Deon Hicks knows all about life-changing experiences. The former Aiken High School student and basketball player is in the final month of treatment in his 3˝-year battle against Leukemia – a battle he’s winning.

His illness cost him a year at school, and on the basketball team, but could’ve been much worse. Although Hicks has overcome Leukemia, returned to school and the hardwood for the Hornets, he’s no less immune to the mixed emotions of picking a college than any other teenager.

That’s why he was both admittedly excited and nervous Monday, when he was joined by family and friends at the James A. Taylor Student Activities Center at Aiken High to sign his letter of intent. Not only will Hicks be going to college, he’ll fulfill a longtime dream of playing basketball at the next level when he’ll join the team at Southern Wesleyan University.

“It’s the best situation for me,” the soft-Spoken Hicks said of choosing the college located in Central over other choices, including Lander and Coker. “I liked it when I went up for workouts. I visited the school and thought it had a good campus.”

With the help of Dr. Cindy Besson, who has become something along the lines of a surrogate mother to Hicks, he explained that Southern Wesleyan was his top choice for a few reasons. It’s not too far from Aiken, making it easy for Hicks to come home – something he’ll do when the Warriors pay a visit to the USC Aiken Convocation Center to take on the Pacers on Nov. 18. Southern Wesleyan also has a small enrollment, so with less than 2,500 students Hicks can get more direct instruction on a personal level. That should help him pick a major to pursue a degree in this year, as Hicks is currently undecided.

The biggest factor in choosing Southern Wesleyan might have been Charles Wimphrie, the head coach of the men’s basketball team. Through the recruiting process, Hicks forged a bond with Wimphrie, saying it was clear to him that “the coach cares.”

Wimphrie’s compassion and affinity for Hicks could be a reason he created a spot on his roster. Hicks isn’t as much of a sure thing on the college level as he appeared to be before falling ill. He’s made tremendous strides the past two seasons, gradually returning to the basketball team but is still regaining the durability and explosiveness that made him one of the area’s best a few years ago.

What role Hicks will fill is still to be determined. He might not play this year, taking time to continue his recovery and creep closer to the explosive player he was as a high school sophomore, before battling Leukemia. It will also lessen the logjam on the depth chart, as Hicks said there are still 10 players on the squad.

If he plays or he sits out, it will be a learning opportunity for Hicks. He’ll practice and – like so many other freshmen athletes – work toward a more substantial role in the future.

“I’m going to workout with the team and travel,” said Hicks, who hasn’t heard from Wimphrie what his role will ultimately will be, but he’s got a goal in mind. “I’d like to run the point or play shooting guard.”

Besson pointed out the appropriateness of Southern Wesleyan’s mascot, given Hicks’ history.

“The Warriors,” she said with pride. “Deon has had to battle, not just to play basketball but for his life. … He touches people, inspires them. He does it in his own way, a quiet but strong way.”

Hicks will look to continue inspiring others while finding his own strength, to overcome the nerves he’s feeling about going to college. He’s one of the few people in his immediate family to go to college, so much of the experience is an unknown to him. And like any other teenager, there’s feelings of trepidation about leaving home for the first time in many cases.

As Hicks said, going to college is “a big step.” But considering the strides he’s made, it’s just the next step on Hicks’ journey.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.