Micheal Eric did not start playing basketball until a growth spurt.
Micheal Eric could outrun the other players on the soccer field. But no matter how nimble his feet were, those pesky legs kept growing and growing.
Eventually, although his 6-foot-11-inch frame could adequately fill the soccer goal, he was no longer flexible enough to compete at a high level in the sport, a sport his father coached in his native Lagos, Nigeria.
But when Eric arrived in the United States prior to his sophomore year of high school, that height turned from a burden into an asset.
Now in his sophomore season at Temple, the forward/center averages 5.4 points per game and pulls down 2.9 rebounds per game.
More telling, however, has been Eric’s performance lately. He scored 13 points against Saint Joseph’s Jan. 6 and against La Salle Jan. 30. Then, in 25 minutes of playing time Feb. 13, Eric dropped a career-high 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting versus the Rhode Island Rams.
“I thought we looked probably more for Mike today than we have in a while, and he came through,” coach Fran Dunphy said after the 78-56 win. “He did a great job inside today. I’ll be yelling at him for five turnovers, but to get where he was today offensively was a nice thing for him. I’m very happy for his success. He did some good things, there’s no question. He’s getting better as a player. He’s still a novice at the game and still learning each and every day.”
Eric said everyone he met in the U.S. told him to start playing basketball because of his height. He played for Duane Coverdale, the AAU coach for the Delaware Sharpshooters, who told him to “just go out there and block shots.”
During his junior year of high school [2005-2006], Eric transferred from Cesar Rodney High School in Delaware to the School at Church Farm (CFS) in Exton, Pa. There, he met former Villanova assistant and CFS varsity coach Marc Turner, who worked with him on honing an actual basketball skill set.
“He got me into basketball by waking me up early every morning [Church Farm is a day and boarding school for boys],” Eric said. “The gym is right across the street [from the cottages]. He’d wake me up early some days or tell me that he had the keys to the gym and to meet him in there to work on stuff that I’d see on TV, stuff that I see other athletes doing, so that maybe I’ll like the game more.
“He wanted me to work on the basic fundamentals like ball handling,” Eric added. “I think that actually helped me become the player I am now. Coach Turner helped me get an athletic scholarship to a Division I university. Just the fact that I was listening to him then, and now I’m listening to a coach like coach Dunphy [has helped me improve].”
At CFS, Eric earned first-team all-league and all-area honors as a junior and senior. He averaged 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots per game as a senior in the 2006-2007 season, and the Griffins won the Keystone Athletic Conference regular-season championship [CFS has since moved to District 1 in the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletic Association].
“Micheal was extremely raw and new to the game of basketball when he came to Church Farm,” Turner said. “It was like teaching an infant how to walk. We worked on everything from catching the ball to dribbling. We had to take a couple steps backward first, but he ended up not only as one of our best players in school history but as one of the most coachable young men I have ever had. He made coaching a labor of love.”
Before committing to Temple, Eric received looks from the likes of Rutgers, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Pittsburgh, but Turner said his decision came down to Temple, George Washington or St. Joe’s.
“I actually had a lot of offers,” Eric said. “I wanted an education, too, but just the fact that coach Dunphy wanted to play guys who try to compete and work hard in practice shows that he’s a winner and doesn’t want any guys that are slacking. I had other offers. Almost the same schools I was looking at, Lavoy Allen was looking at. But coach Dunphy is going to play players who play hard and who try to get better, so I followed him here.”
Eric’s transition from CFS to Temple did not go smoothly at the start. His transcripts from his one year of high school in Nigeria were not cleared by the NCAA until after the 2007-2008 season had begun. Dunphy said he could redshirt, and Eric did in order to gain another year of eligibility.
But, he said he found little difficulty in moving from the countryside of Chester County back to a large city like Philadelphia.
It was harder for him going from Lagos, the second most populous city in Africa behind Cairo, to CFS.
“Everyone learns from different environments, and I think I did,” Eric said. “I learned how to handle situations [at CFS] by myself and grew as a person and as an individual a lot. I learned a lot academically. Being by myself, I learned a lot. Here at Temple, I have a lot more people around me, so I’m balancing the two.
“[Lagos is like] a rough end of New York,” Eric added. “Some parts are really good, and some parts are rough. I live in a New York-type environment, like the Bronx. There are a lot of houses, a lot of people walking down the street. It’s fun. It’s a very good environment for some people, for some people it’s a little rough. I miss my family, but just the fact that I’m back in the city, it’s not that hard. You can hop on the subway, hop on the train, hop on the buses, hop in a taxi, all of which we have back home. It’s not a bad transition. I adapted to it very quickly.”
One adjustment Eric has had to make at Temple, at least this year, has been dealing with an injury. He did not play in the games against Virginia Tech and Saint John’s during Thanksgiving break because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. After returning for three minutes against Western Michigan, he sat out versus Penn State. Two games later, in the win against then-No. 3 Villanova, Eric crumpled to the court after reinjuring it. He missed the following game against Seton Hall but has appeared in every game since.
“[The knee is] getting back to 100 percent, but it’s taking its time,” Eric said. “Some days, I just want to go straight to the court, and I feel like I don’t need treatment, but the days I do feel I need treatment with the trainer, Steve Spiro, I just go in there. I’m going to keep the brace and wrap. It’s more of a mental thing. I don’t want it to happen again. I don’t want to risk anything. Prevention is almost as good as a cure, so I just do what the doctor says.”
Even when he was injured and unable to play, Eric still talked with assistant coach Shawn Trice, who works with the post players, and said Trice has helped him most with learning the game’s intricacies.
“He’s talking to me as another player,” Eric said. “He talks to me about what he learned during his college career. He tries to tell me what good players do to be successful – you’ve got to go hard, you’ve got to push yourself, you’ve got to keep working. I think I’m getting better because I have someone telling me to keep working hard, to compete, to never quit.
“But I think he’s also helping me with the IQ for the game,” Eric added. “I think before I just used my height to jump around and dunk, but you can’t do that in college. There are thousands of college athletes just like you. You have to position yourself, think before you jump. I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I know when to be at the right spot, the right angle in some situations. The game is coming more naturally now.”
Trice said he sees Eric developing into the mold of an inside post player who “we can depend on throwing the ball down to and scoring for us in there.”
“I think he’s developed a lot,” Trice said. “He hadn’t played a lot of competitive basketball before. I thought he had some decent skill sets. Now, it’s applying it in a game setting, a practice setting, and that’s what we’re trying to work on step by step. He’s got a ways to go, but he’s got tremendous upside.
“I think Mike has the potential to be a very big contributor,” Trice added. “His role will change a little, but I think that he’ll be the guy who will be inside. Lavoy’s more of an inside-outside guy, so I think Mike will be the force inside, like Sergio Olmos was last year.”
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at email@example.com.