Eric Fanning went out for a walk one day in Trenton, New Jersey, heading nowhere in particular at the time. Eight years later, he finally found his destination.
“It’s definitely been an interesting journey, I wasn’t expecting to be here when I set out on it,” says Boston University’s 6-foot-5-inch small forward.
What was supposed to be a quick jaunt around his new neighborhood turned into an eight-year basketball odyssey, one that included stints as a top high school prospect in New Jersey, Player of the Year honors at a private school in Pennsylvania, and riding the pine at Wagner University, before finally finding a home at Boston University.
It all began on a couch in a darkened room in Trenton, New Jersey, a struggling city with skyrocketing homicide rates.
“I usually just stayed home and played video games and stuff,” says Fanning, remembering back eight years ago to when his family moved to Trenton when he was 15.
It’s never easy to uproot your entire life and move to a completely new community, but as a high school underclassman, it was particularly difficult for Fanning, and for several weeks after relocating, Fanning barely left the house.
But cabin fever eventually set in and, one day, Fanning went out for a walk, with no particular destination in mind, and eventually found himself inside the local rec. center.
“I walked in and some guy came up to me, I was about 5’10”-5’11” maybe, and he said you’re pretty tall do you want to play,” says Fanning, who had never played a second of basketball before in his life. “Ever since then, I played on his team, I scored for him my first ever game and ever since then I wanted to play. I never stopped since that day.”
Fans on Comm. Ave and opponents around the Patriot League are used to seeing Fanning, who ranks second on the Terriers in scoring at 12.3 points per game, drive to the rim off the dribble, finish off a fast break with a high-flying dunk, or knock down an open 3-pointer. But for his early career, Fanning was strictly a back to the basket low-post big.
“Our high school was kind of small and I was playing the big man for my first two years, in public school,” says Fanning. “Then my AAU coach told me you’re not really growing anymore so you need to develop your game as a guard or a wing.”
“He’s still pretty new to the game of basketball, and he’s still learning some of the finer aspects of the game and of playing on the wing,” says Boston University head coach Joe Jones. “But I actually think the fact that he’s so new to the sport and spent some time in the post works to his advantage, because he doesn’t have some of those ingrained bad-habits, and he’s a tough, tough kid.”
While many of Fanning’s high school peers were fine tuning their games by working one-on-one with private coaches and playing for multiple AAU programs, Fanning took an old-school approach: Finding open runs all around Trenton every week.
“I just played in games, leagues around my city,” he says. “Maybe two/three games a week,” he says.
While Fanning didn’t grow up immersed in basketball culture or hoops lore, he quickly found motivation to excel in the game: The potential of a college scholarship and respect among his peers.
“I was playing with a lot of good players who ended up playing Division I basketball,” he says. “I wanted to get respect they had around the city: everyone loved them, everyone wanted them on their team.
“I saw that and I kind of pushed myself to be like the other guys who were good around the city.”
After two years of public high school, Fanning transferred to Perkiomen, a private school in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, and finally began the transitions from the front court to the back court.
“My junior year of high school, my handle was getting a little better, I was shooting the ball well, and once I started hitting a few shots I became confident,” he says.
At Perkiomen, Fanning blossomed into a prolific scorer, and as a senior led his team to the Tri-County title while winning Pottsmerc Player of the Year honors. During the year, Fanning committed to play his college ball for then Wagner head coach Danny Hurley, but before Fanning even enrolled Hurley took a gig at URI. Fanning could have opened back up is recruiting, but decided instead to honor his commitment to the school and play for new Wagner head coach Bashir Mason.
Fanning’s freshman year was a roller coaster as he tried to make inroads with a new coach and a new scheme. As a true freshman, Fanning averaged 6.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 16.7 minutes per game while shooting 46.2 percent from the field, cracking double-figures six times, but he found himself on the outside of the rotation looking in halfway through conference play, and did not leave the bench from Feb. 8 on.
Still, Fanning saw his time at Wagner as a valuable learning and growing experience.
“It allowed me to see what the next level was,” he says. “I didn’t really know what to do, I was used to scoring at will in high school and college, and I needed to pretty much work on my stuff.”
In the summer of 2013, Fanning transferred to Boston University. NCAA transfer rules forced Fanning to sit out the 2013-2014 season, but Fanning used his red-shirt year to continue to work on his game, and the sounds of Fanning hoisting jump shot after jump shot echoing around an empty Agganis Arena were two hours before and an hour after home games last season.
“Sitting out a year allowed me to really see the game of basketball, see how it’s being played, what it takes to win,” says Fanning. “It’s still taking me a while to get adjusted to the game, knowing the little things, what it takes to win.”
It was also a year in which Fanning built strong bonds with his coaching staff.
“During my year off, coach would always call me after games, ask me if I watched the game, what I saw, and he would always tell me things that I didn’t see that were important in the game,” says Fanning. “He would always tell me the little things it would take to win, and now it’s carrying over.”
Fanning spent much of the non-conference slate shaking off the rust accumulated from a year sitting on the bench, but showed flashes of his potential, including a 12 point performance at top-ranked Kentucky, and a 17-point, seven-rebound effort in 23 minutes against Saint Peter’s.
“In the beginning of the season I wasn’t really confident in myself, I wasn’t taking shots I was supposed to,” he says.
Fanning credits his coaching staff with keeping his confidence up during his early struggles.
“All of the coaches kept relaying to me to keep being confident play my game because they knew what I could do in practice so it was on me to come out and do it in the game,” he says. “I think maybe after the Kentucky game, I kind of started to figure out how I needed to score.”
Fanning has been a completely different player since the Patriot League slate tipped off, scoring in double figures in 13 out of 18 conference games, after reaching the double-digit plateau just three times in his first 10 games against Diviison I foes.
“Once league play started, I knew guys that were playing really well during non conference games like John [Papale] and Cedric [Hankerson], that they were going to key on them, Nate and Justin as well, so just taking some of the pressure off those guys,” he says.
Fanning has scored 20 points or more four times against Patriot League foes, including three-straight games from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, including a career-high 27 points on 7-of-11 shooting, to go with eight rebounds and four assists, against Army.
Some players in Fanning’s position – the second leading scorer, still relegated to a role coming off the bench on a team desperately in need of scoring punch – might grow disgruntled, but Fanning says he has embraced his role as instant offense.
“It’s actually a benefit to come off the bench because as the starters play you can see the tempo of the game [and] what needs to be done,” he says. “When I come in the game I try and do something that I saw from watching the first five or six minutes.”
Fanning’s toughness and physicality, developed all those years ago as a young player through into the low post at a small school, have also provided a big boost for a young, undersized Terriers team lacking front court depth.
“He’s a guy who we can use at the four as well as the two and the three,” says Jones. “He brings toughness, he’s willing to mix it up, and he goes at people, and we’ve needed that.
When the fifth-seeded Terriers tip-off against four-seed Lafayette on the road tonight, Fanning will be sitting in his normal seat on the bench, watching the game and analyzing his opponent, ready for whenever and whatever he is called upon to do.
“I’ll just keep working on my game,” he says. “Whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll do.”