Judging from the way he leads a strong Stony Brook team and is becoming one of the best players in school history, you would assume that Akwasi Yeboah was a natural from the moment he picked up a basketball. And he would naturally laugh at that.
“I was terrible to begin with,” he said with a smile. “I was atrocious.”
He has worked literally day and night to make himself into someone averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 rebounds, both first on a team that is 16-3 overall, 4-0 in America East and heading into a big week with a road game Wednesday against longtime nemesis Albany and a first-place showdown against Vermont at home Saturday.
Yeboah’s story begins in Ghana, where he lived for the first nine years of his life. He was a soccer player there, and in Chigwell, England, a London suburb (and hometown of Pennsylvania founder William Penn), after his mother, Winifred, sought a good job in nursing and a better life for Akwasi and his older brother Kwame.
The latter was taller than most kids in his new high school and was recruited for basketball. Akwasi, then 13, would tag along to practice. “I actually fell in love with it because I saw him playing all the time,” he said, adding that the slight complication was that he was not good at it — and his physical education teacher, seeing promise in him, let him know it.
“It molded me into the hard-working person I am because I didn’t want to be the worst one on the team,” said Yeboah, now a redshirt junior. The team practiced at 7 a.m., then he would practice more on his own in the park after school. He improved so much that he was invited to enroll at Barking Abbey, a basketball academy in Essex. There, the team practiced after school, but he would work out on his own at 7 a.m.
In summer league games, he excelled against Redding, whose top player was Danny Carter, a forward at Stony Brook. Carter told then-coach Steve Pikiell about Yeboah. Pikiell watched tapes and stayed in touch. “Coach Pikiell made a deal with me and said if my team made it to the finals, he would come and watch,” Yeboah said before practice Monday. “He came and watched the final game. I did really well, and he offered me [a scholarship] right after the game.”
Pikiell, now the Rutgers coach, was honest enough to warn Yeboah that playing time might be scarce in 2015-16 and left it up to the player as to whether he wanted to sit out the season. After many conversations with his family and, he said, a lot of praying, he chose to redshirt the season that ended with Stony Brook’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Late at night, after each home game Jameel Warney and company played, Yeboah would go out on the court and work like crazy. He was a spectator at the Big Dance. “That gives me hunger, it fuels my fire to get there this year,” he said.
Stony Brook coach Jeff Boals said, “If you look at Kwas, he has made a jump from year to year to year. One game, he had six assists, another game he had 14 rebounds. He’s really comfortable with who he is and what this team needs him to do. He is on track to be the No. 2 scorer here, all-time. I don’t know if there’s a chance he can catch Jameel, but you’re talking about one of the best players ever to play here.”
Mihalich’s coaching sons
The coaching tree (composed of those who have followed a leader’s footsteps) and family tree are one and the same for Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich. All three of his sons have followed him into the profession.
Joe Jr. is an assistant coach at Penn. Matt is an assistant coach at Hartford and Tony is an assistant cross-country and track coach at George Mason. Despite having a busy season with a nation-leading 14-game winning streak, the patriarch said, “We talk three times a day.” In fact, Joe Jr. gave him insight that his dad used in describing the Pride Saturday, that some players become afraid of losing while others focus only on winning.
“I think they’re great, I’m proud of them,” the dad said, adding that he can’t compare notes as much with Tony, “but he’s got a passion for track the way I’ve got a passion for basketball.”