When Jordan Hulls grew up learning to shoot the basketball the proper way, his dad, J.C. Hulls, wouldn’t let him shoot more than five feet away from the hoop.
When he first took to the sport, Hulls flung the ball at the hoop, his dad said, because he wasn’t strong enough, but that wasn’t the way to develop a good shooting form.
Until seventh grade, Hulls was never allowed to shoot 3-pointers. His dad, who coached many of his teams growing up, just wanted a player he knew could manage the game.
Now, after four years of college basketball on one of the top teams in the country, Hulls has blossomed into one of the most prolific shooters in IU history, while managing one of the most successful IU men’s basketball teams in recent memory.
As Hulls matured and continued to play basketball, he rarely shot the ball. His teams had success, his dad said, because he did whatever it took for his teams to win, even if that meant acting as the facilitator rather than trying to shoot.
“I was always passing the ball. He always said ‘Just pass. Get the ball where it needs to go. Play defense, take charges,’” Hulls said of his father. “He never really let me shoot, so all the other shooters would spot up.”
Hulls tried out for the Bloomington High School South team his freshman year, and he played a fair number of minutes for the junior varsity squad while dressing for the varsity team.
Even though Hulls was three years younger than several of the players on the varsity squad, he worked his way into the lineup. The team made it all the way to the semi-finals of the Indiana 4A State Basketball Tournament.
As a sophomore, he started alongside four seniors, leading the team right back to the semi-finals again, all the while earning respect for his leadership on and off the court.
“We had really good players with him, but he was the guy who we’d turn to with the game on the line,” BHSS Coach J.R. Holmes said. “He had the ball in his hands to make the decision on where we were going to go down the stretch, and he was the leader of many very good players on that particular team.
“I think four were Division I basketball players, but it was understood who the man was when it got to crunch time.”
Yet, until the end of his junior year, the floor general of one of the best high school basketball programs in Indiana went largely unnoticed by many of the best basketball schools, including the one right down the road.
“I wasn’t really recruited by anybody,” Hulls said. “It was just the way it was. I was just a little kid running around shooting threes and stuff. It was difficult.”
Hulls and his dad said that during his first few years of high school, scouts from programs such as IU, Duke and Purdue would show up at his high school games, but watching the scrawny white kid with the long range wasn’t on their agenda.
That was, until a special Amateur Athletic Union tournament during the spring of his junior year.
While playing with his Indiana Elite AAU team in Pittsburgh during April 2008, Jordan led his team to the tournament title while facing off against one of the top guard prospects in the nation, John Wall, who is now the starting point guard for the Washington Wizards.
Hulls knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer in front of IU Assistant Coach Tim Buckley and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, and he flew home as one of the hottest names on the recruiting trail.
“I remember flying back with him, and he said ‘Dad, I just don’t get it’, and I said ‘I don’t either,’” J.C. said. “‘You’re doing the same thing you’ve always done, so I don’t know why it was such a big deal.’”
After hardly looking at the hometown guard, IU and newly-named Head Coach Tom Crean jumped on board to court Hulls, but the Hoosiers weren’t the obvious choice.
He grew to become a huge Blue Devils fan after Bob Knight left the IU program, donning Duke posters in his room and a Duke license plate on his car in high school.
“Everybody thought he was coming to IU right?” J.C. said. “That’s just an automatic? And not at all.
“He wasn’t really coming here because it wasn’t a right fit at the time, and then Coach Crean gets here.
“Crean basically comes to him and says ‘You’re the right kind of kid. It’s going to be hard, but we want you being the one to come help us, and we think you can do that.’”
His senior season, Hulls would go on to lead BHHS to a 26-0 record en route to an elusive state championship, while being named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball.
But no amount of success could prepare him for what the next two years had in store.
Hulls entered an IU program in the process of rebuilding after losing its former head coach Kelvin Sampson to numerous recruiting violations. The Hoosiers lost scholarships, and many players jumped ship, leaving IU with little to work with.
The Bloomington native was a part of Crean’s first true recruiting class after the Hoosiers opened Crean’s IU career by going 6-25, the fewest wins by an IU basketball team since the 1915-16 season when the team played just 13 games.
During his first season in the candy stripes, Hulls and the Hoosiers lost 21 games — more than he had ever lost during his entire high school basketball career.
Losing wasn’t something he had to adjust to growing up, and it didn’t come without some difficult practices and rough nights on the phone with his dad.
“You couldn’t have prepared yourself for what we had to go through,” Hulls said. “Winning 10 games and winning 12 games my second year, it was definitely a lot harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It was mentally and physically draining, and you didn’t quite know who to talk to or what to do because I came from never losing really my whole life.”
Hulls, though, continued to persevere. In high school, he had developed a gym rat mentality, spending late nights and early mornings working on his shot with his dad or whoever would rebound for him.
Because he lacked the physical gifts some great college basketball players were born with, Hulls knew he had to constantly improve his game.
But hard work wasn’t an easy thing to instill among his teammates, who got discouraged from all the losing.
“He would come in and say ‘I’m the only one shooting in the gym’ or ‘I’m the only one that’s doing this, I’m the only one doing that,’ and I said ‘Well, go grab Derek (Elston),’” J.C. said. “Go grab Mo (Creek), go grab Bobby (Capobianco) and bring them to shoot around.’
“It was a very big maturing process from high school to college, where in high school, the high school coach is telling the other kids ‘Hey, listen to what that kid tells you. He knows what he’s talking about’, but when you get here, a college coach is saying ‘You tell them. I can’t be there all the time, so you take the reigns and go.’”
But promise was on the way.
Feisty freshmen Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo came in during Hulls’ second year. The two players prided themselves on defense and work ethic, and things began to fall into place. Hulls finally had others who were willing to buy into what Crean would call the “365 Club,” a group reserved only for those players who worked on their games every single day.
“We were all saying ‘Man, I’m tired’ and he’d go back in there, and you’d say ‘Jordan, you tired man? What’s up?’” senior forward Christian Watford said. “But that’s just Jordan. He’s got a motor, man. He can go forever and ever and ever. That’s what makes him Jordan.”
Hulls’ work ethic began to spread as the Hoosiers took small steps back to relevance in the college basketball world.
“Seeing him get extra shots made me want to get extra shots,” Watford said. “Seeing the way he shoots the basketball made me want to shoot the basketball as well as I could, and I feel like it’s worked out for the better for both of us.”
Hulls said he saw things begin to take shape the summer before his junior season after Sheehey and Oladipo had a season under their belts and a special prospect, Cody Zeller, was preparing to make his debut on the college basketball scene. Players began to take to the gym more often, without Hulls having to pester them.
The culture change was coming.
The Hoosiers started the season on a roll, winning their first seven games. After a road win against NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Hulls said he began to notice he was a part of a different type of team than during his first two years.
IU went on to beat No. 1 Kentucky just 10 days after the NC State victory and would go on to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed.
Even in losing to the eventual national champions in the Sweet 16, the Hoosiers had made it back to the promised land sooner than either Hulls or his family could have imagined.
And Hulls and the Hoosiers were just getting started.
The Hoosiers now sit on the cusp of an overall No. 1 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and Hulls can tell it’s because of the culture change around the program that his teammates trace right back to his own work ethic.
“We just have guys on the team who want to get better every day, so it’s very competitive in practice,” Hulls said. “That’s what makes us a good team, is that in our practices, we’re going at each other and going against good players, so we’re getting better that way.”
But even he can’t deny the losses and the struggles he went through just to get noticed by his hometown school don’t feed into his motivation to work harder every single day.
“It makes you appreciate winning that much more,” Hulls said. “You definitely hate to lose. I think we have a bunch of guys on this team who are dedicated to not getting back to that place, even though some of the guys weren’t in that situation.
“They can feed off the energy of guys like Derek, myself, Christian, Victor and Will. They can see it in us that we don’t want to go back to that place.”
Hulls said that with the success these last two years have brought, they certainly have flown by. Right now, all that’s on his mind is the next game against Ohio State, his last ever in Assembly Hall.
He knows he started his career as a 6-foot freshman with the questions of more than 17,000 fans to answer. Nevertheless, the doubt and challenges he has overcome while playing on some of the best and worst basketball teams in IU history have made him even stronger.
“There’s a lot of people out there who doubted me,” Hulls said. “They didn’t know if I was fast enough, tall enough, strong enough or whatever, so I feel like over the last four years, I’ve gotten a lot stronger, a lot faster, gotten better at shooting. Just my overall game has gotten better.”
Holmes was one of the first to give Hulls a chance when he came into high school, and he said after Hulls finishes this season, all he needs is one more person to believe in him to be able to continue his career as a basketball player at the professional level.
He’s got the skills, Holmes said. All he needs is an opportunity.
“If someone will give him a chance,” Holmes said. “Sometimes they get into that point where they look at size and quickness and dunking and stuff like that. If they check out the heart and the work ethic and the leadership ability and someone gives him a chance, I think there’s an opportunity for him to play on.”
J.C. thinks the sky is the limit for his son.
“He’s got a dream, and his dream is to play at the next level,” he said. “Can he play at the next level? I don’t know. People have told him he could, that he has a shot at it because of the things he does, how he shoots, how he sees the floor. The things he does are still valued.”