Thursday, March 15, 2001

Holy Cross star nearly gave up the game

7-footer Sankes digusted by naked drill

The Associated Press

        UNIONDALE, N.Y. — For Josh Sankes, the road to the NCAA Tournament included some difficult twists and turns, a journey that was almost abandoned by the sensitive 7-footer.

        Sankes arrived at Holy Cross three years ago, confused about the game he had always played and dominated.

        While at Rutgers in 1997, Sankes was forced by his coach to take part in a foul-shooting drill in which he and three others wound up running sprints naked — an event that left him disgusted.

        He and Rutgers teammate Earl Johnson transferred, Sankes to the Crusaders and Johnson to Iona.

        “I was very close to quitting,” Sankes said Wednesday as 15th-seeded Holy Cross prepared for its first-round game today against second-seeded Kentucky. “I didn't know what I would do. I felt so degraded. I had no self-confidence.”

        Sankes' situation was complicated by his physical condition. He has a mild case of cerebral palsy, caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during a difficult delivery. It was diagnosed at birth, and the condition causes slight tremors in his hands and body.

        Between that and the Rutgers experience, Sankes felt he had

        reached the end of the line in basketball, even though he had been a highly sought recruit who averaged 18 points and 10.5 rebounds in his last season of high school.

        The Holy Cross scholarship was there for him, and that was a factor in continuing.

        “I thought it would be crazy to have my parents pay for college when I could get it for free,” he said.

        The caveat was, he had to play basketball, an activity that had become a burden.

        “He came into my office and said he didn't want to play anymore,” coach Ralph Willard said. “He felt he wasn't enjoying himself. You can't change what happened in the past. I never dwelled on the (Rutgers) incident. It's over. Too much was made of it. I told him to give it a shot.

        “I told him, "I'll protect you if you want to give it up.'”

        So the coach and player began practicing one-on-one, two guys alone in the gym.

        “The first day, he threw up,” Willard said. “He was just so upset.”

        After a while, Sankes started having a good time again. His smile was back, and by the middle of last season, basketball was fun once more.

        He became a major force for Holy Cross, the second- leading rebounder in the nation with 11.9 a game. He averaged 14.1 points and set a single-season school record for blocked shots with 69. There were 65 blocks this season when he averaged 12.9 points and 9.6 rebounds.

        Now Willard hopes Sankes can bottle up the middle against Kentucky and give the long-shot Crusaders a chance.

        “He's a great kid,” Willard said. “He's a very sensitive young man. He's got a lot of heart and a lot of courage. He's a lot tougher than everyone thinks he is. He's overcome a lot. Every night, he goes out there and gets 10 or 15 rebounds.

        “Unfortunately, he's just had some bad experiences and had to overcome them, but he has had the heart and courage to do that.”

        For Sankes, there is considerable satisfaction in making it to basketball's main stage. He looks at the NCAA Tournament grid and sees Iona and Holy Cross, while Rutgers sits at home after an 11-16 season.

        “It's definitely redemption for me and Earl Johnson,” Sankes said. “I'm happy for him, and I'm sure he's happy for me. For us to play in the ultimate tournament in the sport is great.

        “It's great how it's worked out.”

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