Thirty years ago, most 6-foot-7 small-town basketball players stayed in the paint.
Not Orangeville’s Brian Hildebrand.
“He was ahead of his time,” former Orangeville coach Brian Benning said. “He was so versatile with his range. That’s what caught the eye of the college scouts. He was silky smooth with the most beautiful shot you could ever envision. Just a beautiful textbook jump shot.
“He had great range and great touch around the basket as well as medium range and long range. We didn’t have him shoot many long-rangers. We didn’t need to, but, boy, he could.
“He could do pretty much everything, and he could do it very well. That was really uncommon for someone his size back in the late 1980s and early 90s. He was a pioneer. He would fit in today’s game even better than he did back then. His game traveled well. He could play inside, outside, anywhere in between. He could do everything he needed to do in any game situation.”
“He was more like a modern-day player now,” agreed Matt Hazzard, the point guard on the 1991 Orangeville team that made it to state for the only time in school history. “He could shoot anywhere on the court. He could easily have led the league in 3-pointers if he played now.”
Hildebrand, our pick as the 10th greatest boys basketball player in Freeport-area history, said he was lucky enough to play for a coach who knew how to utilize his versatility.
“Back then, most big men were set as a post and that’s what you were going to do,” said Hildebrand, who honed his shot by playing in his driveway “four or five hours” a day. “But I liked to shoot just as much outside as I did inside. Coach Benning knew that. I had to move and get out of the block area so people couldn’t triple-team me.
“It’s harder to guard somebody outside the lane than it is standing in the block area, where it’s easier for defenders to help.”
Hildebrand’s shooting range was most needed in the game that sent the Broncos to the Sweet 16. They trailed Annawan 71-70 in the sectional finals when Hildebrand swished an 18-foot turnaround jumper with 10 seconds left in a 74-71 victory.
Hildebrand said he never doubted that he would make the shot. His teammates didn’t doubt, either.
“He never got excited,” Hazzard said. “The higher pressure the game, the calmer he would get. He was a confident man at 17. When your best players are so relaxed, it calms everybody down.”
Hildebrand went on to star at Highland Community College, where he became the school’s first-ever All-American, earning honorable mention in 1993, and still ranks as one of HCC’s all-time leaders in both scoring and rebounding.
“He was easy to get the ball to because he was so good at going up and getting the ball,” said Hazzard, who also played with Hildebrand one year at Highland. “He’d get double- and triple-teamed and you could still get the ball to him.
“What people don’t know is how physical he was. He was a skinny kid, but a lot stronger than he looked. He could guard people who were a lot bigger than he was. In junior college, he was guarding centers who were 7-foot and he’d hang right with them.”
Hildebrand laughed when he heard that.
“I had to at Bradley, too,” he said. “It was just another challenge that I looked forward to. I would do my best to play that person. I wouldn’t back down from anyone. That was no option for me. I never put it in my head that somebody was going to beat me.”
Hildebrand “loved” playing at Highland, where he remains the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,385 points, but wasn’t laughing when he had to battle 7-foot centers at Bradley. He averaged 6.7 points and 2.3 rebounds on 53 percent shooting the first three games of his junior season at Bradley, playing 17 minutes a game. He then left school and returned to the family farm because coach Jim Molinari had him playing out of position at center.
“We had 6-9 players and 7 footers on the bench and I was playing center every night against players 7-foot and 7-1,” Hildebrand said. “I mean, big guys. When you go to Division I, it’s a totally different deal when you are playing people that big. I was always promised I was going to be a forward, not a post guy. I went to Coach Molinari and said this wasn’t part of the deal. I was getting my (rear) beat every night and not doing what I thought I could to help the team win.
“That didn’t come forth, so I thought I’d just leave and go to another Division I school, but I never went back. I got to working and bought the family farm.
“I did what I was going to do in basketball. I was happy with it. I don’t regret the choice to this day. It should have been a good experience, but people do not know what it is like to play Division I. It’s you eat, breathe and sleep it. It seems all thrills and chills on TV, but it’s not that way. it takes a very special person to complete that route of Division I.
“It became more of a job to me than it was fun when I showed up at Bradley. It could have been different someplace else. I just didn’t pursue it. It was time for me to hang it up and do what I do for a living.”
Matt Trowbridge: email@example.com; @matttrowbridge