ANN ARBOR, Mich. – How do you sum up a legacy as complex as the one Hunter Dickinson is leaving with the Michigan basketball program?
The transfer portal has unlocked a whole new range of emotions within the already emotionally charged world of major college sports.
First and foremost, there’s constant uncertainty. Any player could play for any team at any time. Gone are the days when a high schooler committed to a program and fans could rest easy knowing that player would represent their team for 3-5 years.
On the other hand, there’s more hope. Programs can be turned around much quicker with the help of the transfer portal -- just look at what Michigan State football did under Mel Tucker in 2021.
But there’s one prevailing feeling that transfers invoke stronger than any other:
It’s what Michigan fans felt when Cade McNamara left for Iowa a few months ago. I tried to summarize McNamara’s complicated legacy when he lost his starting job to J.J. McCarthy, but his decision to transfer to another Big Ten school (and take some parting shots on the way out), increased the complexity of that situation tenfold.
Fans who spent the 2021 season fully invested in supporting McNamara were suddenly forced to watch him leave Michigan for another school. That’s not to say McNamara made a bad decision -- it’s just hard for some fans to accept that someone would leave their favorite school.
This is still new. Everyone is trying to figure out how to react to this new element of college sports.
Well, now we’ve got another doozie on our hands, as the basketball program’s most high-profile player, Hunter Dickinson, announced Friday (March 31) that he has entered the transfer portal.
Say what? That’s a big one -- and a lot to process.
People are going to be mad. People always get mad -- it’s a pretty common reaction to the news that someone doesn’t want to play for their beloved university.
But Hunter Dickinson? Pretty much nobody saw this one coming.
Remove his transfer from the equation and Dickinson would certainly go down as a beloved member of program history.
He was a highly ranked recruit who committed to Michigan during a time of great uncertainty. John Beilein had recently left for the NBA after building the Wolverines into a national power, and Juwan Howard’s first season was a bit mediocre before being cut short by COVID.
Then, as a freshman, Dickinson forced his way into the starting lineup and flourished. He scored double digit points in the team’s first 11 games, leading the Wolverines to a perfect 11-0 record as they rose from unranked to No. 7.
Dickinson finished that season scoring 14.1 points and grabbing 7.4 rebounds per game for a team that won a Big Ten championship and came inches from a Final Four appearance. He also shot nearly 60% from the floor.
It feels like a long time ago, but after the world (and sports) shut down for COVID, watching that basketball team was a huge treat for Michigan fans. And Dickinson was a major part of it.
After deciding to return for his sophomore season, Dickinson became the undisputed best player on the team. Without him, there’s no way Michigan would have made its fifth-straight Sweet 16 appearance -- in fact, Michigan likely would have missed the NCAA Tournament entirely.
Then he decided to come back again, and all he did was average 18.5 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 42.1% from three-point range as a 7-footer.
Dickinson was one of the few bright spots during an incredibly frustrating 2022-23 season. From his iconic shot to force overtime against Wisconsin to dropping 26 points in a win over Ohio State, he provided fans with some great memories, even in a down year.
There’s absolutely no debate that Dickinson is one of the best players in the history of the Michigan basketball program. But that’s not all that factors into one’s legacy.
Here’s the thing: Legacies aren’t clearly defined, nor can they be determined by any single person. Fair or not, Hunter Dickinson’s time at Michigan will ultimately be remembered by how the collective Michigan basketball world feels about him.
And I can tell you, despite all he’s done on and off the court, it’ll be hard for some people to get this sour taste out of their mouths.
Michigan basketball has had an incredible run of success since Beilein started gaining steam in 2010. Two national championship games. Multiple Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. Most recently, five straight Sweet 16s.
But this year was a monumental disappointment, with a talented team settling for a 17-15 record and missing the Big Dance completely. And as soon as times got tough, Dickinson jumped into the portal.
Maybe that’s not exactly how the situation unfolded, but nonetheless, many will view it that way. Dickinson’s priority should be to make the best decision for his own career, but that won’t stop many from feeling like he abandoned Michigan at the first sign of adversity.
You also have to factor in that Dickinson can be a bit... controversial. He loves being the villain, whether it’s openly calling Wisconsin “scumbags,” waving his arms demonstratively at opposing student sections, or showing up opponents with on-court celebrations.
Most Michigan fans are well aware that Dickinson is the type of player you love if he’s on your team, but hate if he’s not. And now that he’s not, it will be a tricky internal struggle for many who witness those same antics while he wears a different uniform.
The coming weeks and months will also play a part in how Dickinson is remembered. If he takes veiled shots at Michigan on his way out the door, it will only fan the flames of those who already want him disowned.
But if the split is amicable, then maybe, just maybe, we can be a bit more reasonable? I know it can be hard to take a non-extreme stance in today’s world, but here’s my two cents on Dickinson’s legacy (once everyone has calmed down, of course):
Dickinson was a phenomenal player for Michigan, and without him on the team over the past three seasons, plenty of the team’s 60 wins instead would have been losses. He was incredibly fun to watch, laid it all on the court, and molded his game to what the team needed.
His Michigan legacy will always have an asterisk, because he left, and that should absolutely be taken into account. But even after his college career ends, the memories of his shot against Wisconsin, the 22 points against Ohio State in 2021, and the late 3-pointer to bury Michigan State will live on.
Michigan won a lot of basketball games almost entirely thanks to Hunter Dickinson. That should be his legacy.