LARAMIE – Ask Sundance Wicks to tell you a story, and you’re guaranteed to come away with a tale that’ll stick with you for quite some time.
You can ask him about his first name. Coming from “a family of Bobs and Marys,” Wicks admits he had his questions about its origins for a time. He’ll tell you how his father had what Wicks affectionately refers to as a “spiritual moment” where the name, partly derived from a Native American ceremony, partly from the name of a ranch and maybe even a little bit from the film festival, came to him. His mother originally was not in favor of the name but, eventually, she caved to the universe’s wishes.
“It must have just been that spiritual or painful of a birth that my mom signed off,” Wicks said with a laugh.
Then he’ll inform you, tongue in cheek, that when USA beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings named her son Sundance, and it was recognized as one of the top baby names of the year, it wasn’t earned.
“I earned a life of Sundance,” said Wicks, who was dubbed “Sunny-D” going through school. “Instead, I just get people asking, ‘Where’s Butch Cassidy?’”
Or Wicks could tell you the story of how after a star basketball career at Campbell County High in Gillette, he had a scholarship offer to his dream school, the University of Wyoming. His earliest photographs feature him wearing brown and gold. It’s the only place he ever wanted to be. Then he’d finish that anecdote by telling you that after then coach Larry Shyatt departed for Clemson, the new coaching staff chose to take his scholarship offer away, forcing him to leave the state he adores to pursue his basketball dreams.
Wicks could also divulge how, when he and the rest of the coaching staff at Northern Illinois were relieved of their duties, he was without a job and started a training academy in Arizona, a place where he had no connections and no clients. He’d then admit that he lived out of his car for a time in 2011, but that academy had grossed $750,000 just four years later.
Wicks, who recently left his head coaching position at Missouri Western University to join new UW coach Jeff Linder’s staff as an assistant, has taken an unconventional path back to Wyoming. It’s been filled with enough highs and lows to fill a few chapters of a novel.
But you’ll never hear him complain or feel sorry for himself. Instead, he’ll respond with a smile, a laugh and tell you it was all worth it on a windy road toward self-actualization.
No grudges, no slights. Only gratitude for having been on the journey.
“What toughness really is, it’s not talking about it. It’s fighting through those times that really seem bleak,” Wicks said. “Life is going to hit you a lot harder than a box out.”
Wicks was raised outside of Gillette. Not a suburb, rather a trailer park in the country until his family could afford a home, he said. His mother taught at the high school and a father was a painter, though Wicks likes to thinks of his father as more of an “artist.” His parents were both athletic, with his father having played football at Washington State and his mother being a volleyball player. Wicks did some of the hard work with his father, and it was then he looked to his mother for inspiration: education could get him as far as he wanted to go. He vowed to his mother he would graduate from college with multiple degrees.
The plan was, of course, to get those degrees from his dream school in Laramie. After starring at Campbell County in basketball, football, and track and field (he won state championships in all three as a senior), he was prepared to make the trek four hours south.
What happened next is fairly well known in these parts: Steve McClain – who had been hired to replace Shyatt – opted to take Cheyenne East’s Marcus Bailey over Wicks with the scholarship. Bailey, of course, had a standout career for the Cowboys before injuring his knee as a senior. Wicks went to Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he played for the legendary Don Meyer.
Was a Division II program Wicks’ first choice? Of course not. But Wicks likes to think he got something out of it, regardless. It was another hard-learned lesson in toughness and put a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder.
“You’re always going to use anything as motivation, right?” Wicks said. “It isn’t because I didn’t want to play at the highest level. … I wanted to be a Cowboy, and that’s why I followed them to this day.”
It was under Meyer that Wicks started to blossom, and not just as an athlete. He was, of course, a tremendous piece for the Wolves, earning all-conference honors twice in both basketball and as a hurdler for the track and field team. But under Meyer’s tutelage, Wicks found his passion for coaching. Meyer coached for 38 seasons at the collegiate level, compiling 923 overall victories while at one point holding the NCAA all-division record with 903 wins. He died following a battle with cancer in 2014.
Meyer taught Wicks the value of teaching others and of persevering through the worst of times. After graduating from Northern State with a degree in international business in 2003, Wicks played abroad in Sweden for the Sodertalje Kings. He then came back to Northern State and earned a master’s degree in health, physical education and science, fulfilling that promise he made to his mother.
“It was a mission,” Wicks said.
Wicks joined Meyer’s staff as a graduate assistant before taking assistant coaching jobs at Colorado and Northern Illinois. When coach Ricardo Patton was fired by NIU in 2011, Wicks was a casualty, as well. That also happened to coincide with a housing crisis.
After his tenure in DeKalb, Illinois, ended, Wicks headed to Las Vegas to help train NBA prospects, including Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas. It was not a job, however, as he was working as a volunteer. He spent his time living out his car and on a friend’s couch.
“That’s not an easy path to go down,” Linder said. “And people find out right away.”
He then took a plunge and bet on himself, deciding to open a basketball academy in Arizona. Wicks was homeless for a total of eight months between Las Vegas and Arizona, he said, again sleeping in his car and then living out of the MMA gym he planned to use for his training until he made enough money to pay $400 per month in rent for housing in Mesa, Arizona.
“There’s a lot of people that have had it a lot worse than I’ve ever had it,” Wicks said. “That question (of if it’s worth it) runs through your mind more than you’d like to think.”
Former NBA star Mike Miller, a South Dakota native Wicks knew from his time in Aberdeen, built a small, quarter gym at the facility, Power MMA, which Wicks was able to rent. That then grew into a full-on business, the Arizona Basketball Power Academy, where he was the director and an instructor until 2015. He had 375 kids participating in his development programs, Wicks said.
Wicks then left the academy for an assistant coaching job at the University of San Francisco before coming back to South Dakota as Northern State’s associate head coach from 2016-18. Wicks helped lead the Wolves to their first national title game appearance in 2018 and was later given the keys to Missouri Western University’s program.
As the Griffons’ head coach, Wicks led the Division II program to 18 wins last season, the most for the program in a decade. But when Linder, who Wicks knew by virtue of coaching being a small fraternity, asked if he wanted to join his staff, it was a no-brainer. Linder’s former assistant at Northern Colorado, Steve Smiley, was Wicks’ college roommate. When it became clear Smiley would be the Bears’ next head coach, Linder inquired about Wicks.
“My question was, can he kind of replace what (Smiley) brought in terms of the energy, the ability to work with players?” Linder said. “(Wicks’) energy level is at the .0001% of energy in the world.”
Was going from head coach back to assistant strange? Admittedly, yes. But the chance to finally live out his brown-and-gold dreams was too good to pass up. And working with someone he considers to be a basketball savant was a pretty solid perk, too.
Before even being offered the job, Wicks was onboard. There was a $15,000 buyout clause for him at Missouri Western; Wicks paid it himself, Linder said.
“He didn’t even blink,” Linder said. “(Guys like him) take the job and then ask what the salary is going to be … That’s how much he believed in what we were going to do at the University of Wyoming.”
Wicks doesn’t hold any ill will toward the school that shunned him two decades ago. Instead, he shows grace and excitement in another chance to better himself.
“There’s a very massive difference between sliding over 16 inches (on the bench),” Wicks said. “(But) it’s never about taking a step back. If you’re someone who’s always seeking wisdom … you could find that from any walk of life.”
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic putting sports on indefinite hiatus, Wicks is admittedly anxious to work with his new players. He feels like a wild animal in a cage, he said, unable to put his energy to maximum productivity. Wicks’ energy is infectious. His passion comes through in everything he does, whether it’s a simple phone call or by way of his Twitter feed. Wicks loves what he does, and it’s hard not to have that spirit rub off on you.
"I'm going to be really excited to work with Coach Wicks," UW signee Jeremiah Oden said. "He'll be a big piece to help me get to where I want to be."
Wicks calls it his “juice,” and says that he and everyone else have to bring their version of it every single day. No one’s is quite the same, but everyone’s brings something to the table and makes the collective that much stronger. That’s exactly how Linder wants his staff to be; there needs to be a genuine camaraderie among the coaches, because players will see through the charade pretty quickly.
Linder considers himself “black and white”; he is admittedly intense. Wicks excels at building relationships with players, at being a shoulder to lean on when they need it most. Wicks is a perfect yin to Linder’s yang.
“I know that my personality needs to be offset,” Linder said. “I don’t need four Jeff Linders on staff.”
Given everything Wicks has gone through, the spiritual origins of his first name are somewhat fitting. Wicks has leaned on his faith to get him through moments that might have broken lesser people. But at the end of the day, he said, he wouldn’t change a thing about the journey, his name or who he’s become.
Moments of heartache have brought Wicks to this point in his life and, if he’s being honest, it doesn’t do much good to measure one’s path against anyone else’s. You are where you are for a reason, even if it doesn’t always make sense at the moment.
Much as no one’s “juice” is exactly the same, no one’s story is, either, Wicks believes. And that’s what makes the successes so special.
“I’m only really good at being who I am,” Wicks said. “Stay loyal to your journey … and don’t compare journeys, but learn.”