Ricky Torres calmly stepped to the free-throw line with 7.1 seconds to go. The Illinois State men’s basketball team was nursing a two-point lead over Drake February 22 at Redbird Arena, and the senior point guard had an opportunity to ice the game.

He spun the ball and looked down at a tattoo of his 5-year-old son, Adriel, on his right forearm. Torres knew these shots meant more than just securing a win for Illinois State. It would show Adriel, who was in attendance for the first time this season, how to stand up in the face of pressure. It would show his mom and stepdad, also both at the game, that he drew strength from their determination.

Torres casually sunk both of the shots to give the Redbirds a victory on a night when Torres and three other seniors were honored.

“I’ve never been the type to panic under pressure,” Torres said a week before the Drake game.

That mindset is a huge reason he found himself on the free-throw line that afternoon in the first place. It was the culmination of a journey filled with moments containing far higher consequences than winning or losing a basketball game.

Uphill battle

A breeze of a greater power shivered down the spine of a 9-year-old Torres on the morning of May 17, 2005. Something wasn’t right. He could feel it.

He woke on his own a minute before his stepfather’s friend came into his bedroom.

“For some reason, I just knew something was wrong with my mom,” Torres said. “Then (my stepdad’s friend) walked into my room to wake up, and when I saw him, I knew immediately. It wasn’t just a feeling anymore.”

Torres’ mother, Kym Samuels, was his Superwoman. She worked at an insurance company in Pinellas Park, Florida, and never made her six children feel like they had anything to worry about. Food was always on the table. So when an arm-wrestling contest at a family function the previous night went wrong, Kym opted for emergency surgery on her broken right arm. She was scheduled to be back to work in about a month.

To stay up to date on all of the Arch Madness coverage and to buy tickets, visit GoRedbirds.com.

But then a mishap during anesthesia caused Kym to flatline. While the doctors revived her, the accident paralyzed her temporarily from the neck down and caused nerve damage that ensured her life would never be the same. Her right arm remains paralyzed to this day.

“We weren’t sure I was ever going to walk again,” Kym said. “But I’ve never been someone to give up on anything. Never. And that’s what I’ve always told (Torres).”

That lesson would mean more to Torres than he knew at the time.

By the time Torres entered high school, his mother’s health was just one item on a growing list of things going against him. People close to him were arrested. He struggled to find an academic purpose. And naturally, he had moments of anger and questioned why this was all happening to him. Torres couldn’t bear the weight and dropped out of high school during his freshman year.

Torres intended to return to school once things settled down. He credits his stepfather for pushing him. Once again, things didn’t bounce his way when he tried to re-enroll in his original school. Suddenly, he was two semesters behind his peers.

“At that point I was just like, ‘You know, I’m done. I got to figure something else out,’” Torres said. “So I started working a couple of part-time jobs.”

He thought that might be his future. He would stay around his hometown and work as a technician at a car dealership or whatever odd job he could find and play pickup basketball whenever he could.

A football player growing up, Torres had discovered basketball right around the time he dropped out of high school. He immediately fell in love with the game. Running up and down the court became an escape.

One of his friends’ fathers, Terrence Whitaker, noticed Torres’ ability to command an offense. Whitaker wanted to know more, and he quickly learned about Torres’ academic situation. At one point in his own life, Whitaker had dropped out of high school. He now owns Low Cost Concrete in Largo, Florida.

“He’s a great kid with a similar background to my own,” Whitaker said. “He needed a little bit of extra guidance to keep him from the wrong people.”

Torres started playing point guard for Whitaker’s AAU team. Early on, Whitaker thought Torres had the potential to play high-caliber college basketball. But he needed to finish high school first.

“He kept telling me, ‘Stay in school, man, you got to stay in school,’” Torres said. “’You don’t want to be on the outside looking in, but you can really do something special with this.’”

Torres eventually earned his GED diploma while simultaneously tearing up the AAU circuit, often outperforming Division I recruits. Some college programs were hesitant to pursue him because of his educational background. He nearly attended a Division III school in Upstate New York. At the time, he wasn’t thinking about student loans or forgoing any scholarship opportunities. Torres just wanted a place to start over.

Whitaker advised him to think about his full potential.

“I thought he was better than Division III, to be honest,” Whitaker said.

Reggie Freeman, an assistant coach at Eastern Florida State College, recruited Torres to play at the junior college. The two developed an instant bond as Torres spent the spring semester, his first on campus, working out intensely since he wasn’t eligible to play on the team.

Man dribbling basketball

Ricky Torres drives to the basket against Drake February 22 at Redbird Arena.

When Freeman left for another junior college, Missouri State University-Western Plains, Torres followed. What originally drew Freeman to Torres was his ability to lift others on the court. He was a natural point guard.

“Everybody gravitated to him. Really good kid, regardless of what had happened earlier in his life,” said Freeman, who is fourth on the all-time points list at the University of Texas. “He was a great leader, and he played so well there for his two years because of his demeanor and his court vision.”

Torres made first-team All-American at Missouri State-Western Plains during the 2017–2018 season, after averaging 17.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 8.1 assists per game. He was a highly sought-after Division I prospect, ultimately choosing to play at Wichita State. He left the Shockers after one season to pursue a school with a better fit for his playing style. Torres chose to finish up his college career at Illinois State, in part because of how much he bonded with the Redbirds’ coaching staff.

Because of the steps he had to take to dig himself out of choices he had made earlier in his life, Torres is a bit older than typical college basketball seniors. At 24, he has leaned on his leadership abilities to serve as a guiding force for younger players in the program.

“He definitely keeps me motivated,” said freshman guard Antonio Reeves.

Things haven’t gone the way the Redbirds had envisioned this season. Entering Arch Madness, they are 10-20 and will play Drake at 6:05 p.m. Thursday in St. Louis. Adversity, whether it’d be injuries or losing a late lead, has struck Illinois State this season.

There may be nobody better to handle that than Torres.

“You know my life story, I compare it to our season,” Torres said. “Take some losses and make them lessons, learn from them, and build from them. Just keep going. Because our main goal is, regardless of what our record is, to play our very best heading into the Arch Madness.”

Playing his hand

Every time Torres steps on the court, he’s playing for more than himself. He’s representing the fight his mother showed and continues to show; for the stepfather who pushed him in times of need; for coaches who gave him a chance; and most importantly, for, his son, Adriel, who was born in 2014 and currently lives in Florida. Torres saw his mother fight, claw, and sacrifice. He’s always drawn inspiration from that. Right now, he sees basketball and college as pursuits his son can one day use as motivation of his own.

Family at center court

Ricky Torres and his family stand at center court with Illinois State men’s basketball coach Dan Muller during the Senior Day ceremony February 22 at Redbird Arena.

“His maturity to understand what he’s been given and the responsibilities he’s had not only as a player but also a student and a father, it’s remarkable for someone his age,” Scott Samuels, his stepfather, said.

Those late free throws on Senior Day didn’t just seal the win for the Redbirds. They symbolized a story of remarkable perseverance.

“You can wonder why the cards fell the way they did, or you can pick up the cards and play your hand,” Torres said. “It’s never over. You can always find a way out of it. That’s the main message I want people, not just basketball players, to learn from my story.”

Arch Madness

The Redbirds will enter the Missouri Valley Conference tournament as the No. 9 seed and play Drake, the No. 8 seed, at 6:05 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. To buy tickets, visit GoRedbirds.com.

If you can’t make the game, you watch the game on the MVC TV network, which includes NBC Sports Chicago, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports Indiana, and FOX Sports Kansas City. All radio broadcasts will be available on WJBC 1230 AM, Nash Icon 93.7 FM, GoRedbirds.com, and the Tune In app.