Surrounded by community, Ohio State's E.J. Liddell is picked by New Orleans in NBA draft

The bus was waiting as the two coaches finished their conversation outside. E.J. Liddell was in the process of defending both his title as Illinois Mr. Basketball as well as the first state title in Belleville West history, and his current coach was talking with his future one.

Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann had taken a private jet to watch Liddell, who was signed to play for the Buckeyes in the 2019 class, and as the Maroons boarded the bus he wrapped up a conversation with coach Joe Muniz.

As he did, Holtmann told Muniz what was ahead for Liddell when he got to the Big Ten. He will struggle, Holtmann told Muniz. All freshmen do. But it will be about how he gets through it that will determine whether he becomes a great player.

Liddell, in other words, would have to prove it all over again. Three years, two first-team all-Big Ten selections and more than 1,000 points later, Liddell was surrounded by more than 200 friends and family members inside the St. Clair Country Club when NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced the 41st pick in the 2022 NBA draft.

When he did, and Liddell heard his name called out on the broadcast projected onto a giant screen, a cacophony of sound swept through the room and shook the floor. Liddell was headed to New Orleans, but for the moment he couldn’t lift his head from his hands as he wept.

He had hoped to go higher in the draft. He could feel the collective anxiety growing in the room as 40 other players were selected ahead of him. But now, Liddell has a team and a clear focus on what comes next.

“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole, entire life so this isn’t anything new,” Liddell said, still wiping tears from his eyes a few moments later. “I’m gonna keep doing that until the day I’m gone. I’m happy they took a chance on me and I appreciate them for the opportunity.”

Now there’s work to be done. But as Liddell, his family and his former coaches all said, that’s just fine. He's already proven up to the task.

Three ballrooms were commandeered to house the Liddell draft party. Upon entry, guests chose from a multicolored assortment of plastic whistles and hand-clappers before passing a framed No. 32 Ohio State jersey and a photo of the star of the hour – labeled “Eric Liddell” – dunking while playing for the Maroons.

The entryway featured a photo backdrop as well as a life-size cardboard cutout of Liddell in an Ohio State jersey, although Keith Randolph, current Illinois defensive lineman and former Liddell teammate at West, jokingly disputed his height as he measured up next to it. Each table featured black, gray and red balloons anchored by photos of Liddell.

By 6:30 p.m. Central time, the room was relatively full as those in attendance settled in for a meal catered by Buffalo Wild Wings. When Liddell committed to Ohio State, he did so at the BW3’s just across IL-15 from his alma mater where two of his cousins still work.