Erik Copes was 11 or 12 when he asked his uncle during Thanksgiving dinner to teach him how to play basketball.
Not just for the heck of it. Copes wanted to be really good.
He was asking the right guy. Uncle Roland was Roland Houston, then an assistant at George Washington who had played professionally overseas for 13 seasons. Houston agreed with the understanding that young Erik would always abide by some basic tenets.
"Play tough, play hard, have fun," Copes recalled Wednesday.
They were three simple rules, and provided one big ticket for the 6-foot-8, 244-pound freshman to grow on the court.
"That's his foundation," Houston said. "That's who he is."
It's what George Mason (12-4, 4-0 CAA) is discovering midway through Copes' freshman season. His statistics — 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game — don't seem like much until his relatively modest playing time in a senior-laden frontcourt (15.7 minutes per game) are mentioned.
Then there's the obvious defensive impact of two blocks per game for the Patriots, who visit preseason league favorite Drexel (10-5, 2-2) on Thursday night.
Copes, ranked as the No. 55 prospect by ESPN in the class of 2011, originally signed with George Washington but asked for his release after coach Karl Hobbs (and his staff, which still included Houston) were ousted in April. He landed at Mason later in the spring, as did his uncle.
Of course, the Patriots already had two veteran inside players in Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson. Not surprisingly, both have enjoyed solid seasons, leaving Copes with less playing time than even coach Paul Hewitt admits he's earned.
After a defeat of William & Mary last week, Hewitt sought out Copes and asked whether he was OK. Copes, who had just logged 11 minutes in the Patriots' home Colonial Athletic Association opener, simply replied that he was fine and would be ready when needed.
"It's not about being patient," Copes said. "Everybody has to wait their turn as a freshman. My time is going to come. I tell coach Hewitt that. I don't mind playing behind Mike. He's a good person, a good kid. Playing behind Mike is good for me because when next year comes, my time probably, I'll know what to do when we're going in at ODU or at James Madison or when we're on the road at Drexel because I saw our seniors leading us."
There is one thing Copes doesn't want to wait for: the chance to get better.
After a foul-plagued outing at Old Dominion last week, Copes was determined to get back to his strengths. With Mason needing quality minutes against the physical Panthers, Copes had three blocks.
Nonetheless, he still had the same questions for his uncle this week entering his trip back home to Philadelphia.
"Erik says to me almost every day 'What am I doing wrong? What do I need to do?' " Houston said. "Obviously, I'm hard on Erik. But if I'm not hard on Erik, Erik comes to me and says 'What's wrong with you?' "
The thirst for knowledge is abetted by the presence of Morrison and Pearson. Copes is still learning how to play without fouling, though his overall production is limited by opportunity more than anything.
The man who faces him in practice every day knows better than anyone what the Patriots will have in the seasons to come.
"Mason's going to have a few more good years of solid big play," Morrison said. "He's really coming along early. He came in here one of the best shot-blockers. I told everybody that before he leaves, he will lead George Mason in shot-blocking, easily. No question."
That departure won't come for a while. Both Hewitt and Houston said Copes appreciates the steps he must take to become a dominant big man, even if it will take time.
"Erik knows what he should be doing," Hewitt said. "Erik knows where he's supposed to be on the court, what his expectations are. He knows what he's trying to do. I guarantee you he's not checking NBADraft.net to see where his stock is. He knows 'I'm here for a process and I'm going to go through the process.' "
Along the way, there remain some constants. Copes plays hard when he receives minutes. He's tough, a reflection of both his uncle's preferred style and his Philly roots.
Most importantly, he's having fun on a first-place team.
"If you actually do those three things," Copes said of his uncle's advice, "I think you'll be a good player."
He's well on his way to eventually being really good.
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