For some reason, it is always in our intrinsic nature to root for the underdogs. Perhaps it is because of their ability to relate with the average working man, battling the rigors of nine-to-five drudgery in everyday life, only to prevail above all odds. We have seen the Cinderella story of Rocky countless times. We have seen the Red Sox rallying from behind to shock the Yankees in the 2004 postseason. We have seen the 2007 Giants dethroning the seemingly invincible Patriots. Whatever the situation, it is always a moral victory for anyone when the underdogs prevail.
The same goes for freshman forward Eric Wise. Standing at a measly 6 feet 5 inches and 235 pounds, Wise has dominated players taller than him. He has always been the smaller guy, but it only motivates him to work harder than the person next to him.
“I’ve always been smaller than everybody my whole life up until sixth grade. I’ve always been the smallest guy at my position, but it doesn’t bother me — it only just makes me work harder,” Wise said.
His hard work ethic reflects his success on the court — just let his stats do the talking. He leads UC Irvine as the team’s top leading scorer at 13.0 points per game and is second in rebounding at 5.8 on average. Wise is the only freshman to rank in the Big West’s top 15 in scoring and rebounding — sixth in scoring and ninth in rebounding. If he can continue this streak of success, the Big West Freshman of the Year honors only awaits him.
Despite the flashy display of stats and the Freshman of the Year (FOY) honors pending, he still remains humble and cognizant of the goal he ultimately wants: a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Even if he doesn’t put up the numbers he wants for himself, he realizes that the team is more important than his individual satisfaction.
“I just try to do whatever my coaches want me to do — the award will just work itself out,” Wise said. “It’s definitely the team that is more important. If I get zero points and we make it to the NCAA Tournament, I won’t be mad.”
It’s often rare to see an athlete working his way to the top and not allowing his ego to run rampant. But for Wise, that kind of mindset has been learned from his dad, the backbone and inspiration of his basketball endeavors.
“I like to think I’m more of the team-player kind of guy. When guys are not selfish, it helps a lot more. [My dad] reminds me every time about not getting ahead of myself and just working hard every day,” Wise said.
For Wise, he is fortunate to have a mentor like his father, who was a former Long Beach State All-American and 49ers career leader in rebounds from 1976 to 1980. But every now and then, who is to say that they can’t play a few games of one on one occasionally?
“[My dad would] probably win though, if I played him in his prime. His knees are too bad right now, but I could probably take him out — he’d beat me every now and then though,” Wise said, with a slight smirk.
His confident yet humble words probably stem from his belief that he’s a mixture of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’ Neal, though.
“I like Shaq more because he’s a funny and a free-spirited guy — kind of like me; but I play more like Charles Barkley,” he said.
If Wise is talking about Barkley’s uncanny ability to roll past bigger defenders and to snare in rebounds as an undersized forward like himself, then he just might be right. In fact, Wise did average 5.8 rebounds per game and is second for most rebounds on his team — at least he has his stats to corroborate his claims.
But what is the driving force to his success on the court? Wise may be a little hesitant as to what it actually is, but he did offer an unexpected short explanation.
“Lil’ Wayne,” Wise said.
It is the attitude that Lil’Wayne, one of the music industry’s hottest rappers today, brings to his music — the confidence, the swagger and the unrestrained feelings of competence above all others — that Wise uses to fuel his mind during game days.
“Lil Wayne [has] that swag you know? I’ve been listening to him for 10 years — he’s been my favorite rapper. I like to think I swag it out a little bit.”
If that is actually the key to his success, then it is definitely working. Even his high school friend, Rashaad Ubah, now a UCI freshman forward, can attest to his high level of play during game days.
“His IQ [in basketball] is just crazy — on the court he’s so mature for his age — he learns a lot from his dad. He’s so competitive. He’s always joking off the court, but when he’s on the court, he just always wants to win,” Ubah said.
Given Wise’s small stature at his position, he still plays with a sense of authority and tenacity. And like that old adage, actions do speak louder than words.
“Some lead by words, some lead by actions; but Eric is the type that leads by actions. But when you’re in the huddle, regardless of something good or bad, you’re going to hear something from him,” Ubah said.
Despite being a little physically short in the basketball game, his mindset and gritty style of play only makes up for it. Like an underdog, he can grind it out and prevail. But as long as he can “swag it out” too, then maybe it won’t be a problem for him.