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Jersey no more: Duluth East boys basketball retires Rickert’s No. 44

Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Former Duluth East star Rick Rickert looks at his high school jersey Saturday during a ceremony in which his No. 44 was retired.1 / 3
Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com With family looking on, Rick Rickert is introduced Saturday during a ceremony to retire his No. 44 Duluth East jersey.2 / 3
Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Lew Rickert, father of former Duluth East star Rick Rickert, speaks during Saturday's ceremony in which his son's No. 44 jersey was retired.3 / 3

Ever since he was hired as Duluth East's coach in 2012, it's puzzled Rhett McDonald to see just one retired jersey — the No. 22 of former Greyhound girls great and 1985 Minnesota Miss Basketball Denise Holm-Olson — hanging on the gym wall.

"You wonder why the heck is there only one jersey up there," McDonald said.

He won't have to wonder any longer.

After Saturday, Rick Rickert's No. 44 also is off-limits. And for good reason.

A transcendental talent who, at 6-foot-11, had the size of a center but the skill set of a guard, Rickert put together one of the finest high school basketball careers in Northland history. Playing in front of packed gyms and a who's who of big-time college coaches — Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Arizona's Lute Olson, for example — Rickert was named Mr. Basketball and Associated Press player of the year in 2001, when he carried East to a second-place finish at the Class AAAA state tournament.

That unlikely run represents Rickert's fondest prep memory.

"We kind of got rolling at the end of the season and kept winning and winning and winning," he said. "We didn't have the most talented team, but we played together very well. And that allowed us to be a very, very competitive team, a very good team that could have won a championship. We fell short, but just to be a part of that and be in that game with my guys, that was pretty special."

Rickert, recently retired from a 15-year professional career overseas, was in town Saturday with his wife, Cici, and their 9-year-old daughter, Pepper, who's about to become a big sister. The family lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, but was happy to make the homecoming trek, back to where it all began for Rickert.

His cross-country travels notwithstanding, perhaps the most challenging bit of navigating for Rickert occurred once he got to Duluth. He had to find the high school. It's not the same building he attended, thanks to the school district's Red Plan.

"To me, this is Ordean Middle School," he said.

Rickert's pro career brought him around the globe. He spent a year apiece in Slovenia, Greece, Spain and Germany, about four years in New Zealand and the past seven in Japan. Saturday, it looked like he'd hardly left. Rickert seemed to know every person that entered the gym, whether they were there for his ceremony or for East's game against Blaine.

It's one of the reasons his jersey retirement was so meaningful.

"It's been an incredible journey, and I couldn't have done it without you," Rickert told the crowd from midcourt, shortly before McDonald and East athletics director Shawn Roed unveiled his white No. 44, which was framed and resting on an easel.

Rickert's father, Lew Rickert, offered a similar sentiment.

"It takes a community to raise a child," dad said.

That community watched 18 years ago as the younger Rickert, a McDonald's All-American, stunned the college basketball world by flipping his commitment from Olson's Arizona Wildcats to the home-state Gophers. He went on to become Big Ten freshman of the year and earned a pair of All-Big Ten honors in two seasons, before he was drafted by the Timberwolves.

"It's incredible when you add up all the accomplishments," McDonald said. "He's one of these kids that I probably consider to be on the Mount Rushmore of high school basketball."

The NBA didn't pan out — thanks, in part, to Kevin Garnett's sucker punch during a Wolves scrimmage — but Rickert doesn't have any regrets. He got to see the world as a professional athlete.

"I don't think someone can expect any of that no matter where their career leads. Because it's just so far out of a normal life and a normal expectation," Rickert said. "There's no way in my wildest dreams I could have imagined ... whether I played 15 years in the NBA or 15 years overseas, that doesn't really matter. It's just kind of a crazy, crazy lifestyle and so much happens.

"It's indescribable. It's really cool."

Rickert insists he still could play. Give him a month, he said, and he'd be ready to go. It's time to start a new chapter, though, "because I won't be able to play basketball forever," the 35-year-old said.

"Fifteen years of professional ball, and now he has to get a real job like the rest of us," Lew said.

Rickert earned his bachelor's degree in nutrition communications from Arizona State last spring. He'd like to get into coaching, ideally in the Timberwolves organization.

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