Alumnus James Hughes lives the pro basketball dream

By Mike Romor

Countless numbers of NCAA athletes graduate, take a day job, and abandon their dreams of reaching the professional level.

NIU has never been known for getting basketball players to the pro level, but alumnus James Hughes, who graduated in 2007, is one of the select few athletes that is living his dream.

Hughes made strides in each of his five years as a Huskie. The 6-foot-11-inch former center for the Huskies was a pivotal member of the only NIU basketball team to win its MAC division, was voted the Defensive Player of the Year in the MAC after his senior season, holds the school record for blocks in a career at 208, and was drafted 11th overall in the 2007 United States Basketball League’s draft.

Currently playing in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, Hughes is still improving and hopes to make the leap to a level of stronger competition.

“My current goals are to play on a Euroleague or Eurocup team and make it to the higher leagues in Europe,” Hughes said. “I guess you could say NIU was a catalyst that helped me.”

Hughes recognized the multiple opportunities NIU has offered him, from his college experience and education to the places the university has brought him.

“It gave me a chance to get an education,” Hughes said. “It took me all over the country and practically all over the world.”

Former NIU head coach Rob Judson, who coached at NIU from 2001 to 2007, is one of the reasons James has been able to play basketball in Ukraine. He had given a recommendation for James to play overseas, which helped Hughes make it to the place he is now.

“James was a likeable young man to be around,” Judson said. “He always had a positive attitude and a great smile. James could pick up his teammates with that attitude. It is great that James is able to play professionally. If he continues to build his strength and take care of his body he could have a long career.”

According to, Hughes is listed as the top player on his team. This season he is averaging 9.4 points per game and leads his team in field goal percentage at 59.4 percent. He also leads his team in blocks, with 2.3 per game. The 27-year old center is no stranger to leading his squad to success.

“In 2006 our final MAC games were at Ball State and then at Western Michigan in order to win the division; two tough games,” Judson said. “NIU hadn’t won in Kalamazoo since 1984. James was on a mission and he and the rest of the guys got it done, and won the only regular season championship in NIU basketball history. When he comes back to campus he can look at that banner in the Convocation Center and feel great.”

On his senior day in 2007, Hughes recorded one of the best games of his career.

“He made two key free throws late in the game after the officials iced him by reviewing the monitor to set the clock correctly. Outstanding poise,” Judson said. “A great way to finish your last game at home in front of all your family.”

Even after four years removed from NIU, Hughes said he is thankful for the influence the university provided for him.

“NIU athletics influenced me by giving me a chance to play college basketball, therefore giving me the chance to play after college,” Hughes said. “So without that opportunity there’s a chance I wouldn’t be playing today.”