With 12 seconds left, and the Crusaders clinging to a 58-57 lead over 25th ranked Harvard, Eric Green misfired on a 12-foot jumper — a chance to hammer perhaps the final nail in the Crimson’s coffin — putting the ball right into the hands of Wesley Saunders, Harvard’s 6-foot-5 inch, 225 pound dynamo who was the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year who had already lit Holy Cross up for 24 points and 12 rebounds and who, a day later, would be chosen to the Wooden Award Preseason Top 50.
Green didn’t hesitate, didn’t pound the floorboards or sulk, even for a second. Before his errant jumper had finished plummeting back to the hardwood, the Holy Cross’ junior had already forgotten about it.
He had Harvard — and Saunders — right where he wanted them, and was still in prime position to give the Crusaders their first win over a ranked opponent since 1977a.
“On offense, if I’m not scoring, I really don’t let that get to me, because I know I can still have a big impact on the game with my defense,” he explained, almost prophetically, two days before Holy Cross tipped off its season under the bright lights of the TD Garden for the nightcap of the Coaches vs. Cancer Tiple Header against the Crimson. “I can’t let my offense carry over to my defense.”
Green pounced on the far burlier Saunders at three quarters court, and stayed glued to his hip, step for step, as the potential NBA draft pick turned on the jets and tried to blow by him. Saunders stopped on a dime on the right wing, and Green was still there with him. Unable to blow by him, Saunders sized up his smaller opponent, dribbling between his legs, left to right, before attacking the hoop.
Green was still right there, his eyes burning with intensity as he stared down one of the best players in the country.
His path to the rim impeded, Saunders drove right, before hitting Green with a spin move — the kind that comes out of nowhere and has left many a defender on the ground, searching for his sneakers.
Green was unfazed.
Unable to juke around or blow by Green, Saunders tried to use brute force, planting his right shoulder squarely in the middle of the skinny wing’s chest.
Green was unmoved.
Saunders still had one final trick up his sleeve — the tried and true pump fake — the one that had helped him get to the free-throw line 445 times up until that point in his career.
Green didn’t bite, and stood straight up, hands in Saunders face, before contesting Saunders off-balance shot, that clanged off the front of the rim. The buzzer sounded. The Crusaders’ rushed the floor, embracing at center court.
“Eric Green is a monster. If there’s a better perimeter defender, I haven’t seen him,” said head coach Milan Brown following the game.
Green finished the game with 12 points and two steals, shooting 6-of-11 from the floor including a high-flying two handed slam in the second half in which he hit the rim like a heat seeking missile. But as his teammates whooped it up on the Celtics’ half court logo, Green stepped back and smiled as other’s took the spotlight.
“Once he steps on the floor he’s a completely different person than he is off the court. It’s crazy, as a player he is very athletic, very dynamic, he makes some crazy plays – he’ll go up there, he’ll finish, he’s a high-flyer, he’ll dunk, he’ll rebound, block shots,” marveled senior captain Justin Burrell. “But off the court, he’s the complete opposite: He’s a very, very laid back guy, you’ll barely hear him talk. He’s always around us, but he’ll just slip in a couple words sometimes.”
Just call the junior from Mountain House, California — a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exburb off of I-205 a few miles outside of San Francisco — basketball’s Jekyll and Hyde: On the court, he’s a high-flying, slam dunking, pick-pocketing, shot-swatting ball of energy capable of taking over games on the defensive end. Off it, he’s so soft-spoken that getting him to give himself even a mild complement (he gave himself a “B-minus” as a grade for his first season of college basketball, more on that later) is akin to pulling teeth.
He’s also one of the game’s great untold stories, even if he needs a great deal of coaxing, cajoling, and help from teammates and coaches to finally tell it.
“Eric Green has a tremendous story behind him,” said Burrell. “For him to come to the east coast, go away from his family, which is very hard at his age, and then when he thought that he had the opportunity to come and play basketball and then lose a year of eligibility. For him to come in and put in the work even though he wasn’t able to play, and then for him to come in the next year and do the things that he did is a tremendous story.”
Growing up in Mountain House, Green was raised by his mother and grandmother, two strong women and members of the Hualapai tribe who instilled in him both a love of basketball, and a strong identity with his Native American roots.
“Their both full-blooded Hualapai,” he said, speaking of his mother and grandmother’s tribe, which originally lived in the mountains of northwestern Arizona. “I actually talked to my grandma about [what name she prefers for racial identity], she has a real strong opinion on this, and she’s said ‘Native American,’ — she likes that the best because we’re the first Americans,” he explained. “My mother is full-blooded Native American, and that identity is really important to her as well.”
It was Green’s mother, who played college basketball at Delaware State and who he calls “the biggest impact in my life in basketball,” who not only introduced him to the game, but served as his first coach.
“My mom actually put me on this basketball team, and she wound up coaching me all the way up until high school,” he said.
Green began his career playing at West High School in Tracy, California, but during a summer tournament in Las Vegas, caught the eyes of St. Mark’s head coach Dave Lubick. Enrolling at St. Mark’s meant reclassify and moving across the country, away from his family, no easy task for a teenager. It also meant that the laid back Cali-kid was due for a collision course with New England’s brutal winters.
“I’d seen snow a couple times before, but nothing like snow everyday. I’m used to it now, but the first couple winters were really cold,” he laughed.
At St. Mark’s, Green found himself playing besides and against the likes of future NBA-ers Nik Stauskas and Nerlens Noel, and college stars Georges Niang and Kaleb Tarczewski in the NEPSAC Class AA — one of the best prep conferences in the country. Green spent much of his career in the shadows of teammates Tarczewski and Stauskas, but established himself as a ferocious defender and key cog on the team, earning ISL Defensive Player of the Year honors while helping to lead St. Mark’s to a league championship over Noel’s Tilton School as a senior.
“When I say Eric Green is a great defender, I mean Eric Green is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country,” Brown explained last year. “Eric Green played in the same conference as Nerlens Noel and Eric Green won Defensive Player of the Year honors.”
But for all of his experiences playing under the bright spot lights against future NBAers, one of Green’s most cherished basketball experiences from high school was suiting up for his tribe in the NABI (Native American Basketball Invitation), the largest all Native American basketball tournament in North America, and the first Native American tournament sanctioned by the NCAA.
“Tribes from all over the country put together teams of high school students. I played in that. That was pretty cool seeing a lot of Native Americans from all over the country all in one place playing basketball,” he explained.
Green committed to Holy Cross, which is located about a half an hour away from St. Mark’s, but hit a snag as his freshman season approached in the fall of 2012. The NCAA declared that Green had played too many years of high school basketball and ruled him ineligible for his freshman season while stripping a year of eligibility. Green would spend his freshman season practicing on the scout team, unable to suite up in games or even travel with the team on the road.
“The year I sat out was pretty tough. The coaches would talk to me to keep me motivated and that helped a lot. My contributions during practice were geared towards helping everybody else for the scout team and stuff like that,” he explained.
While Green downplayed his impact on the team during the season he sat out, according to Burrell, his work ethic, effort and involvement left a lasting impact on the Crusaders.
“I don’t know how I would have handled it if I’d have lost a year of eligibility: If I couldn’t play in games, couldn’t travel with the team, and was forced to workout and practice,” said Burrell. “I would have maybe hung my head a little bit, but you never saw that from him. He stayed in the gym, stayed focused, stayed improving his craft, and we noticed that.”
Last season, as a sophomore, Green began the year coming off the bench while he shook off the rust of an entire season away from organized games, but worked his way into the starting lineup and emerging as the team’s lock down defensive player.
“Eric Green gives you a guy that you can just put on the other team’s best scorer and really take that guy out of the game,” said Brown.
Green appeared in 34 games, starting 27, and averaged 7.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.7 rebounds, all while sticking to opposing scorers like glue. Despite his impact (Brown noted the jolt of energy Green gave the team when he was inserted into the starting lineup) after sitting out an entire season, Green saw several aspects of his game that required work.
“If I had to give myself a grade, I’d probably give myself a B-minus, maybe. I felt like I did an alright job but there was a lot of room for improvement.”
While Green’s offensive game may have been rough around the edges, he still brought the Hart Center house down nightly with high-flying slam dunks.
“Oh Eric gets up, Eric gets way up,” laughed Burrell.
In his first game against Harvard, Green appeared to show off a few new wrinkles, hitting several mid-range jumpers to go along with trademark high-flying slam dunk.
“The way I played last year, I didn’t really try to score as much, but this year I’m more confident in myself offensively,” he said.
A junior majoring in sociology, Green has thought a bit about pursuing professional basketball after he graduates, but he doesn’t want to lock himself into any career goals yet.
“Part of me wants to continue playing basketball, but a lot could change. I’m really just seeing where my path takes me.”
And in the immediate future he only has one goal in mind.
“My goals for the season and my career is definitely to win a Patriot League championship and to go to the NCAA Tournament, and become the best basketball player I can be along the way.”
Follow One-Bid Wonders Editor-in-Chief Sam Perkins on Twitter at @onebidwonders.