Temple's Eric appreciates the life basketball has given him

A Temple fan holds up a cutout of Micheal Eric's head in the student section. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
A Temple fan holds up a cutout of Micheal Eric's head in the student section. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer (A Temple fan holds up)
Posted: March 15, 2012

NASHVILLE - There's a lot more to Micheal Eric than basketball.

He's an excellent student and speaks several languages. The Nigerian is a computer expert. And he takes pride in his cooking, especially his Cajun chicken and shrimp with pasta.

But it's on the court where the 6-foot-11 center has experienced both success and heartache at Temple. Eric's troubles included ineligibility, isolation, and a string of injuries.

Happily for Temple, the graduate student says all those problems are long gone. The 23-year-old plays a key role for the Owls, who are preparing for Friday's 9:55 p.m. second-round Midwest Regional game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville against South Florida, a 65-54 winner over California in the first round Wednesday night.

Eric appears to have recovered from the fractured right kneecap that sidelined him for 13 games from late November to late January. He has averaged 9.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, and two blocked shots this season, and has posted double-doubles in four of his last eight games.

"He means a lot to our team," Temple guard Khalif Wyatt said. "He blocks shots. I'm sure our defensive numbers are way better since he's been back. And even on offense, being able to throw it down there sometimes and let him make a play for somebody, because he can pass it.

"He's just a real physical presence, and that can help us a lot."

Eric's emotional health suffered most when he broke the kneecap while grabbing a rebound during practice on Nov. 25. It was the second time in 10 months that he had experienced the same injury to the right knee. Eric missed the final 10 games of the 2010-11 season with the first injury.

"I started having negative thoughts in my head - 'Maybe basketball is not my sport,' " he said. Being apart from the team weighed on him.

Because he is in graduate school, Eric has his own apartment and does not hang out with teammates in the dormitories. Most of his contact with the Owls comes during practices, games, and other team functions.

"Everything goes through your head - everything," he said. "No one cares about me anymore. I fell off the radar. My coach [Fran Dunphy] doesn't care about me. He's about to get new players. All that stuff.

"My teammates think I don't know how to play anymore. Those little things were going through my head."

It was a call from his father that lifted his spirits. Joseph Eric, affectionately known as Joe Erico, is a soccer legend in Nigeria. He was a goalkeeper on Nigeria's national team and played professionally for 11 years. He later served as an assistant on the national team for eight seasons.

"He told me how proud he was of me even if I didn't play basketball again," Eric said. "And from that day, I felt I needed to get back on my grind, regardless. I wanted to come back and make him more proud. And I have to finish strong, academically."

Eric received his bachelor's degree in communications. He carries a 3.5 grade point average in pursuit of a master's degree in adult and organizational development. He is a self-described "computer geek." He speaks several African dialects as well as impressive English.

Eric's family is financially comfortable but lives in a modest neighborhood in the sprawling city of Lagos.

His father, he said, "never let us think we were better than anybody else because he has a little bit of money. I was always hanging with the kids down the street. I was always barefooted."

Before his sophomore year in high school, Eric went to live with his brother Stephen in Dover, Del. That's when the 6-foot-8 15-year-old was introduced to organized basketball.

After playing one season at Caesar Rodney High School in Dover, he transferred to Church Farm School near Exton. There, he blossomed into a Division I prospect. A great shot-blocker, Eric received scholarship offers from Temple, Connecticut, Syracuse, St. Joseph's, and George Washington, among others.

But Connecticut and Syracuse were too distant and his family told him to choose a school between Stephen and his sister, Victoria DaDa, who lives in Newark, N.J. He picked Temple over St. Joseph's.

Eric was ineligible to play as a freshman. The NCAA had difficulty obtaining his academic transcripts from Nigeria. Eric thought he would have just three years of eligibility. After appealing the NCAA ruling, the B-plus student from Church Farm School was awarded a fourth season.

That seems a huge break for an Owls team looking to go at least to the Sweet 16 this year.

Now 100 percent healthy, Eric is playing probably the best basketball of his career. But the dazzle of dunks and blocked shots doesn't really describe him.

Off the court, Eric is as low-key as they come. If not for his size, very few people would know that he's a basketball player. He spends his free time studying, cooking, or playing late-night video games with former teammate Lavoy Allen, a 76ers rookie.

"Mike is his own person," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "Mike has a great sense and feel for who he is. Mike is very comfortable with Mike, which I think is really a nice trait to have when you are as young as these guys are."

Eric said his individuality was instilled by his family. It is one reason he is grateful that his father sent him to live with Stephen. Without the years in Delaware, Eric wouldn't have the life he has now.

"I take a lot of things I do personally," he said. "I have an opportunity somebody doesn't have in my country. Why not take advantage of it? Why not take it personally? I'm still taking advantage of my opportunities."

Honors. Temple's Ramone Moore was named a National Association of Basketball Coaches Division I first-team, all-district selection on Wednesday. Owls junior guard Khalif Wyatt was named to the second team.


Contact Keith Pompey at 215-854-2939 or kpompey@phillynews.com. or on Twitter @pompeysgridlock. Read his blog at www.philly.com/OwlsInq

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