Michael Hughes II joined his first basketball league when he was 5 years old, and the setting immediately felt unusual. A church had attached smaller, shorter rims underneath its standard 10-foot goals, offering kids an easier target.
But over the course of his first game, Hughes lofted shot after shot toward the taller goal instead. He wanted to prove he could do it, and he also possessed something of a mischievous temperament.
On the surface, 13 years later, this story still adequately embodies Hughes, a 6-foot-8 playful giant for the Liberty North High School basketball team who has a Division I scholarship. On the court, “Big Mike” blends a whimsical personality with signs of determination. His best friends say he exhibits an everyday-teenager nature off the court.
But what many don’t know — and what his mother says paints the deeper, more accurate picture of her 18-year-old son — is that Hughes loves to read books. Lately, he has been immersed in the pages of “The Berlin Boxing Club,” a novel that follows a Jewish teenager who dreams of becoming a boxing champion in Nazi Germany.
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“He’s a kid who’s had some tough moments, but he learns how to make do,” Hughes says.
“I get that.”
Hughes is the leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker for state-ranked Liberty North. He averages 17 points, 14.3 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game. Frankly, that’s a primary reason many people know his name. He will play college basketball for Akron next season.
On most game nights at Liberty North home games, his mother, Robbie-Joe, can be found behind the Eagles’ bench. She cheers for every basket like it’s Michael’s first, but if you ask, she prefers to watch her son play defense. “That’s where he really gets after it,” she said.
And on cue, during a Friday night game earlier this month, Hughes interjected with a two-handed swat that sprang her out of her third-row seat.
The student section erupted. Hughes flashed a sly grin.
“That! That right there!,” Robbie-Joe said. “Did you see that? That’s just like his father.”
The flashbacks have come and gone for the past 14 years, though they’re most vivid when Hughes steps onto the basketball court. His tics. His stances. His body shape. They’re all reminders.
Michael Anthony Hughes I died in 2003 doing precisely what his son has grown to love — playing hoops. Surrounded by his best friends, he collapsed while competing in a men’s league at Longview Community College. Doctors later discovered he had an enlarged heart.
Michael Hughes II was 4.
“I have a few memories of him, but not very many,” he says. “It makes you wonder how life might’ve been different if he was around.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m out here — to carry on what he did. My mom always says I look exactly like him.”
Hughes is the fourth of six children. His mother never remarried. After his father’s death, Hughes grew particularly close with his older brother Tony, despite their 12-year age difference. It was Tony who sparked Hughes’ interest in basketball.
In the middle of the night, when Hughes was 5, he and Tony constructed an outdoor basketball goal. They shot baskets until the early-morning hours. It became a routine. Hughes rushed home from school every day, hopped off the bus and ran to his his new basketball hoop. Tony would be there waiting.
Until the day he wasn’t.
The gun safe was open.
Robbie-Joe walked into her home on Feb. 7, 2006, and noticed that the lock had been disabled. She reached into the strongbox, felt along its edges. The gun was missing.
That music, she thought. Where is that coming from?
As she started downstairs, the sound intensified with each step until she reached Tony’s bedroom. She pushed open the door.
“I pretty much let out a scream that they heard around the world,” she says.
Six days after celebrating his 8th birthday, Michael Hughes arrived home from second-grade class hoping to play basketball before Tony rushed off to his afternoon job.
Tony was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 19.
“I told Michael it was an accident,” Robbie-Joe says. “I didn’t think he was old enough to understand what I had seen.”
Robbie-Joe says Michael was never quite the same after that, and, at least initially, neither was his love for the game he once shared with his brother.
The frustration from his personal life spilled onto the basketball court. He played angry. He played selfishly. His coaches benched him for a bad attitude.
“It wasn’t as fun for me anymore,” Hughes says. “Whenever I wasn’t getting what I wanted, I would just take my head out of the game.”
Three years later, Hughes found out Tony’s death was a suicide. A neighbor unintentionally revealed the news. Hughes refused to talk to his mother for days.
For several years, a copy of Hughes’ birth certificate had a home in his mother’s purse. He was so tall, so big and often so dominant that opposing coaches would question his age. So Robbie-Joe started to carry the evidence with her.
About the only thing that could slow down Michael Hughes ... was Michael Hughes. As the games grew more competitive, his temper seemed to worsen. Robbie-Joe once warned him he was on course to becoming the city’s most talented bench warmer.
The Liberty School District re-drew its district boundaries after Hughes’ freshman year, and he made the move from Liberty High to Liberty North. The initial impressions there were mixed.
“The first thing that stood out was just how raw he was,” Liberty North coach Chris McCabe says. “He always had the physical tools to be really, really good, but he could never unlock it because he would get so frustrated during the game.”
The Liberty North coaching staff devised a plan to harp on Hughes’ behavior. His teammates were asked to hold him accountable, too.
Gradually, it clicked. Nobody — not even Hughes — can identify the exact turning point. But a significant transformation lies somewhere within the past three seasons.
Today, the outbursts are rare. Hughes’ coaches think he’s actually passing too much, and when they ask why, he tells them, “I’m just trying to get my teammates going.”
When he is removed from a game, Hughes makes a point to slap the hand of every teammate, coach and team manager before finding a seat. He is obsessed with scouting reports and spends halftime tweaking details of the gameplan with his head coach.
“I can’t name the exact time it sunk in, but instead of me giving statements to him, we’re having back-and-forth conversations,” McCabe says. “If you came out and watched him play two or three years ago, and then you came out and watched him today, you would say he’s a different kid. I mean that in terms of his emotional maturity.”
In December, Liberty North won its second William Jewell tournament division title, and Hughes was named the annual event’s most valuable player. He had 23 points and 14 rebounds in the championship game.
After the victory, a group of kids awed by Hughes’ sheer size — he wears size-18 shoes — approached him and struck up a 10-minute conversation. Two months later, Hughes invited the group of elementary schoolers to serve as ball boys for a Liberty North game. They took him up on it.
“He has the biggest heart of anyone you will ever meet,” McCabe says.
That gentleness makes many of his friends unaware of his early childhood tribulations. He hides them well. His mom believes the two deaths affect him more than he lets on, but he’s subtle in the ways he addresses his past.
The book, for example.
Hughes picked up “The Berlin Boxing Club” and says he quietly read the back-cover description. That was enough to convince him to buy it. It now sits on a desk in his room.
By the conclusion of the novel, the most recent in Hughes’ collection, the teenager in the book has found an avenue toward overcoming his past and changing his future.
It’s a fictional tale.
With perhaps an undertone of reality for Michael Hughes.