Badgers senior Ethan Happ fueled by quiet determination to prove naysayers wrong
ROCK ISLAND COUNTY, Ill. — The challenge is finding the proper dateline, those words in capital letters at the start of this paragraph.
The dateline lets the reader know where the reporting for this feature story about Ethan Happ — small-town kid makes it big with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team — took place. That’s typically a no-brainer part of a piece, but it’s complicated this time.
Technically, Happ is from Milan, a village in Illinois that is just south of the Quad Cities. Poll its 5,800 residents and you’ll find a cross-section of two Big Ten fan bases: Iowa — its campus in Iowa City is only 60 miles away — and Illinois.
Before we go any further, the pronunciation is MILE-uhn. That’s an important distinction because Happ once attended a basketball camp near Chicago and, before the start of an all-star game at the event, his hometown was pronounced as mi-LAHN. Fellow campers were confused and asked him if he was really from Italy.
Duane Dawson, who has been Milan’s mayor for 34 years, hasn’t met Happ but says “he’s a big name around here” and is more than happy to claim the star as one of the town’s own. “Everything I’ve heard about him is he’s just a great young man,” said Dawson, who reveals his rooting interests with his next sentence. “The only disappointment was he didn’t go to the University of Iowa.”
Another dateline option is Taylor Ridge, an even smaller town located southwest of Milan. Depending on which recruiting site you were looking at back when Happ committed to the Badgers back in 2012, Taylor Ridge might have been listed as Happ’s hometown. That’s because it’s in the mailing address for Rockridge High School, where Happ made a name for himself prior to his arrival at UW.
Rockridge is a must-stop when searching for details on how Happ’s upbringing made him who he is, but it’s not actually located in Taylor Ridge. It’s in Edgington, an unincorporated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet a little to the west.
The compromise for this dateline is Rock Island County, which encompasses all of these aforementioned stops on the trail. But even that’s a copout, because Happ will tell you he’s from South Milan, which doesn’t appear on any maps but is a very real place to the people who live there.
While coining his rural neighborhood as South Milan began as a running joke, Happ takes pride in telling people that’s where he’s from and has gone out of his way more than once to shout it — or, rather, have someone else shout it — to the masses.
Early in his redshirt freshman season with the Badgers, knowing some neighborhood friends were going to be at the game, Happ pulled aside UW public-address announcer Mike Mahnke and asked that he change Happ’s hometown to South Milan for the day. Mahnke agreed to do it, and the only few souls at the Kohl Center who probably even noticed during starting lineup introductions were tickled pink.
On Senior Day earlier this month, with over 30 of Happ’s family members and friends in attendance, Mahnke did it again.
From South Milan, Illinois … Ethan Happ!
The headquarters of the unofficial Ethan Happ Fan Club is a red pole barn and its owner, Kelly Stevens, is the self-proclaimed mayor of South Milan. The way he describes it, it’s more state of mind than location.
“We figure the south side of any town is kind of the rougher side,” Stevens said, “so we like to be considered the worst of the worst.”
The original purpose of the pole barn, built in 2005, was as a practice area for Kelly and Sandy Stevens’ two sons when the weather turned cold. There’s a basketball hoop and enough space for a 3-point line, with plenty of room to work on shooting and ball-handling drills.
These days, the building’s primary function is for watch parties hosted by the Stevens. One of the corners includes three televisions, along with couches and chairs. The room is filled with Rockridge nostalgia, from the eight team photos on the wall to an old scorer’s table from the school that holds pot-luck items when family and friends gather there.
There’s even an adjacent VIP room that includes a designated brown leather chair for Happ’s father, Randy. While Iowa décor dominates the room — Kelly and Sandy are Hawkeyes at heart — there’s a UW section above the TV in the corner.
For proof that the star of South Milan doesn’t get preferential treatment, Stevens shares an anecdote from early in Happ’s career with the Badgers. He was a redshirt freshman at the time, and the Stevens had traveled to Madison with the Happs to watch Ethan play. They hung out with him beforehand and gave him a ride to the game in the Happs’ van, which only had four seats. No problem: Happ folded up his 6-foot-10 frame and took a seat in the back on a bean-bag chair that was taped in spots to prevent it from spilling beans all over the place.
When the group arrived in front of the Kohl Center, Kelly opened up the back of the van and helped out Happ. After swatting him on the rear end and telling him to have a good game, Kelly’s parting shot was a reality check of sorts.
“You might be big (expletive) up here in Madison,” Stevens told him, “but you’re bean-bag boy back in South Milan.”
An All-State player during his high school days in Illinois, Toby Whiteman was on a break from coaching basketball when in May 2011 he interviewed for a teaching position in the Rockridge school district.
Whiteman’s hiatus ended when school officials, who were having trouble filling the boys basketball coaching position, asked Whiteman if he’d be interested. There was a pretty big selling point: Whiteman was told over and over the Rockets were going to be good the next few seasons because there was a lot of talent in the district.
The player touted the most was a tall eighth grader who already could dunk. Bryan Heath did end up being an excellent player both at Rockridge and his next stop, scoring over 1,400 career points as a four-year starter at NCAA Division II Michigan Tech.
But the better college prospect ended up being a fast-growing forward who was a year older than Heath. Happ, who’d sprouted from 5-foot-11 to 6-7 in two years, averaged 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds as a sophomore in Whiteman’s first season and was drawing recruiting traffic the following spring.
It’s been well-documented how that process didn’t take long to play out. Happ had scholarship offers from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay before landing one from the Badgers; he took less than two weeks to accept it in June 2012.
“That raised the hype and kind of put a target on him, but he handled it so well his junior and senior year,” said Katy Hasson, the principal at Rockridge. “He’d always get the opponents’ best, without a doubt.”
One particular anecdote is so bizarre it seems too good to be true, but Happ and others confirmed it: At some point during his high school career, Happ arrived at midcourt for the opening tip and was standing across from an opponent who was giving up at least five inches to Happ. That didn’t stop the kid from pretending he was starting a chainsaw, noises and all, and informing Happ he was going to cut him down to size.
Happ stood in stunned silence, then promptly won the tip and spent the rest of the game dominating.
What was no laughing matter to Whiteman was how much Happ was being hacked during his junior season. Whiteman drew a lot of technical fouls during games and once was ejected when he broke through Happ’s grip and charged an official to complain about a no-call. Frustrated and concerned about Happ’s safety, Whiteman even placed a call to the Illinois High School Association to complain.
Off the court, Happ didn’t let the success go to his head. He was a future Division I athlete, but both Whiteman and Hasson said he never showed it.
When it came time to sign his national letter of intent early in his senior year at Rockridge, Happ said he didn’t want to have a ceremony. He simply signed it and faxed it to UW. “He didn’t want the show,” Whiteman said. “He’s just that kind of guy.”
Randy and Teresa Happ moved to their home in rural Milan in 1997. The family had lived in Rock Island but wanted to move to a smaller district. Rockridge, which has 365 students in its high school and about 1,000 in kindergarten through 12th grade, was a good fit.
Across from the street from the Happs lived the Johnsons, who had two sons the same age. It’s notable that the first person Ethan called after receiving a scholarship offer from UW during an advanced camp back in 2012 was Luke Johnson. They’d been friends for as long as they could remember.
Each day after school, the Happ and Johnson boys would hop off the bus and start playing football or Wiffle ball or basketball. It was always 2-on-2: Ethan and Luke, who were the same age, were on one team; Eric Happ and Alex Johnson, who were each two years older, were on the other.
“I won’t lie to you, it definitely got heated,” Luke Johnson said. “There were a lot of times where the night was cut early because someone got too mad and the parents said we were done for the night.”
All four kids ended up playing college athletics. Eric Happ played basketball at Carl Sandburg College, while Alex and Luke Johnson both played football at UW-Platteville.
“We loved the competition,” Luke said. “We loved the challenge of trying to beat our older brothers. If we did, they wouldn’t hear the end of it until we played the next day.”
Don’t worry, be happy
According to Teresa Happ, her role in the making of one of the best players to wear a UW uniform was relatively simple.
“My job was keeping him fed and washing the uniforms,” she said. “A lot of gallons of milk and jars of peanut butter to keep him growing.”
On the Sunday morning between Ethan’s final two home games with the Badgers, the family sat down for breakfast in Madison and reminisced. It was an emotional trip down memory lane, according to Teresa, who is more proud of the man he’s become than his accomplishments as a player.
“He’s just always been an all-around good kid. Always humble and kind,” she said before pausing, “except when he’s on the basketball court.”
Teresa keeps thinking back to something her mother always said about Ethan. Frances Baratta watched plenty of his games, from grade school to Rockridge and even some at UW before she passed away in 2016, and would gush about how much joy it gave her to see him having fun on the court.
That’s all Teresa asks for, as well. Before UW hosted unbeaten Michigan on Jan. 19, with Happ and the Badgers mired in a slump in which they’d lost four times in five games, Teresa told him to be more like the kid playing out in the front driveway. She wanted to see less stress and more smiles.
“From her vantage point,” Ethan said, “she thinks that when it looks like I’m having fun out there is when I’m playing the best.”
Does he agree with that assessment?
“I think there’s a time and a place to be happy and joking on the court,” he said. “But I think there are more times when you have to have a killer mentality and I don’t think my mom really understands the killer mentality side of it.”
That competitive nature — along with Ethan’s dogged work ethic and tendency to be stubborn — comes from his father. Nobody disputes that.
Randy Happ can be gruff and demanding, he fully admits, but he’s a softie compared to his father. James Happ was a youth coach who would make his little leaguers do duck walks around the outfield to strengthen their lower bodies. Another childhood memory for Randy is the time his dad sat his best players so his team would lose. Why? Because he held a grudge from the previous season and didn’t want a team coached by his best friend to make the playoffs.
Given that backdrop, it’s easy to see why Randy is the way he is and, by extension, why Ethan is the way he is.
Some of Randy’s motivational tactics were subtle. He’d take Eric and Ethan to games at nearby Augustana College, pointing out how great the crowd was and noting how cool it would be to play in an atmosphere like that someday.
“It was kind of an inspiring moment and like, ‘Wow, I want to be one of those kids when I grow up,’ ” Eric Happ said. “That was our motivation. ‘OK, if you want to get to this level, then this is what you need to do.’ ”
That carrot dangling on the end of the stick gave the Happ brothers some perspective during the daily grind of Randy’s summer workout program. Before leaving for work each day, he’d attach a sheet of paper to a clipboard and hang it in the garage. It contained a spreadsheet filled with drills Eric and Ethan needed to complete that day, a list that ranged from shooting to defensive slides to dribbling around cones. For every drill they’d do with their right hand, Eric and Ethan had to do twice as many with their left hand.
As both a coach and a father, Randy expected a lot from his sons. His favorite line when a chore wasn’t done properly or the boys’ work ethic didn’t match his expectations, according to Ethan: If I was your boss, I’d fire your ass.
Still, Ethan calls Randy his best friend and they speak every day. That relationship speaks to how a father pushed his kid hard without going overboard and how his son developed a thick skin through sharp critiques because he saw the purpose behind those words and actions.
“It’s on the kid,” Ethan said. “At times, I would be like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t stand this guy.’ And then an hour would pass or depending on how mad I was, a day would pass and I’d realize he did it because he loves me. He wasn’t doing it to piss me off. He’s trying to help me.”
These days, Randy still offers coaching points but is mindful not to overdo it. He missed only two UW home games during the four seasons Ethan played, offering non-verbal support from his spot high in section 125: When Ethan leaves the floor at halftime and during games, he always looks up to his father; Randy often responds with a thumps up when things are going well or, when they’re not, implores his son to “be tougher” by flexing his muscles at him.
After games, win or lose, they’ll go out to grab something to eat and try to focus on non-basketball topics. Randy will remember the past five years as 99 percent great. The other one percent has been tough because he hasn’t been able to block out the noise as criticism of his son has mounted, particularly when it comes to Ethan’s free throw struggles.
“But I would do it all over again,” Randy said. “We’d do another five years if we could do it.”
Eric Happ is like his father in that he has a difficult time blocking out the Ethan naysayers. “That stuff always sticks with me,” he said, “and it shouldn’t.”
Everyone in his inner circle seems to have a story about the doubters who have circled around Ethan for nearly a decade. For Eric, who was a junior when Ethan got moved up to the varsity level as a freshman, it was the reaction from the older players on that team who questioned that development.
For Stevens, it was whispers from rival communities when Happ committed to UW because they thought he wasn’t good enough to play at the Big Ten Conference level.
Johnson, Happ’s friend for life, already has begun fielding questions from the next set of skeptics.
“People always ask me, because I’m close to him, if I think he’s going to make it in the NBA,” Johnson said. “And I don’t even hesitate: Yeah. There’s not a doubt in my mind and the people back home in South Milan believe it. Maybe we’re biased.
“All the ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ it’s the worst thing you can say to him because all it is, is fuel. It’s not going to piss him off and get in his head. It’s going to piss him off and he’s going to go work harder.”
Happ appreciates that people back home have his back and makes an attempt to return every text message, even those from people he doesn’t communicate with on a regular basis. He feels loved and wants his fan club to know he appreciates the support.
“I’ve known from Day One, whether I came here and flopped and didn’t get any minutes or I came here and did the things that I’ve done,” he said, “I knew that everyone was going to be around me and support me the whole way through.”