Zeke Upshaw and Hofstra have been a great match
Last spring, when his fellow members of Illinois State's Class of 2013 were cruising through the end of their senior year or polishing their resumes, Zeke Upshaw was studying like crazy. He was trying to learn all he could about some exotic college called Hofstra.
The Chicago native never had been to New York and barely had heard of the school. Hofstra did not know much about him, either, other than the fact that he averaged a meager 2.5 points for Illinois State's basketball team last season. But the Pride needed players and knew that Upshaw would have both a year of eligibility and a degree, which meant he would not have to sit out a year. So it looked like a perfect fit.
Neither side dreamed how perfect. Totally unexpectedly, Upshaw instantly became a go-to guy.
He is averaging a team-leading 18.7 points per game -- the biggest improvement of any Division I player in the country this season, according to the Pride's research. Hofstra could have been winless in conference play, but it has won a handful of games and usually is competitive. And Upshaw, working toward his master's degree after graduating from Illinois State with a degree in apparel, merchandising and design, has completely rewritten his career narrative. He might just have earned himself a basketball future.
When asked where he would be if he had put on a three-piece suit and become part of the workforce like a typical graduate, Upshaw laughed.
"That's a good question," he said one day after practice. "No one has ever asked me that question. I was hoping that some school was going to pick me up. I was relying on that. I wasn't thinking about possibly getting a job."
He believed he still had some basketball left in him and was determined to take advantage of the NCAA rule that allows graduate students to play for another school immediately, without the usual one-year transfer waiting period.
"The whole situation was an adventure for me," he said.
Jewel, his mother, said on the phone from Chicago that he has been determined ever since he was 5. "Whenever we would bring him to Toys 'R' Us, even though there was a store full of toys, he would go straight to the basketballs," she said.
She recalled the bevy of scholarship offers when he was a star at University of Chicago Laboratory High School, which never had a Division I player before. She never will forget the disappointment when he was riding the bench at Illinois State.
"When your kid hurts, you hurt," she said, adding that it was obvious when she accompanied him on his first Hofstra visit that he had found a home. She has been to about 10 games this season. "What goes through my heart is joy,'' she said, "joy at seeing Zeke doing what he absolutely loves to do."
Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich is just about as happy as she is. He left Niagara last spring to take over a team rocked by arrests and suspensions, leaving him with only four players. "We were looking for anything, whether it was a high school guy, a junior college guy, a transfer," Mihalich said.
Upshaw, a 6-6 forward/guard, came as a surprise. Mihalich said he was about to leave his office one day last spring when he received a call from a friend who runs a scouting service in the Midwest, tipping him off to an Illinois State reserve who still had potential.
"We did watch some tape," Mihalich said. "You ask yourself, 'Why? Why didn't he play?' He did have very good players ahead of him."
Upshaw did his homework, too. "I found out that Speedy Claxton went here. That definitely got me interested in coming here," he said. "I thought about the opportunity of getting some minutes. I heard about the guys leaving, I did the research on that. All those pieces came together and it looked like it was a good opportunity for me."
As soon as Upshaw arrived on campus, younger players looked up to him. Mihalich was impressed with his maturity and personality. The coach figured the guy could help, maybe even score 12 points a game.
Then the games began and he proved to be much more. A player who totaled 47 points all of last season scored 37 in an overtime road loss to favored Richmond on Nov. 19.
"I think," Mihalich said, "it's probably a combination of all these things: He does have the ability and the talent. It was a great opportunity. Our system fitted him well. And he's a high-character guy."
Mihalich admittedly is tough on Upshaw, demanding that the graduate student be a teacher to younger players. Mihalich always will be grateful that Upshaw helped keep the team afloat, serving as a bridge to next season and three quality undergraduate transfers who are sitting out.
"The sky's the limit for this team," Upshaw said. "I want to teach these guys as much as I know."
He hopes to follow next season's Pride from long distance. Mihalich said a number of teams from overseas have called and asked about the player who had the breakout season.
Said Jewel, "It's really kind of a Cinderella story.''
Upshaw believes Mihalich's promise that his one year will allow him to be remembered and embraced at Hofstra for the next 40 years.
"It's an amazing feeling to be part of this family," Upshaw said. "To know that you're wanted and needed and appreciated is a great feeling."