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The Ethan-vention: Happ's rise to stardom at Wisconsin

Once considered soft by his teammates, Ethan Happ has become the anchor of a Wisconsin team striving for its third Final Four apperance in four years.

MADISON, Wis. — In the unofficial annals of Wisconsin basketball, it is known as The Ethan-vention. A wiry freshman from a small town and a high school of about 400 students was having difficulty adjusting to a more demanding existence, competing against future first-round picks that had reached a Final Four only a few months earlier. So if Ethan Happ got fouled during open gyms in that summer of 2014, he looked for calls and received blank stares. If his 175-pound frame took a hard bump on a screen, he pouted. If he had a shot blocked, he might not hoist another. If he got dunked on, he’d all but surrender on every possession that followed. “Ethan,” says forward Vitto Brown, “was one of the softest guys we’d ever met.”

The Badgers didn’t need their lone newcomer to key a championship push then. They needed him to stop being annoying. So Brown summoned his fellow sophomores to the apartment he shared with Happ. At some point, they told their young teammate, the stars on the roster would leave and Happ would have to contribute. To do so, Happ had to start behaving their way. “The less flowery version of it was ‘Man up,’ basically,” says forward Nigel Hayes, one of the attendees. No one made Happ admit his problem. They just browbeat it out of him.

On a January afternoon more than two years later, Ethan Happ shoots one free throw after another, alone except for his girlfriend and rebounder, Jordan Robbins. Once decried for his work rate and mindset, the 6' 10" redshirt sophomore toils away in an empty gym on a day off, now regarded as one of the most important two-way players in the nation: Happ leads seventh-ranked Wisconsin in scoring (14.7), rebounding (9.1), blocks (1.1) and steals (2.0) per night, another dominant post presence on another Badgers squad eyeing a deep postseason charge. “It’s awesome to come from a small school, have dreams of playing in college, just getting on the court, and now I’m one of the like top three or four people on a team that’s first in the Big Ten,” Happ says. “I think that’s amazing. I really do.”

It’s also uncommon to grow three inches during college, as he has since those turbulent early days with the team that currently can’t live without him. Happ notes he was actually a 5' 9" eighth-grade guard that sprouted into a giant. If some irritated teammates had this info on a long-ago summer day, they might have realized there’s a simple strategy with Wisconsin’s burgeoning star: Just wait, and the growth spurt will come.

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Though school was out in Milan, Ill., two of the town’s 5,100 residents were not exempt from homework. Before Randy Happ left for work every morning, he printed out two spreadsheets, attached the papers to a pair of clipboards and then hung those clipboards on two nails driven into the side of the garage. These were his sons’ prescribed summertime basketball workouts, a dozen exercises that required about an hour to complete. Sometimes Randy took half-days and did the workouts with his boys, Eric and Ethan. Mostly he checked the sheets when he got home and hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed. He rarely was. “It was all on them,” says Randy, a former player for Division III North Central College in Naperville, Ill.

There was some jump roping and some shooting but the priority was ball-handling and footwork. Shooting comes and goes, Randy told his sons. Adroit handles and defense get you a spot on every team. So the Happ brothers did speed dribbles and two-ball dribbles the length of the driveway and back. They dribbled around cones and chairs. And every drill they completed with their right hands, they repeated twice as often with their left. Likewise Randy put defensive slides on the task list, something no young basketball player likes to do in an official practice, let alone unmonitored in his own driveway.

This was not some autocratic, obsessive mission by a basketball-crazed parent. For one, Ethan played football until eighth grade and baseball throughout his time at Rockridge High School in nearby Taylor Ridge, Ill. (Eric would play basketball for two years at Carl Sandburg Junior College in Galesburg, Ill.) What’s more, Ethan was happy to follow Dad’s lead. “He would tell me stories about all the hours he put into the game,” Ethan says. “When it was snowy outside, he would cut the fingertips off his gloves so that he could still do ball-handing and shooting. And every kid wants to be like their Dad.”

To explain how Ethan Happ acquired this set of skills, Milan is indeed the place to start. Every Christmas, a competitive, athletic family gathered—Ethan counts Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ and former Northwestern tight end Mark Szott as cousins—and driveway pickup games played in holiday sweaters soldered his killer instinct. (Ethan recalls catching elbows to the gut from smaller relatives.)

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The sources of his all-around prowess—especially the defense—are more diverse. Although he played almost exclusively on the perimeter prior to enrolling at Wisconsin, Happ argues his anticipatory instincts were first honed in football. Just across the street from his home in the part of town they affectionately dubbed “South Milan,” Ethan and Eric regularly played two-on-two football with the Johnson brothers, Alex and Luke. Always teamed with Luke, Ethan covered whichever older sibling split wide as a receiver. His prevailing strategy: Bait the quarterback and pounce on mistakes. “I would try to make him think, if he throws it over here, it’s open,” Ethan says. “Then all of a sudden I jump the route. And then pick-six.”

It’s a gambit he employs to this day: Happ tries to position himself so passers believe they have a lane for a post feed. Then he reads their eyes and times his attack. The result is unusual steal numbers for a 6' 10" player and a defensive rating of 80.4, tops in the nation. “It used to be, oh, Ethan’s on me? Time to attack,” Brown says. “But now he’s a master thief out there. He’s got a knack for reaching at the right time and knowing how to make guys uncomfortable. It’s amazing.”

There are alternate takes on Happ’s pilfering proficiency. “We have this conversation all the time—Ethan is a severe gambler,” Hayes says. “He’s the equivalent of a Vegas person who doesn’t know when to leave.” But there Happ was, late in the second half against Indiana on Sunday, snaking his body around the Hoosiers’ De’Ron Davis, picking off a pass and finishing with a layup at the other end for a crucial score in an eventual 65–60 win. “When people scout me in the Big Ten, they at least have to mention something about my defense, and that’s something special,” Happ says. “I do feel pride about that. Just because defense is hard to do.”

The steal against Indiana recalled another of his ongoing debates with Hayes: If you succeed all the time, is it really gambling anymore?

“For the most part,” Hayes concedes, “the odds have been in his favor.”

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There was nothing favorable about Ethan Happ’s chances during his first year in Madison. The Badgers were coming off a Final Four season and were led by Frank Kaminsky, a senior 7-footer and national player of the year favorite. The outward expressions of frustration may have irked Happ’s peers, but he had good reason to be irked. He was getting his butt kicked daily. “I had no post moves,” Happ says, “and the first three months, I would just get blocked or Frank would score on me every single time.”

Once he adjusted his mental approach, Happ began an invaluable big-man internship. After an arduous decision to redshirt—“I didn’t want to have a year where I played six, seven, eight minutes a game, if that,” Happ says—he became a practice foil for all of Wisconsin’s post players, primarily Kaminsky. Happ had a history of absorbing opponents’ tactics into his own game; Randy Happ remembers former UCLA forward Kevon Looney chicken-winging his son for rebounds during an AAU tournament, then seeing Ethan use the same technique in ensuing games. Similarly, every time Kaminsky bested him, Happ took note of how and why it happened. “You see him back-tap and steal in the post—that’s something I did to him all the time,” Kaminsky says.

Happ gradually built enough of an arsenal to give an All-America center all he could handle. “You could see the potential in him the second he got on campus,” says Kaminsky, now in his second year with the Charlotte Hornets. “It just comes down to reading the game and figuring out people’s strengths and weaknesses. Once he figured out what he could do, he was able to read other people and see things differently.” Happ recalls one early season practice during which, as a fledgling scout-teamer, he scored a couple times in a row on the Badgers’ star. Exasperated, Kaminsky complained to another starter: He has no f------ post moves! “He had some rough days with Frank,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard says. “But he also had some days where he had Frank talking to himself.”

It imbued Happ with confidence that he could produce. And Kaminsky was a willing tutor, largely because he saw himself in a freshman scuffling to get by. “I remember how frustrating it was to me,” Kaminsky says. “I knew what I was capable of doing. I just didn’t know how to do it.” So Kaminsky would instruct Happ to slow down, to take what the defense gave him instead of predetermining his move to the rim. The lines of communication remain open; when Creighton double-teamed Happ into a seven-point, four-turnover night in a Nov. 15 loss, he called his former tormentor for advice on defeating traps. Happ won’t declassify the tactics he and Kaminsky discussed, saying only, “It’s helped.”

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One of Wisconsin’s fundamental tenets is to play offense through the post. It is no coincidence, then, that the Badgers thrived with Kaminsky as their predominant back-to-the-basket threat, nor that they have soared into the top 10 this season as Happ has made leaps in efficiency and consistency. He’s scored in double-figures in 18 of his last 20 games and has the second-lowest turnover percentage (14.1%) among Badgers starters despite a team-high usage rate of 27.2%. Happ’s 4.6 Win Shares—a measure of how much his production contributes to Wisconsin victories—rank 15th nationally. (His per-40-minute rate of .300 Win Shares ranks first.) “It’s ingrained with our guys how much we have to touch the post,” Gard says. “[Happ’s] vision and his feel for the game put him in a position where he can make plays from in there. He’s a very good facilitator and has a good feel for people around him, and where guys are, and he is very comfortable. Some guys are not. Some guys, you throw the ball on the block and you swear you pulled the pin in the hand grenade.”

Happ’s increased comfort level is apparent in every aspect. He’s less prone to stewing over failures and Gard doesn’t sit him to cool off as much as he did last season, even as Happ was en route to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. “It’d be four minutes to four minutes never knowing exactly which Ethan you were going to get,” Gard says.

Meanwhile, Happ has earned his place in the pantheon of Wisconsin basketball characters. “I love being different, almost an antagonist,” Happ says. He owns a yellow Pikachu T-shirt he wears in public, proudly. He met Robbins at a party while sporting a garish lime green shirt. (“That’s probably what hooked her,” he says.) When the Badgers received orange and black Converse sneakers with camouflage tongues as part of their Battle 4 Atlantis swag package in 2014, most of the players gave them away or donated them to charity. Happ kept his. “Everyone was like, there’s no way we’ll ever wear these shoes,” Brown says. “He’s like, ‘I kind of like them.’”

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Happ’s benign version of pettiness is also now a thing of Wisconsin legend. It comes in many forms. Sometimes it is retaliation. “If I don’t text back in five minutes,” Robbins says, “he’s not going to text back for two hours.” Sometimes it is obstinacy: During one charter flight this year, Happ and Brown planned to watch The Accountant on Brown’s laptop from their bulkhead seats. Junior guard Jordan Hill, sitting one row back, asked to watch as well. Brown suggested he and Happ move next to Hill, so the trio could utilize tray tables. Happ declined. That’s not my normal seat, he said. Incredulous, Brown suggested maybe Happ could sacrifice to help out a teammate. You don’t care about my comfort level, Happ replied, so I’m not going to watch the movie.

Most infamously, Happ takes a scalpel to even the most forgettable rhetorical flourishes. “You know how people say, generally, You never know,” Happ says. “I’ll be like, ‘Sometimes you do know. Sometimes you for sure know that this is going to happen. There’s 0.1 seconds left on the clock. You’re down by 25. You for sure know you’re going to lose the game.’ People hate it, slash love it, slash laugh at it.”

Once again, Wisconsin is surging. And once again, there’s an idiosyncratic big man in the middle: A highly efficient scorer who has made just one jump shot all season; a 6' 10" forward who robs opponents like a guard; a contrarian who stands in line during shootarounds, watching the move Brown executes as a cue for the rest of the post players, at which point Ethan Happ knows to turn his roommate’s one-dribble drive into a two-dribble attack, or an up-and-under into a drop step. “It works in the game, so we’re not complaining,” Brown says. “But yeah, he has to be a little bit different.”

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In the lounge area of Wisconsin’s locker room, homages to recent Final Four trips hang prominently on the wall. There’s a photo of the 2014–15 club starring Kaminsky and fellow first-round pick Sam Dekker that won 36 games, snapped shortly after a West Region final triumph over Arizona. In the back row of the picture, very nearly obscured by the mass of bodies, is the smiling face of Ethan Happ.

Before he arrived in Madison, Happ believed he would contribute significantly to a team that would make the national championship game. He was half-right, as it turns out. The grin in that photo from ’15 is authentic, but it belied a longing that lingers to this day, a nagging sense that he enjoyed one of the best moments in school history but didn’t truly own a piece of it. “It’s a weird thing for me,” Happ says. “Yes, we won the conference my freshman year. Yes, we won the Big Ten tournament. Yes, we won the regional championship. But I still feel like I haven’t done it.”

When he did take the floor the next fall, Happ’s first game was Wisconsin’s unconscionable season-opening home loss to Western Illinois. All Happ could think about then was being part of the team that would end what was then a streak of 17 straight NCAA tournament bids. But Happ, like the rest of the Badgers, gradually grew from there. Wisconsin transitioned from the retiring Bo Ryan to Gard, then survived four losses in five games to start Big Ten play before ultimately making a redemptive run to the Sweet 16.

Happ gave away most of the gear he collected from the Final Four in 2015. But he keeps in his locker a red T-shirt commemorating last year’s tournament drive. He says he hasn’t even worn it. The shirt represented such a meaningful resurrection that he wants only to see it every day and imagine what’s next. Could Ethan Happ be the next elite Wisconsin big man to contend for player of the year and All-America honors and, this time, a spot in the front row of a team photo memorializing another charge into April? You never know.