Just Call Me Coach

February 19, 2012   ·   0 Comments

by Cody Norman

Nothing came easy for Erik Copes. Both of his parents were drug addicts, forcing Copes to endure a rough early childhood in South Philadelphia behind the support of his godmother before reuniting with his mother after her rehabilitation.

“Everything was always hard for me,” Copes said. “It was always tough for me, financially and emotionally. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was a kid who was misdirected and I got pushed in the right direction.”

It began on Thanksgiving Day. Copes was just 12 years old and, despite his young age, Copes was mature beyond his years, already having endured so much in his life and persevering through a rough childhood in south Philadelphia. He approached his uncle, Roland Houston, in hopes that Houston might teach him how to play basketball.

“He really didn’t believe that I really wanted to do it,” Copes said. “But I did. I really wanted to play. And I really wanted to learn how to play.”

Houston added: “I asked him, ‘Do you want to just play? Or do you want to really play?’ And I told him to be careful what he wished for.”

Testing his young nephew, Houston sent Copes to a basketball camp at Drexel University to begin building a foundation. After returning home, Copes approached his uncle again and asked him for guidance.

“I think it was then that he really thought, ‘Hey, this kid must be serious,’” Copes said.

With Houston serving as an assistant coach at George Washington University, Copes would travel down from south Philadelphia to stay with his uncle for weeks at a time. He worked to prove to Houston that he wanted to be good. He wanted to be recruited and he wanted to be one of those kids who, coming out of high school, was ranked among the top 50 in the nation.

“He told me I could do it,” Copes said. “That’s one thing he never did: he never lied to me. He always told me the truth. He was always right there to tell me I could be great, but it was up to me if I wanted to be great.”

As the driving force behind several city and state championships throughout his high school career, Copes found himself ranked as the 56th best player in the 2011 recruiting class. At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Copes could have played at nearly any Division-I school in the nation.

But, that wasn’t what Copes had in mind.

“I think his dream was always for me to coach him,” Houston said. “And I’ve always wanted to coach him.”

Shortly after his graduation, though, Copes received a phone call from his uncle with news that Karl Hobbs, coach of George Washington, had been fired.

“When I first found out, I panicked,” Copes said. “[Houston] didn’t know where he was going, and I didn’t know what to do. It scared the hell out of me.”

While Houston weighed his options, Copes waited for the Colonials to withdrawal his letter of intent so that he could begin searching for a place where maybe, just maybe, he might be able to team up with his uncle after all.

After being offered the opportunity to join Paul Hewitt’s staff at Mason, Houston signed on to coach the Patriots. Shortly thereafter, Copes signed his letter of intent and committed to making his childhood dream a reality, joining his uncle in Fairfax.

“Of course I wanted to play for my uncle,” Copes said. “He’s like my father figure; he’s my coach; he’s my mentor; he’s my brother; he’s my best friend. Just imagine everything that you ever wanted all in one and that’s my uncle.”

Early in his freshman season, Copes recognized that Houston was less vocal with him at practice. Houston had toned down the highly intense coaching style that Copes grew up enjoying, so much so that Copes began to wonder if something was wrong.

“I went up to him at practice,” Copes said. “I put my hand on his shoulder and asked if there was something wrong. When he doesn’t scream at me, I feel like there’s something wrong with me.

“But I definitely don’t think he’s too hard on me. I think he’s just right.”

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