Archdeacon: Dayton Strong in sneakers

Thurgood Marshall grad Cierra “Cece” Hooks is the reigning MAC Player of the Year for Ohio Bobcats

ATHENS – Very few girl basketball players from the City League make it out of Dayton and into an NCAA Division I program.

Ohio University star Cierra “Cece” Hooks certainly has – in a big, big way – but first she needed a ride.

Initially, the Bobcats had trouble recruiting her.

“She was tricky to get ahold of,” recalled OU coach Bob Boldon. “She was very quiet, very reserved and she was reluctant to return phone calls to anybody.

“Tavares Jackson, my assistant coach, did a great job recruiting her and just staying on her. She was just joking about it today, how he was always bugging her with phone calls and text messages.

“He finally was able to build a relationship, but we still had to get her to come on a visit. Eventually, he talked to her mom and her coach (at Thurgood Marshall High School) and they OK’d it, so we let her know: ‘We’ll come and get you. We’ll pick you up at school, after classes are done.’

“Once she got on campus, she had a good visit and she committed.

“And here we are five seasons later.

“But I don’t think anyone – her or us – thought it would turn out quite like this!”

Credit: Lizzie Blunk

Credit: Lizzie Blunk

When Hooks signed with the Bobcats in 2016, she became the first City League girl in a decade to get a Division I scholarship.

The last had been Meadowdale’s Ebony Gainey, who committed to the Dayton Flyers in 2006. But her college career was derailed before it got started by a heart condition. UD kept her on scholarship for four seasons as a student assistant coach and put her in one game her final season, just for a few seconds of tearful tribute by everyone involved.

At OU, Hooks hoped to make a statement as well: “I wanted to make a mark.”

And she’s more than done that.

It turns out she has given OU basketball a ride like it’s never had before:

»She’s the reigning Mid-American Conference Player of the Year.

»Last season, her 25.1 points per game average was third best in the nation and she got honorable mention All-America honors.

»She also was named the MAC Defensive Player of the Year for the third season in a row.

»And she won All-MAC first team honors for the third straight season.

»Before that, she was named the MAC Freshman of the Year.

»With the 24 points she scored Saturday afternoon (she also had 13 rebounds and eight assists) in OU’s 98-89 victory over Richmond at the Convocation Center, the 5-foot-8 guard now has tallied 2,324 points in her Bobcats’ career. She’s averaging 21.1 p.p.g. this season and, at that pace, she’ll soon pass Caroline Mast (2,449 points from 1982-86) as the program’s all-time career scorer.

»She already holds OU’s career steals record.

»Boldon said the WNBA has shown interest in her and last spring Hooks briefly entered the WNBA draft before eventually opting to return to OU for her fifth college season because she said she wanted to win a championship with her teammates.

“She has a lot of love and affection for her teammates,” Boldon said. “She likes it here. She’s comfortable here. And she wanted to improve her game here, too. She thought it would raise her chances of making the league next year.”

»And she’s been equally impressive in the classroom. She got her bachelor’s degree last spring and in the process, she said she became her family’s first college graduate.

Now she’s working on a master’s degree and with all A’s so far, she said she’s striving for a perfect 4.0 GPA.

“Dayton Strong” has become an uplifting motto of our city the past couple of years. It’s about showing backbone, resiliency and character and she is the embodiment of those characteristics.

Cece Hooks is Dayton Strong in sneakers.

“She’s a poster child for kids who come out of the city,” said Tobette Pleasant-Brown, the former Colonel White and Dayton Flyers basketball star, who played professionally overseas, was a UD assistant coach and then coached Hooks for three seasons at Thurgood Marshall.

“She’s the poster child for women’s sports and women’s basketball, in particular, in the city. She’s everything you could want.”

Boldon agreed: “Cece is somebody the whole area should be proud of. Dayton can be proud of her 100 percent and it should be.”

Credit: Midge Mazur

Credit: Midge Mazur

‘She’s been amazing’

Hooks said she grew up on Lexington Avenue – in the Dayton View area – and was raised mostly by her “hard-working” mother, Theresa White.

“My mom was one of the oldest of 12 kids and as soon as she got out of high school, she started working to help support her brothers and sisters,” Hooks said. “And then she did the same for me.”

Hooks said her biological father had no part in her early upbringing. He now lives in Florida and just recently has begun reaching out to her.

She had a step-father, the late James White, and she has two older siblings – 29-year-old sister, Sabria, and her 31-year-old brother James, who she calls her “role model” and “father figure” and who was, and still is, her hoops inspiration.

James, who is nine years older than Cece, played four seasons of varsity basketball at Colonel White and then Thurgood Marshall when the school changed names and locations.

He was part of the 2009 Colonel White team that played in the Division II state title game. He also played AAU basketball for Gem City.

“When she was about nine or so, she’d go to my AAU games and, just like when we had open gym, she’d ask for a ball and start dribbling,” he said. “At halftime of our games, she’d go out on the court and shoot by herself. She could make shots and handle the ball.”

She’d put on a show and people started to take notice.

James got her involved with a team in third grade and though she was, in her words, “just a thin little thing,” she was quick and gritty and played aggressively.

She played AAU basketball with the All Ohio Black team and joined the Thurgood varsity as a freshman.

Sophomore year – while she and her team were practicing against the freshmen boys team – she tore the meniscus in her knee and missed much of the season.

“She was at the apex then, she was just dominating on the court,” James said. “She was a top 30 girl, but with that injury, she dropped.”

Hooks came back impressively – “she was just a hard worker,” Pleasant-Brown said – and as she reclaimed her status, she said a private school in the area tried to convince her to transfer.

“I wouldn’t have fit in their school,” she said. “I didn’t want to put myself in that environment because I didn’t think I’d be comfortable. It wasn’t anything like what I’d grown up in. I’m from the inner city.

“And I wanted stay at Thurgood. I wanted to keep my family tradition going. My mom went to Colonel White. My sister went to Thurgood and so did my brother. And my teammates and friends were there.”

She pushed herself on the court and in the classroom, where she had a 3.5 GPA and graduated in the top 10 in her class.

“I knew if I wanted to make it out, I had to do it on my own,” she said. “My family didn’t really have the money to send me to school. If I wanted to go to college, I had to earn a scholarship.”

According to the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report, she was the 81st best guard in the nation and the 295th overall recruit in the class of 2017.

She drew interest from several schools, including Xavier, Cincinnati, Evansville, Toledo. Cleveland State and, for a while, UD and Ohio State.

But her recruiting reluctance caused some schools’ interest to wane.

OU’s Jackson was persistent, the Bobcats added her and they were immediately rewarded.

In just her fourth college game – in the final seconds of a tied-up game with Marshall – Hooks stole the ball and went coast to coast for a buzzer-beating layup to win the game.

In her very next game she came off the bench to score 17 against visiting Michigan. A few games later, she came into the game at Purdue and scored 15 in a victory over the Boilermakers.

And then came another final seconds steal and a driving lay-up at the buzzer to beat Northern Illinois.

She moved into the starting lineup for good in an early February game against Ball State and had 28 points and 10 rebounds. Four days later, the precocious freshman lit up Central Michigan for 30.

“She’s been amazing,” Boldon said. “She’s just a remarkable player.”

Proud family, friends

Before last Monday night’s game against Florida A&M at the Convocation Center, Hooks got her expected phone call some 90 minutes before tipoff.

“My brother has called me before every game my whole college career,” she said. “He always tells me to stay locked in. He tells me not to worry about any shot I miss and to just move on to the next one. He says, ‘Stay focused!’

“He always says, ‘Go out there and be the best player on the floor because you are the best on the floor.’”

James, who now works at DMAX and has four young children of his own, said he just wants to “give her a pep talk and maybe tell her what I know about the other team, Mainly, I just want her to know one thing: ‘The only person who can stop Cierra is Cierra herself.’”

Credit: Lizzie Blunk

Credit: Lizzie Blunk

He’s at many of her games, as are her sister and mom on weekends. But if he’s not in the arena, he’ll watch the game via ESPN+ or however it’s shown and then call her afterward and give her an unvarnished critique.

He did that after OU routed FAMU, 98-45.

Although Hooks led all scorers with 19 points and had six rebounds and six assists in her 30 minutes on the court, he thought she played too passively, at times.

But regardless, he said he thinks – considering all she has accomplished – “she’s the best player Ohio ever produced.”

“I’m extremely proud of her. We all are.”

Hooks said she knows that from the encounters she has when she comes back home and from the social media messages she regularly receives:

“A lot of my family and friends – some friends who I haven’t seen in a long while – they’re all like: ‘Cece, I’m so proud of you!’”

Pleasant-Brown said “her success doesn’t surprise me. She was a hard worker, even in elementary and middle school. And when she stepped into the light in high school, nothing changed. She just never gave up. Whether it was in practice or in a game, she tried to leave it all out on the floor.”

Hooks said young people in Dayton have reached out to her:

“They message, they Instagram me. Some ask me to work out with them. Some ask me what college is like. They ask me questions about my journey and how I got where I am.

“I feel like I am a role model for some of the young girls – and the boys, too – anybody who wants to make it out. Like it was for me back there, they might not have the opportunity or resources that some other kids have.

“But I want to show them what they can accomplish. I want to be that example and tell them: ‘Hey, it is possible!’”

Now that’s making a mark.

That is Dayton Strong.

The Cece Hooks File

Mid -American Conference Player of the Year (2021)

All America Honorable Mention (2021) – OU’s first All American player in 35 years.

3-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year (2019, 2020, 2021)

3-time All-MAC first team honors. (2019, 2020, 2021)

MAC Freshman of the Year (2018)

25.1 p.p.g. average last season was No. 3 in all NCAA Division I basketball.

2,324 career points. Just 165 shy of OU’s all-time mark of 2,449 set by Caroline Mast 35 years ago.

OU’s career steals leader with 414

Earned bachelor’s degree last spring and now working on a master’s degree.

Entered WNBA draft last spring and then withdrew her name.

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