Eric Boateng emerged from the locker room wearing a shirt and tie minutes before Arizona State’s season opener against Northern Arizona. When asked by a passerby if he would be dressing for the game, the 6-foot-10 sophomore was confused.
“You’re on the team, aren’t you?” the stranger asked.
Well, sort of.
Boateng works out with the team.
He practices with the team.
He eats with the team.
But during games he doesn’t wear a uniform and he never gets off the bench except to cheer on his teammates. While the Sun Devils are in Oregon this weekend, Boateng is in Tempe doing whatever it is 6-foot-10 college kids with NBA aspirations do.
Boateng, who left Duke after one season to play for first-year Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek, is sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. He’s one of 12 McDonald’s All-Americans in the Pac-10 this season, and the only one not playing.
But don’t think he’s not working for his scholarship.
“This is not a year off for Eric. This is a year to get better,” Sendek said. “He’s a full-time player right now, minus the games we have. We’re keeping him very busy.”
YEAR AWAY NOT EASY
After one year at the center of the college basketball world in Durham, Boateng finds himself in the same situation as Sybil Dosty, a 6-3 junior center on the ASU women’s team.
She too is sitting out this season following her transfer to ASU after two years at Tennessee.
They’re two high school All-Americans who by all accounts possess plenty of game but lack the eligibility to show it off. Instead, they’re spending the year reshaping their bodies, improving their skills and helping their teammates prepare by anchoring the Sun Devils’ scout teams.
“I think if you ask past players they’ll tell you they wish they had an extra year to work on their game,” women’s coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “So that’s the positive thing. You can step back, get stronger, get better then finish out your career.
“But it’s tough going a year without competing. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The psychological impact of stepping away from competition is considerable.
Boateng, who was born and raised in London, has been playing basketball competitively since he was 15 and hasn’t missed a season since. Dosty, a native of Tucson, has not sat out a season since she picked up the sport at the age of 5.
Most athletes who reach the Division I level crave competition like an addict, so not playing for the first time since childhood can have a serious psychological impact.
“It’s been hard, and it’s harder on game days than any other time,” said Dosty, who was particularly anguished while watching from the bench as the Sun Devils fell to visiting Tennessee earlier this season. “Some practice days you just feel like playing games, but I don’t have that luxury right now. So I make practice my games.
“It’s important that your teammates can see that even though you can’t play in the games you’re bringing it in practice.”
By focusing on practice court battles, Boateng and Dosty have both made their teammates better.
Sophomore forward Jeff Pendergraph credits some of his improvement this season to banging with the larger Boateng everyday in practice. And Dosty has helped raise the effectiveness of women’s practices with her intensity and size on the interior.
Athletes redshirting for transfer reasons must also deal with the isolation of leaving their friends behind and blending with a new set of teammates with whom they have limited or no previous connection.
Dosty has been helped in her transition by the presence of another transfer, Lauren Lacey, who left Minnesota at about the same time Dosty chose to return to her home state.
Boateng and Dosty both said they’ve been embraced by their new teammates but being left home during road trips is tough.
“I just channel my energies in other directions such as having a great attention to practice and fundamentals work and being a good teammate and a leader,” said Boateng, who does a rigorous physical workout before every game. “Though I’m not playing, I feel mentally and emotionally involved. I give it all I’ve got in practice and focus on getting better.”
Because they were so highly regarded coming out of high school and because they’ve played for two of the top programs in their sports, the buzz around Boateng and Dosty is greater than one would expect for players who put up meager numbers at their previous schools.
Dosty averaged about three points and three rebounds per game in 62 appearances at Tennessee, where post players are expected to contribute more as screeners and rebounders than as scorers.
ASU’s offense should better suit her skill set, and Turner Thorne said Dosty is filling up stat sheets during scrimmages.
“I actually get tired of reading how many rebounds she gets and how much she scores everyday, because she’s on the (scout) team,” the coach joked.
Boateng rarely got off the bench at Duke and appeared in only 20 games as a freshman.
According to sources in Durham, Boateng simply didn’t stand out among the plethora of stars at Duke.
No such situation exists at ASU, where only Byron Scott in 1979 and Chris Sandle in 1984 have brought the tag “McDonald’s All-American” to campus.
Pendergraph compares Boateng to former Cal star and current NBA player Leon Powe.
“I’m not sure the Pac-10 has seen a guy like him really,” Pendergraph said. “He’s just big, tall, strong, and he has really good post feet. It’s going to be very interesting.”
ASU fans will have to wait until November to draw their own conclusions about Boateng and Dosty.
In the meantime, they’ll have to satisfy themselves with the knowledge that a pair of high school All-Americans are working their tails off to prepare for their first seasons in maroon and gold.
“Some guys will take it as a pass to the country club and other guys will say, 'I’ve got to get everything out of today,’” Sendek said.
“(Boateng) is not just wading water right now waiting for the meet to start. He’s swimming everyday to develop himself so when the meet starts he can be in the race."