Drexel's Inspiration Courtside at games, the Dragons and their fans listen for one voice - the voice of Calvin Hicks.

Posted: February 27, 2007

Something was missing from the sound track.

Students inside the sold-out Daskalakis Athletic Center screeched during Drexel's Jan. 27 game against Virginia Commonwealth. The cheerleaders chanted. The referees tweeted. The coaches barked. The players grunted.

Still, it all sounded hollow and a little empty.

Where was the familiar mantra of Dragons basketball, the impassioned, nonstop shrieks of "De-fennnnnn-se! De-fennnnnn-se!" that typically accompanied their games like a drumbeat?

"I watch tapes of our games and, believe me, sometimes that's all you can hear," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said.

Then someone in the stands, perhaps one of the hundreds who were wearing T-shirts that bore this late arrival's name and photo, spotted him.

Calvin Hicks, in a wheelchair and wearing sweats instead of a pinstriped suit, was entering the building.

The sight of Drexel's longtime basketball manager touched off a scream of recognition that quickly built into an arena-wide ovation. By the time the 2,511 fans had risen to their feet, they were chanting his name, "Cal-vin! Cal-vin! Cal-vin! Cal-vin!

"I never saw anything like it," said Johnson Bowie, Drexel's senior associate athletic director. "Five minutes into a game and the crowd was on its feet for a basketball manager."

Normally, Hicks, who is 44, 5-foot-6, and mentally challenged, would have accompanied the Dragons out of the locker room, then taken a seat near courtside, where fans have grown accustomed to his constant bellowing, his prodigious hot-dog consumption, and his intense scrutiny of every move his "Uncle Bru" - Flint - makes.

Lately though, Hicks' legs have failed him. Hicks used to be on his feet for long stretches of every game and power-walked continuously during daily practices - "He says he does it so he can look good and check out all the girls," said Geoff Arnold, Drexel's associate head coach. But Hicks no longer can move without pain.

Drexel's version of the inspirational title character from the film Radio has stopped, after more than a decade of doing so, traveling with the Dragons. He can't get to every practice and he has to be driven to and from home games.

"The more he's not here," Bowie said, "the more people miss him."

Flint's Dragons finished the regular season 22-7 overall and 13-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association on Saturday, earning a fourth seed and a first-round bye in the league tournament. On Saturday, they will play the winner of Friday's game between Northeastern and Delaware.

As Drexel makes a run for the CAA title and the NCAA berth that goes with it, Hicks' absences have taken on a special significance within a blossoming program that has never had a more devoted supporter.

Players worry about him. "He means a lot to us," senior guard Bashir Mason said. "It's hard to see him struggling."

Calvin Hicks bobbleheads will be sold as a fund-raiser. Students already wear the T-shirts, which display his favorite phrase, "Defense wins championships." At home games, they have begun to wait so fervently for his arrival that it sometimes seems as if their attention is diverted from the court.

The basketball staff bought him a radio so he could hear Dan Baker's road-game broadcasts, and they anxiously await his daily phone calls.

"Tell them boys to win for me" is Hicks' typical pregame message.

The West Philadelphian has been a fixture at Drexel sporting events since the late 1980s, when George Griffin, a firefighter at the 43d and Market Streets station who had befriended him, took Hicks to a Dragons soccer game.

Drexel sports quickly became an obsession. He attended every team's games and practices, but eventually latched on to Bill Herrion's basketball program. He has stayed through 16 years and two coaching changes, readying the players' water bottles, sternly lecturing them in word-for-word replays of Flint's speeches, attending dinners with recruits, and, until recently, traveling with the Dragons.

"I love my Uncle Bru and Drexel very much," Hicks said. "I love everybody."

"There's not a player who has been here who, when I see him, doesn't ask about Cal right away," said Arnold, who roomed with Hicks on the road and frequently drove him back and forth to his home on 40th Street.

"I ran into Malik Rose [a Drexel graduate who plays with the New York Knicks] on Market Street last summer, and the first thing he said was, 'How's Cal?' Everyone who's played here loves him and has been extremely protective of him. And it's not just athletes. Our maintenance guy stopped me the other day and asked if there was anything he could do for him."

Jay Overcash, a former player, bought Hicks a cell phone and calls him every night. When Arnold got his job, the first thing former Dragons assistant John O'Connor told him was to "take care of Cal." Arnold drops in on him regularly. Flint buys the manager a new suit at the start of each season.

"But Calvin likes to eat hot dogs so much that by the end of each year it's covered with mustard stains," Flint said with a laugh.

This recent, sudden disruption in the central aspect of Hicks' life has concerned his Drexel friends.

Trainer Mike Westerfer has made doctor's appointments for him, hoping that the problem with his legs will be discovered and that his precise mental condition will be identified. Flint sometimes sends the team bus to pick him up for home games, and recently the Dragons visited Hicks in the tiny bedroom of the Powelton Village house he shares with family members.

"If you're having a bad day," Bowie said, "when Calvin walks into the room, you're suddenly having a great day. He's one of the few people you'll ever meet who absolutely has no mean streak. He's just pure and innocent and always positive."

Hicks used to spend his days - and sometimes his nights - kibitzing with the firemen at 43d and Market. He often ate and slept there, and Griffin, who was an assistant soccer coach at Drexel at the time, became especially close to him. In fact, Hicks, who is African American, refers to Griffin, who is white, as his father.

Almost everyone else - Flint, assistant coaches, and most of the players, past and present - he calls "Uncle."

Herrion noticed him at basketball practices and gave him some menial duties. Soon Hicks was teasing players and coaches and getting teased in return. "You're killing me!" and "I got you good!" are his favorite comments, depending on whether he's the teaser or the teasee.

"Sometimes new guys might be a little reluctant to get into it with Cal because of his condition," Arnold said. "But pretty soon they're right in there with him. They realize he gives as good as he takes."

Hicks soon became such an integral part of the program that Herrion allowed him to travel. He rarely missed a game. This year, his health prevented him from making the trip to Syracuse, N.Y., where on Dec. 19 the Dragons scored one of the most significant wins in school history. Afterward, the coaches called Hicks and jokingly told him they didn't want him on the road anymore.

Last season, Duke head manager Mike Jarvis Jr. sent Calvin some Blue Devils clothing. He wore it so often and so proudly that it took Flint some effort to get the manager to admit he still loved Drexel more.

"He's given so much to Drexel and Drexel in return has given a lot to Cal," Arnold said.

When Flint got the Drexel job in 2001, the first person he met was Hicks.

"I walk into my office and Calvin is already in there waiting for me," Flint recalled. "I had no idea who this guy was. And before I can ask him, he says, 'Can I still travel with the team?' "

If nothing else, while Hicks has been disabled, Drexel has been saving money on its water bill. The manager has a penchant for hourlong showers.

"He gets in there and he likes to cover himself with a mountain of lather until he looks like the Abominable Snowman," Arnold said. "One day Charles Smith [the former NBA player who is now a TV analyst] was dressing at his locker. Cal wanted to meet him and, all lathered up, he came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. Charles turned around and you never saw a guy jump so high."

During games, Hicks' voice is so powerful that it takes opponents and fans a while to adjust to it. When Drexel played UCLA at Madison Square Garden last year, Flint said, 15 college scouts sitting close to him couldn't get any work done amid his bellowing cry.

"But the amazing thing," Flint said, "is that he never, ever gets hoarse."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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