The park in Clarks Summit, Pa., had two basketball courts – a winners court and a losers court. You couldn't just walk onto the winners court and start playing, you had to earn your way there. Players of all ages, shapes and sizes roamed the two courts. Despite standing six-feet, six-inches tall, 14-year old Evan Maxwell seemed like an easy target for 20-year old players wanting to rule the roost.
"We would earn our way onto the winners court and they would always say, ‘Alright we've got this easy one because they are a bunch of little kids,'" Maxwell stated. "And we'd end up beating them."
When he entered ninth grade at the close of the summer, Maxwell salivated at the opportunity to showcase his skills in front of his peers and begin building his college basketball resume. He soon began playing on the freshman basketball team at Abington Heights High School.
Content with the playing time he received in the early part of the season, Maxwell eventually saw those minutes dwindle to almost nothing. One other person sitting in the stands took notice of this anomaly. His name was John Bucci.
"If [Evan] played eight minutes in a freshman game that was it, and that kind of amazed me," Bucci said.
Bucci was the owner of Backcourt Hoops, an organization that housed boys and girls AAU travel teams. After a game in which Maxwell stepped onto the court for a fraction of a second, Bucci decided to approach him and his parents and set up a meeting. He wanted Maxwell to play for the AAU team he directed, JB Hoops.
"He saw me and was confused as to why I didn't play," Maxwell recalled. "He really just took me under his wing and said, ‘I'm going to turn things around for you. Give me six months of your life and I'll change it.'"
In those days, Maxwell walked around with a hunch in his back. Bucci assured him he'd fix that too.
The first step was to enroll Maxwell into a weightlifting program known as Excel Training. Under the guidance of Jodi Leach, a former strength and conditioning coach at Binghamton, Maxwell began to transform his body. As he made strides in his fitness, it translated into success on the court. According to Bucci, a top-notch strength and conditioning program and a chance to play AAU basketball was not the biggest thing he instilled in Maxwell.
"I made him feel confident," Bucci said. "That's where the hunch in the back came from. He was slouched over because he didn't feel good about himself. Our number one priority when I brought him into our program was to feel good about himself, feel proud to be that tall and take that size he had and use it to his advantage rather than hiding from it."
Coached by Mike Show and Bill Callahan, Maxwell thrived on the AAU circuit. Each summer he'd travel with the team and dominate from the No. 5 spot. However, when he'd return to high school, no matter what improvements he'd made, Maxwell's playing time was not increasing. He was not getting the opportunity to showcase his abilities in high school basketball, regardless of the success he had against stiff competition on the AAU scene. He couldn't understand it. His friends and teammates took notice of his increased skills and versatility. They all knew he was a shoo-in for the varsity team. Despite the overwhelming improvements and support, during his 11th grade year, he was still a member of the junior varsity team.
"It was really hard," Maxwell said. "There were times where I really wanted to quit. I remember being angry and saying, ‘I don't want this anymore. I hate basketball. I can't do it.'"
Ultimately, Maxwell's success in AAU led to offers from Division I schools. Although he could have waited for more offers to come in, Maxwell felt God was leading him to Liberty. He made the decision to sign with the Flames in the fall of 2013.
"I committed to a Division I school before ever starting on a varsity basketball team," Maxwell stated. "It was definitely a God thing."
By his senior year in high school, Maxwell could not be denied. His minutes were still limited at times. Not because of his ability or politics, but rather because the team won games by an average of 32 points.
Upon joining the Flames for the 2014-15 season, Maxwell practiced with veteran big men such as Andrew Smith and James Johnson. Maxwell viewed his new situation as an opportunity to show he could contribute to the program right away. He worked hard in practice, but game days started to resemble his years on the junior varsity team.
"I think last year, there should have been a time I stepped into a bigger role, but the only reason I didn't was because of me," Maxwell stated. "Whatever the decisions were, I didn't realize that you just have to come to work every day. I got comfortable being on the scout team. I just thought there was nothing I could do better to earn it. I just didn't stay consistent."
During the season, Maxwell was invited to go out to dinner with his friend Ellie. There, she introduced him to her father, Ritchie McKay. The associate head coach at Virginia at the time, McKay knew of Maxwell and had even watched some of his games. While Maxwell's minutes on the court were few, McKay noticed a lack of confidence each time his feet touched the hardwood.
"I just asked him when it appeared the coaches had a belief in in him, why didn't he have a belief in himself," McKay recounted. "I didn't know if I had offended him or anything."
Maxwell wasn't offended at all. In fact, he left that night greatly impacted by McKay's question and subsequent advice. Maxwell later sent McKay a text message, letting him know how much the conversation meant to him. The pair had no idea their paths would soon cross again in a much bigger way. On April 1, 2015, McKay returned to the helm of the Liberty men's basketball program. The man who had inspired Maxwell at the dinner table was now his head coach.
"I was really excited when I took the job and I watched [Evan] work out," McKay said. "I thought he had the chance to be really good."
By the time the 2015-16 season rolled around, it became evident Maxwell was right where he belonged as the team's center. He commanded the double team from each opponent right away, often finding creative ways to score underneath the basket. Following Liberty's road game at Princeton on Dec. 17, Maxwell led Liberty in scoring (14.6 ppg) and was No. 2 in the country in field goal percentage (.723). After 28 games, Maxwell is just one of two players to have started every contest for the Flames.
"His play earned him a starting role, but his character, work ethic and personality made me think he's someone you can build around," McKay noted. "He's had a fabulous year for us, but he's still got a ways to go in terms of his improvement. If he does [keep improving], he could play [professionally] and play for a long time."
Early on in the season, Maxwell served as a bulk of the Flames' offense. During the Flames' 12-game skid, he remained consistent, even posting a couple 20-point performances, but he was not happy.
In the month of January, the Flames began to turn their season around. Redshirt sophomore guard and Marquette transfer John Dawson burst onto the scene, becoming another consistent scorer for the Flames. The team also started to grasp the pack-line defense, buying into the coaching staff's philosophies.
Soon, the Flames began sharing the wealth. It did not matter if Maxwell or Dawson had an off night, because there were at least six other guys who could fill in the scoring gap. Now with four games left in the regular season, the Flames find themselves in fourth place in the Big South standings, riding a seven-game win streak, their longest in 12 years. Maxwell is quick to point out the key to the team's recent success.
"We have confidence in each other regardless of what the situation is," Maxwell noted. "We are brothers. We are family. We're not going to give up on each other."
Of course Maxwell's teammates are not the only ones who believe in him. Even in the infant stages of their coach-player relationship, McKay's confidence in Maxwell became reminiscent of the guy who first took chance in him – Bucci. The role McKay has played in Maxwell's life over the last 10 months has churned up memories of Bucci and what he did to change a young basketball player's life. It's that belief McKay has in Maxwell that motivates the big man to keep climbing.
"I believe God has placed [Coach McKay] in my life to challenge me," Maxwell said. "I view it as a responsibility and something I want because without responsibility you can't become great. You have to have that pressure on you. He's trusting me and I'm not going to let him down. I refuse to let him down."
--- By Eric Brown, Assistant Athletics Communications Director for Liberty University
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