Sandy Creek star TJ Bickerstaff is off to a dominant start to his senior campaign. Below, current and former coaches joined the Bickerstaff family to celebrate signing day. (Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)

On a sultry July afternoon, Sandy Creek senior forward TJ Bickerstaff was miles away from the outside world.

Behind the double doors guarding the Patriots’ gym, stood Bickerstaff in his own place of solace. There weren’t any cameras or flashing lights. There wasn’t a raucous crowd screaming his name.

Instead, there was just a budding superstar listening to the melodic dribble of a basketball on the hardwood and the vociferous snap of 24-foot jumpers swooshing through the nets.

As the ball bounces back to him, Bickerstaff is ready to start the process again. One thousand made baskets was the objective on this summer afternoon. From all different angles, Bickerstaff puts it in the hole. Each shot crosses off a primary goal.

Mid-range jumper? Check.

Three-pointer? Check.

Turnaround fade away from the post? Check.

At the end of the session, there was still one shot that hadn’t been accounted for. One shot he needed to transform his future.

On Thursday afternoon, Bickerstaff finally got to shoot his destined shot. The 6-foot-8 forward signed his letter of intent to Drexel University in front of family and friends.

“It’s great and it feels good to finally be committed to a great program,” T.J. Bickerstaff said. “I went up there and I had a genuine connection with the coaches and the teammates. It’s a nice area up there in Philadelphia and I said I wanted to go here.”

As the grandson of legendary NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff and nephew of Memphis Grizzlies head man J.B. Bickerstaff, the young star has basketball running throughout his bloodlines. At five years old, T.J. was introduced to the game by his father Tim Bickerstaff. He spent days in the gym and battling against kids older than him.

“I think I got blessed as my uncle is 6-foot-6 and he is the second tallest in the family,” TJ said.

When he entered Flat Rock Middle School in the sixth grade, T.J. was working on his game at the high school level. He got shots up before the high school varsity practice where Tim was an assistant coach on the squad. According to his dad, people quickly took notice of his hard work and dedication.

“We are in the gym every day working on shooting and ball-handling,” Tim Bickerstaff said. “That is what we do. We work hard in the gym.”

A typical day consisted of 2-3 hour practices in the gym working on core exercises, shooting, dribbling, and defensive concepts. This season, TJ added a yoga session into the mix to train his body and ease the tension on his muscles.

“It’s overwhelming almost and it shows all the hard work that we have done,” Tim said. “It paid off as people don’t realize all the days when we are in the gym when others are sleeping.

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Last season, TJ averaged 15.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 23 minutes per game. He earned First Team All-County honors as he led the Patriots to a 25-6 record and a berth in the Class AAAA Final Four.

Drexel noticed his skills and made it their mission to court him and get his commitment over programs from around the country. TJ appreciated the coaches coming during summer workouts and ultimately decided to reciprocate the love.

“We were doing workouts and they kept coming in consistently to see me,” TJ said. “They put in work trying to talk with me and I noticed it.”

Sandy Creek head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson also noticed the support. He made sure to keep TJ in the best shape possible for this moment. After seeing him commit, he couldn’t contain his excitement for him.

“It’s a great feeling and what you sign up to coach for,” Nickerson said. “It’s cool just to see these dudes go to school for free at the next level and do what they love. He did enough before I got here and it’s cool to see that moment finally happen for him.”

With his future officially secured, TJ can turn his attention to finishing off an impressive senior season. He is off to a good start and is averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and 2 assists in 29 minutes. TJ hopes to continue his hot start moving forward. He admits it won’t be easy, but he knows that his hard work and support system can help him thrive in any situation.

“In life, anything that you do you have to be mentally tough,” TJ said. “If you are mentally tough, you can get through anything.”

Bickerstaff and the Patriots will be back in action on Friday against Whitewater. Just like on that summer day, he hopes to continue improving in the solace of the game he has grown to always love.

“I still got to get a triple-double,” TJ said. “I have been working on that for a while.”