Four years later, the specifics are a bit fuzzy.
Was it said after Ethan Happ had a great practice, a frequent occurrence during his first season with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program? Or was it said after one of his veteran teammates struggled on the court? A combination of the two is the most likely answer.
Whatever it was that prompted Bo Ryan to say it, those in the room agree that the former Badgers coach turned to Happ during a film session and delivered a question that surprised the true freshman and his teammates.
This is how former UW assistant coach Gary Close remembers it being phrased: “You want to take that redshirt off?” Ryan asked Happ. “You can take that thing off right now if you want to.”
Happ, for his part, couldn’t tell if Ryan was being serious or just trying to light a fire under Duje Dukan or someone else in the frontcourt at the time. Either way, Happ never seriously considered burning his redshirt during a season that featured UW sweeping the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles en route to a second consecutive Final Four appearance.
“You never knew with (Ryan),” Happ said. “I definitely wanted to be out there because the team was so good and the atmosphere was so lively. But I think it was definitely in my best interest, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you guys.”
Happ was saying that Tuesday during his final interview with the local media prior to Senior Night. The fifth-year senior center and the No. 21 Badgers (20-9, 12-6 Big Ten) will host Iowa (21-8, 10-8) tonight at the Kohl Center, the home finale for Happ, Khalil Iverson and Charles Thomas IV.
Regardless of what happens over the final two games of the regular season and in the postseason that follows for the Badgers, Happ will go down as one of the most decorated players in program history.
Which brings us to something else Ryan said while Happ was redshirting four years ago. That glorious 2014-15 season wasn’t even two months old when Ryan, during his weekly radio show, gushed about Happ. “He’s going to be,” Ryan said, “one of the better players ever to wear the Badgers uniform.”
Road to UW
Burning the redshirt would have altered the course of Happ’s tremendous run at UW. His logic for not doing so at the time was sound: He figured he’d play some games, sit out others and maybe average 8 to 10 minutes on a team loaded with talent.
Playing the role of spectator while the Badgers rolled to a program-record 36 wins was agonizing at times, but Happ figured he’d have more value to the program as a fifth-year senior than as a true freshman reserve.
If Happ had started the eligibility clock running immediately, he’d have been gone a year ago. Having four full seasons as a starter instead of three also has allowed Happ to rack up more minutes and stats: He’s already the program’s all-time leader in rebounds, is second in blocks and steals, and third in points and assists.
Here’s another what-if scenario: What if Thom Sigel, who’s known Happ since he was 10, hadn’t called Close with a tip back in 2012?
Sigel is the coach at Rock Island High School in the Quad Cities, just up the road from Happ’s hometown of Milan, Illinois. The UW staff had gotten to know Sigel during its pursuit of one of his players, Chasson Randle, in the 2011 class.
Randle ended up picking Stanford over UW and others. Three recruiting cycles after Randle selected the Cardinal, Sigel reached out to Close in an attempt to generate interest in Happ after his sophomore season at Rockridge High School.
Close watched Happ during an AAU tournament in St. Louis during the spring of 2012 and liked what he saw. Only UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay had offered Happ a scholarship when the Badgers became the first high-major program to offer him one after Ryan got a chance to watch Happ during UW’s advanced camp a few months later.
Sigel, who also reached out to Iowa and Northwestern on Happ’s behalf, doesn’t take much credit for his role in the recruiting process. “It wasn’t like he was going to end up at some juco,” Sigel said. “He was going to earn it.”
But what if UW hadn’t recruited Randle? What if Sigel hadn’t placed that call to Close? Would Happ still have ended up with the Badgers?
“I’m guessing we would have seen him,” Close said. “But it was nice to get a jump on everybody. I’m glad it worked out.”
There are moments in time that Happ will remember forever from that whirlwind recruiting process: Getting the scholarship offer in Ryan’s office during their first meaningful conversation. The walk back to Sellery Hall and placing a call to Andrew Johnson, one of his best friends, to share the news. Close applying some not-so-subtle pressure that same day by reminding Happ that UW was low on scholarships and pointing out that some prospects wake up the next morning and commit on the spot. Waiting not even two weeks before going back to Madison and giving an awkward oral commitment to Ryan in the Nicholas Club.
Happ has been with the Badgers for five seasons, but his bond with the program goes back almost seven years: He committed to UW on June 26, 2012. Not once, Happ said, did he consider going back on his word.
Here’s another snapshot: It’s April of 2014, and UW’s season has just ended with a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in the Final Four. Happ is watching at home as a graphic pops on the screen breaking down the Badgers’ roster for the following season.
Losing: Ben Brust. Gaining: Ethan Happ.
Happ saw his name and felt like he’d arrived. “I was like, ‘Let’s go!’” he said. “I’m going to help that team go to another Final Four.”
‘Diamond in the rough’
When Happ committed, he had just turned 16 years old and was 6-foot-7, 200 pounds. No Scout recruiting profile had existed for him until a month earlier, and he wasn’t even ranked at that point.
The UW coaching staff saw someone who was passionate about the game and hungry to improve. He was raw but had a great feel for the game.
“One of those guys,” said UW coach Greg Gard, who took over for Ryan when Happ was a redshirt freshman, “that we felt was kind of a diamond in the rough.”
Happ’s debut came on an otherwise unforgettable night. After raising a Final Four banner prior to the 2015-16 season opener, UW was stunned 69-67 by Western Illinois.
Eighty-five seconds into that game, on UW’s second possession, Happ caught the ball on the left block. He took two dribbles into the paint, used a shot fake to get his man in the air and used a duck-under move before finishing with his left hand.
“Get used to what you just saw right there,” Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin said on the broadcast. “That was a fundamental, Kevin McHale post move. Not the quickest guy on the floor, but he will outwork everyone.”
Now, Happ is 6-10, 237 pounds and will turn 23 in May. He has 2,057 points and counting, not to mention 1,168 rebounds, 405 assists, 145 blocks and 213 steals.
Over and over this season, Happ has been asked about his legacy. His place in the record books is important to him, but he cares more about the wins.
Ask Happ, and he’ll tell you the thing he’s most proud of is his role in “The Shoe Project.” After every home game, Happ meets with a young fan, often from one of Madison’s underrepresented communities, and autographs a pair of his size 15 basketball shoes.
“I think he’s taken a big step on the floor,” Gard said. “He’s come twice as far off the floor.”
Ryan was right: Happ turned out to be one of the better players ever to wear the Badgers uniform.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a player here who’s gotten more out of what he has than Ethan Happ,” UW play-by-play announcer Matt Lepay said. “Too often, we obsess over what he can’t do rather than embrace what he can, which is a lot.”