When Micheal Eric first arrived from Lagos, Nigeria to live with his brother in Delaware prior to his sophomore year at Cesar Rodney High School, dreams of playing in the NBA never crossed his mind.
Actually, he hadn't even thought of playing college basketball, mainly because he had never played the game of basketball.
"He had a job, he had a family, he had a house," Eric told OwlScoop.com Wednesday in recounting his decision to come to America to live with his brother. "His initial thought was, 'Mom, send Mike down here. I'll provide for him, take care of him.'"
Now, after signing a partially-guaranteed contract last week with the Cleveland Cavaliers thanks to some very strong performances in summer league play, Eric is one step closer to making an NBA roster as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Temple, and he might be the one who's in position to take care of his family if things keep getting better.
"It's still one of those situations where I have to prove myself again, but it's a good feeling to actually have something going for me," Eric said after working out with former teammate and current 76ers forward Lavoy Allen at Temple's Pearson-McGonigle basketball complex. "I was happy and I was very thankful because it's been a long road, especially with injuries, especially with playing time, little things here and there, being new to the game. There were a lot of doubts as to whether I was even going to get close to this position, but I'm just thankful. It's a great opportunity and a great situation for me so far."
The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Eric went undrafted after a season in which he averaged 9.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. He missed 13 games along the way after sustaining a fractured right kneecap, reinjuring the same knee that forced him to miss the final stretch of the 2010-2011 campaign, one that saw the Owls fall just short of a Sweet 16 appearance after a double-overtime loss to San Diego State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Eric still managed to post six double-doubles as a senior, including three in the season's final five games. Two of his better performances - 14 points and 12 rebounds and 11 points and 16 rebounds in wins over Wichita State and Xavier, respectively - came against NCAA Tournament teams, and he shot slightly better than 52 percent from the floor. He was averaging a double-double at 10.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game prior to sustaining that fractured right kneecap injury during a practice in late November.
When Eric says it's been a long road, he's not kidding. After adjusting to life in the states and choosing to play at Temple over offers from programs like Seton Hall and George Washington, Eric had to sit out the 2007-2008 season as a true freshman because he did not meet NCAA initial eligibility requirements. Eric's grades at the Church Farm School in nearby Exton, where Eric transferred after his sophomore year of high school, were more than fine, and he had a qualifying SAT score, but the NCAA Clearinghouse, in a decision Temple unsuccessfully appealed, pointed to something on Eric's high school transcript from Nigeria as the reason for its decision.
In high school and during his early days at Temple, Eric carried the 'his defense is ahead of his offense' label, averaging 2.7 points and 2.1 rebounds as a redshirt freshman and 5.9 points and 3.1 rebounds as a sophomore. Things started to pick up for him as a junior when he posted averages of 7.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game before suffering that right knee injury in February that put him on the shelf for the rest of the season.
Eric said he had one of those 'maybe I can really do this' moments after collecting eight points, six rebounds and five blocks in Temple's season-opening win over Seton Hall at the outset of his junior season. Eric and Allen had spent several weeks over the summer working with former Pitt star Bobby Martin at his big-man camp, and the results were starting to show.
"Those guys (Martin and Allen) did give me a very high motivation of pursuing a dream that some kids don't have, and some don't get the opportunity," Eric said. "And ever since then, things have been clicking, and I knew I needed to pursue it. And then last year, my best friend (Allen) was in the league, in the NBA. Watching him play, coming back to Temple to hang out with us, I asked him questions about what they tell him he needs to work on, so I took that and had a very good season last year at Temple."
Eric was both floored and flattered when his strong summer league play led Cavaliers coach and former Los Angeles Lakers star Byron Scott to compare him to Oklahoma City Thunder center Serge Ibaka, who played for the Spanish Olympic team that took home the silver medal after losing to the United States.
Eric knows he's still a long way off from being as good as Ibaka, but it doesn't hurt to have your coach saying stuff like that. Eric credits his development and understanding of the game to Temple coach Fran Dunphy and assistant coach Shawn Trice, the team's big-man coach.
"We do a lot of things behind the scenes, things we don't even get credit for, that other NBA coaches see," Eric said. "That's a credit to Coach Trice and Coach Dunphy. At the defensive end, a lot of teams in the NBA want a defensive big man, and all our strategy at Temple was defense. The big man can rotate faster, the big man can help-side faster; can hedge on screens real quick. He's going to be able to have a shot in the NBA. That's all we did, myself and Lavoy, very well, and I did very well last year. Lavoy did it for four years. So that's what we did, and I got better at it. And when it came time to work out for NBA teams, the credit goes to Coach Trice and Coach Dunphy because I was doing all this stuff before (an NBA team) ever asked me. I was playing help-side defense and I was at the right spots strategy-wise.
"They think, 'OK, we're going to have to teach him,' so I was ahead a lot on my defensive part. Offensively, I had some sign of skills where they were like, 'Wow,' so here I am."
Eric will be competing for a roster spot with a Cavaliers team that already has players like second-year center Tristan Thompson, eight-year veteran Anderson Varejao, 2012 first-round draft pick Tyler Zeller and third-year post player Samardo Samuels, as well as second-year forward Luke Harangody.
"We're all going to compete," Eric said, "but it's up to the front office and the coaches to make the decision on who's on the final roster and who's going to play. It's going to be interesting, and I'll give it my best shot."
And that's Eric can really ask for and more than he ever could have possibly dreamed of when he first came to the United States.
Listen to OwlScoop.com's full interview with Micheal Eric here: