning. Essegian also joked that it meant he got to sleep in.

The 1,000 shots before school every morning were in addition to practice and workouts after school.

"He was not an easy child," Jody said. "But it's because of his strong will, his determination, his competitiveness, his drive. All of that as a child was the same. So whether it was basketball or whether it was anything in his life, that's the type of child he was — strong-willed.

"We're not gonna tell him no, he's gonna do it anyway. That's how he was as a child. So all of what we're seeing unfold in him now doesn't surprise."

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Connor Essegian is a few weeks away from moving out of his house. He'll join the rest of the Badgers squad in Madison on June 13.

He's from Fort Wayne, Indiana, but Albion, Indiana, is where he spends a majority of his time. It's a one-stoplight town of about 2,300 people.

He went to a large middle school located by his house on the north side of Fort Wayne, and the middle school fed into a high school with three other feeder schools. But both of his parents lived in small towns and wanted the same for Connor and his brother, Sam. That's why he goes to school 30 minutes from his house.

Essegian's graduating class at Central Noble High School is 116 people. He's well known in Albion. After all, he's helped Central Noble basketball earn three straight conference championships and one state championship run.

Amy Leedy runs the only coffee shop in town. She quickly brings up Essegian at the mention of UW basketball. She remembers standing outside her shop doors watching Central Noble's basketball team ride around on fire trucks in celebration after each conference tournament championship.

"Seeing the town rally around them, those kids had the biggest smiles," she said. "You don't get that in a big town."

Fighting for recognition

Essegian set a goal of playing for a Big Ten Conference team when he was in seventh grade after his team at the time took a trip to Ann Arbor to watch a Michigan game. It was his first time visiting an arena of that size.

"He came home and just couldn't stop talking about it," Jody said. "I could tell you at that time, he was still playing travel baseball as well. We didn't know which way to go because he was really good at both. That was the first time we thought he was sold on basketball."

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John Bodey, the Central Noble boys basketball coach, knew there was something special about Essegian the moment he walked in the gym for tryouts as a freshman.

It was clear Essegian was a sharpshooter — he could hit shots from all over the court. It was the payoff for trying trick shots and countless games of H-O-R-S-E against his brother, Sam, in the front yard.

He often was the best player on the court, Bodey said.

Essegian helped Central Noble to a 20-1 season by averaging 24.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals his junior year, but he was snubbed for the prestigious Indiana Junior All-Star team.

But it wasn't until the summer after his junior year that schools such as UW began to take notice.

He had made the decision a year before to leave the Indy Gym Rats — the AAU team he had been with since seventh grade — to join Indiana Elite. He wasn't getting in front of enough collegiate teams with Gym Rats, so he had to take the jump to a more intense team.

It meant giving up playing with his friends and longtime coach Casey Adams. But Adams remained in his corner and continued to provide one-on-one instruction.

"To start seeing a lot of those rewards become true opportunities for him, it made me feel really good for him," Adams said. "There's a lot of naysayers."

The plan worked. He ended up receiving 32 Division I offers.

Essegian averaged 26.8 points per game en route to a second-place finish in the state championship as a senior. This time he made the Indiana All-Star team and finished fourth in state Mr. Basketball voting.

"It's kind of easy to coach when the best player is going hard," Bodey said.

Essegian had a final four of UW, Minnesota, Loyola Chicago and Butler. The four people closest to him in his decision-making process all thought he'd choose Loyola, but he had other plans, plans that would fulfill the goal he'd set in seventh grade.

"When he called me first and he was going to commit to Wisconsin, I was not in favor," said Adams, his former AAU coach. "I'm not saying they're bad coaches, but I was like, 'I'm not buying this.' I want to see him go to a guy that's going to challenge and push him because I know what he's like at his best."

Adams wondered if the UW coaches were the right fit for how Essegian likes to be coached.

Essegian took the concerns to UW assistant coach Dean Oliver, who was in charge of Essegian's recruitment. Oliver called Adams to talk him through the concerns.

"All those values about coach (Greg) Gard now fell in place," Adams said.

Essegian has been committed to the program since September and officially signed in November. That means he is getting ready to go to school with about 40,000 people in a city of more than 250,000.

"We feel very, very lucky and very self assured that he's going to go five hours away somewhere where he doesn't know a single person. And he's going to be OK," Jody said.

Essegian still takes 1,000 shots most mornings. He's got a college career to prepare for, after all.

He was watching a recent Golden State Warriors game and loved how loud the arena was even through the TV, so he looked up how many people the Chase Center seats.

18,064.

He next looked up the Kohl Center.

17,230.

"I can't wait," Essegian said. "That's something I can't wait to be a part of."

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