EDINBURG — Before Sean Rhea’s collegiate career began, he never could have foreseen the twists, turns and detours that have come to define, and at times, threatened to derail his basketball journey before ultimately leading him to the Rio Grande Valley.
Rhea, a 6-foot-7 power forward from Houston, thrived at Porter High School where he starred alongside his twin brother, Deion.
He led Porter to a 41-12 record during his high school career and collected First Team All-District and First Team All-County selections as a sophomore and again as a senior.
Rhea averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per game for the Spartans before committing with his brother to play at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, where he got his first taste of Division I college basketball and soon experienced the first hiccup of his playing career.
“My brother was my roommate, and we were having a lot of fun,” he said. “We weren’t really worried about school or anything. We were just playing ball.”
Rhea started in all 27 games that he appeared in as a freshman for the Islanders, reaching double figures in scoring 13 times and averaging 9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest in a stellar beginning to his collegiate career.
Despite his early on-court success, though, Rhea soon started to run into off-court troubles that halted his progression at the DI level.
“It was an experience being a young guy going from a senior in high school to a freshman in college. It was a big change, a crazy change,” he said. “I messed up there and I had to go to junior college. That was a new experience at New Mexico Junior College.”
At the end of a tumultuous freshman year filled with readjustments, Rhea and his twin brother packed their bags and moved more than 500 miles west from Corpus Christi to Hobbs, New Mexico, a small town on the border of the Texas panhandle.
That’s where Rhea was hoping to find redemption with one of the region’s most talented junior college teams. Instead, his basketball career was thrown into flux when a sports hernia that required surgery ended his sophomore season with the Thunderbirds after only three games.
“I had never sat out of basketball before, ever,” he said. “Some things were also going on in my personal life and I stopped playing basketball all together. That was hard.”
For the first time since before his middle school playing days, Rhea was without a team and away from basketball for more than a year.
It wasn’t until Rhea called UTRGV head basketball coach Lew Hill and his staff, who had recruited him originally out of high school, that his competitive fire was rekindled.
That phone call inspired Rhea to get back on the court, any court he could find.
“I really wanted to play, so I just went up to an elementary school in my neighborhood and I was just playing there,” Rhea said. “I told Coach Hill and Coach (Jai) Steadman that I was trying to come back, and they welcomed me with open arms. Ever since that day, I would go up to that elementary school.”
“I was playing against kids who didn’t even make their high school team,” he added. “When I first came back, it was my first time playing basketball in almost a year and eight months. I was airballing shots and missing layups. I would go home and cry I was so frustrated, but I just kept pushing.”
Hill’s persistence on the recruiting trail and Rhea’s determination on the court both paid off, as UTRGV offered the former Islanders player the opportunity to return to DI ball when the program had a scholarship open up in late 2019.
“I think he was just burned out with basketball a little bit with the injuries and those type of things,” Hill said.
Rhea was eager to hit the ground running when he arrived in Edinburg but had to readjust physically and mentally before being able to make his competitive return to the court.
“I knew the player I was, but I couldn’t do the stuff that I wanted to do. In my head I wanted to do something, but my feet and my body weren’t caught up to where my head was,” he said. “(But) I would definitely say the mental aspect and everything (was more of an adjustment). When I was at home, I was on my own time. I could wake up when I wanted to and go work out when I wanted to. But coming back and getting in that group … I had forgot how that was.”
Rhea worked relentlessly to build his body and mind back up before cracking the Vaqueros rotation toward the end of the 2019-20 season, which was ultimately cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But after his setbacks in Corpus Christi and New Mexico, Rhea was undeterred by the pandemic and thankful for the opportunity to play again.
“I just tried to do what I could to help the team (like) defend, run and rebound and play as hard as I can. Then this year, this is the first time since I was in middle school that I went to school two years in a row,” he said. “It’s really fun seeing myself grow within the program and being with the same guys, the same faces and creating these relationships. It’s amazing. I don’t go out there to play for myself, really. I like going out there and playing for UTRGV, the program and the guys. It’s like a big family.”
Rhea has since become the model of consistency for the Vaqueros program in a season defined by inconsistencies amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The redshirt junior has started in 10 of UTRGV’s 11 games this season and leads the team with 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 53.3% shooting. Rhea, however, credits his consistency on the floor to the consistency of his coaches and teammates away from the court, which he says have helped build him into the player he is today.
“It’s a privilege to be able to go out there and play, especially with the pandemic going on. It’s a blessing to go out there and play, let alone play how I’m playing. I just give the credit to Coach (Kenya) Crandell and the coaches at UTRGV for allowing me to come here for one and just helping me grow,” Rhea said.
“I’ve always been able to play basketball, but they stick with me on the mental side. That’s the side of things that people don’t see like practice and what goes on off the court,” he added. “All that other time that people don’t see, that’s when the coaches really, really show you that they care about you. It makes you want to go out there and give everything you have. … That’s what I love most about the program: they’re so consistent. They don’t let you get too high or too low, so it helps me stay the way exactly I need to be.”