Quincy Acy is happy to talk about Ekpe Udoh. Asked to share their story a day before facing his friend as a professional, he lights up.
"I can't tell you how much I think of him as a human being," Acy says of the Milwaukee Bucks big man. "I just watch him. I've been watching him for what, six years, seven years? It's just amazing to see how he is as a person. He's such a good dude. He's a brother to me."
Seven months ago, Acy arrived in Newark for the 2012 NBA Draft, his Baylor Bear brother in attendance and at his side. Baylor head coach Scott Drew sat nearby, there for Acy and fellow Bears Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller. Acy's camp expected him to go to the Golden State Warriors at No. 35, but the Warriors didn't expect Draymond Green to be available. "Numbers came up, I wasn't being selected, so I was like, ‘Okay,'" Acy says.
Soon after Green went to Golden State, Acy's agent received a text from Raptors executive vice-president Ed Stefanski. It said "we got your guy."
"It's my agent's first time," Acy says. "So he was like, ‘I don't know if I should get excited right now, but it looks good.' Then: ‘With the 37th pick, the Toronto Raptors select Quincy Acy.'
"It was just like, damn. It was like, ‘I made it.' But I didn't want to make it something like I made it because I still knew I had a long way to go. But that was a big accomplishment for me, that's what I wanted -- to get my name called."
Few things compare to sharing that success. "It was a great feeling, just to be around him and his whole family and be able to take that next step," says Udoh. "Hearing his name called draft day, it was a beautiful thing."
"Ekpe was probably just as happy for Quincy as Quincy was for himself," says Drew.
Two years before that at Madison Square Garden, Udoh dialed Acy's number. Backstage, shortly after shaking David Stern's hand, the No. 6 pick of the 2010 draft told Acy that since he'd seen what it took, it was his turn. "It's just showing what hard work's about, man." says Udoh. "It ain't easy."
Watching Udoh work and seeing him succeed had an impact on Acy. Just ask anyone in Baylor's locker room when he was a senior.
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"He was the heart and soul of our team," says Baylor guard Brady Heslip. "He was the leader of our team. He brought the intensity every day. When we needed intensity, he was there to give it to us. He just plays with so much intensity and it rubs off on other guys."
"Quincy Acy by his senior year was an unbelievable leader and a lot of that he learned from Ekpe," says Drew. "He was mature enough to want to lead -- always paid attention to the scouting reports, made sure people weren't joking around, made sure people were focused -- there were so many Big 12 coaches who respected him on how hard he played and what a fierce competitor he was, but with all that being said he was a great leader as well. Only our staff had an opportunity to see how he helped the young guys."
This sentiment is all the more impressive if you know how far he's come.
Acy joined the Texas Blue Chips AAU team as a 6'4 ninth grader. His teammates called him "the Cookie Monster" because he gobbled up rebounds, but he didn't exactly play like a pro prospect. "[Acy] could not chew gum and walk at the same time," says Blue Chips head coach Mitch Malone.
Udoh was in the 11th grade at the time, playing for the older team in the program. He was a fair bit farther along than Acy, whether you're talking about drop steps or discipline.
The coaching staff at Santa Fe High in Edmond, Oklahoma called Udoh "The Professor" because of his smarts on the court. But Guy Hardaker, head coach at the time, first encountered him as a student in his wife's second grade class. Hardaker took him under his wing and to summer AAU tournaments, where Udoh shaved "BLOCK PARTY" into his hair. "I think he knew he was going to be in the NBA when he was in second grade," says Hardaker.
Despite that determination, Udoh wasn't heavily recruited in high school and Hardaker himself had no idea he'd be an NBA player. Before deciding to go to the University of Michigan, Udoh considered doing an extra year at prep school. He went back to the Blue Chips the summer before he became a Wolverine, playing on the same team as Acy. No one referred to Acy as anything resembling "The Professor".
"I was a hothead. Not like crazy, but just like, I don't know, I would get techs," says Acy with a giant grin, knowing he picked up three technical fouls in his first 34 minutes on the floor as a Toronto Raptor.
"I get techs now but it's for overaggressiveness," he explains. "When I would get techs then it was for saying stuff to the refs. I don't know, I was real passionate. I'm passionate now, but it was like I was emotional-passionate and it was crazy. I just had to learn to calm down.
"My father didn't really grow up with me so I looked to [my AAU coaches] as fathers," Acy continues. "If I would get a tech during the game, they'd pull me out and give me 50 pushups on the side and then put me back in. It was little stuff like that that instilled discipline in me while letting me learn from my mistakes at the same time."
Acy's mother, Renata King, traveled with the team in the summer and cooked meals for the players. Udoh would "eat enough for like three human beings", says Malone, and King accommodated that. A three hour drive from Edmond, Udoh spent a lot of time with Acy at Malone's house.
When Udoh went to Michigan, he kept in touch with Acy, encouraging him and offering advice. "When I was getting ready to make my decision for college I was talking to him, like ‘How you gonna know? How do you know what college to choose?'" says Acy. "He was just like, ‘When you get there on your visit, you'll know.' He said it'll feel like home."
Baylor ended up feeling a lot like home for Acy, not just on his visit. While Udoh was comfortable off the court at Michigan, the Wolverines' offense didn't give him an opportunity to show scouts what he could do. Going against Hardaker's advice to see things through, he transferred to Baylor after his sophomore season and became roommates with a freshman Acy.
Brandon Grier, Udoh's friend and now Acy's manager, transferred from Michigan to Baylor at the same time and lived with them. Grier remembers the two being "total opposites", a young Acy blasting his music and learning a few lessons from the more mellow Udoh. "Quincy would go spend [his scholarship check] the first couple weeks, if not the first week, and be broke for the rest of the month," says Grier. "So Ekpe would have to take care of him and have to teach him how to not go buy a sound system for your car and make sure you can eat for the whole month."
(L-R: Acy, Grier, Udoh, teammate Fred Ellis. Photo via Brandon Grier)
"They used to call Ekpe ‘Pops' because he acted so old for his age," says Drew. "And Quincy Acy probably was the little brother that was always full of energy and always running around, jumping around, doing everything. So we had ‘Father Time and Wisdom' ... and then you had Quincy."
Udoh sat out Acy's freshman year because of NCAA transfer rules, but he was there to assist Acy as he adjusted to the next level. The following season was something special -- the Bears jumped over expectations, into the Elite Eight and the national spotlight. Acy had a 10-dunk explosion one game, Udoh had a 10-block triple-double another. In Udoh's final college game, a dogfight against Duke, he finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, five blocks and a steal.
"I was so totally wrong about it," says Hardaker of Udoh's decision to transfer. "Ekpe knew. Ekpe knew what was best for him. That's how he is. It was absolutely the best thing he could have ever done."
Acy was a lot less sure about his NBA future. While Udoh stood 6'10 with a 7'4.5 wingspan, the 6'7 Acy knew since high school he'd be battling bigger bodies and the perception he was too short. NBA teams wouldn't see him as a starter, but he sought to show them he could bring energy, effort and rebounding. Toward the end of his final Big 12 season, he called Grier late at night and expressed some doubt.
"He'd had a couple of bad games and he's looking at the mock drafts and none of them had him on there -- maybe one had him in the late 50's," says Grier. "He didn't see it ... he didn't feel like he was going to be rewarded or he was on track to be an NBA player."
Grier told Acy to keep playing the way he always has. What followed was a tournament run similar to the one he shared with Udoh as a sophomore. Acy had 20 points and 15 rebounds in the Sweet Sixteen against Xavier, then 22 and eight in a loss to eventual champion Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
After finishing school, he went to Detroit to train with Pershing High head coach A.W. Canada -- the same man who prepped Udoh pre-draft. Acy woke up at 5:30 a.m. for 6:00 basketball workouts. He followed that with two hours of strength and conditioning work, then went back to the gym at night to shoot. Still, he wasn't sure he'd get the shot he wanted.
Acy and Grier had another heart-to-heart. "I got a son, I got a girlfriend, I got a family to provide for and I don't know my next step," Acy says he told him. "I'm going to work hard, but I don't know if I'm going to get drafted. I don't know what's going to happen.
"I remember it got emotional," Acy continues. "I was just like, ‘I don't know. I'm not in college, I'm not on scholarship no more, I really have to dig deep.' He was just like, ‘I believe in you.' He said, ‘You're going to get drafted, don't worry about nothing.' He said, ‘I believe in you because I know you.'"
Acy impressed in a rigorous team workout schedule and dressed in suits Udoh purchased for interviews. "I had like 17 workouts," says Acy. "Every one, I just went all-out. I was just going my hardest." He showcased his energy and that he could shoot better than the scouting report said. It takes only one team and it turned out to be Toronto.
Acy started 2012-2013 on the Raptors' roster but out of the rotation. He played 29 minutes before January.
Udoh could relate, remembering being frustrated and sidelined with a wrist injury at the outset of his career. "You're not out there, you want to be out there with your team," says Udoh. The advice he offered Acy: don't get down on yourself. "That's all I can do is encourage him ... [to] get better in the gym on [his] own time."
"That's what I used to say!" says a delighted Drew, who heard the same thing from his father, longtime college coach Homer Drew. "That's good that they're passing that on ... It's a marathon and not a sprint and I think they know that."
Drew texts or talks with Acy at least once a week and says regardless of playing time Acy never sounds down.
"Honestly, I'm a spiritual dude and I pray and I read the bible and that really helps me," says Acy. "It keeps me humble. It keeps me hungry. It makes me realize that I asked to be in this position. I wanted it so bad to be in the NBA and when you want something so bad, you gotta get everything else that comes with it. You can't complain. I wanted to be here, I'm here. So now it's ‘Okay, now what? What else do you want? Do you want to excel?' So now it's I want to excel, so I have to work hard. I can't get down on myself. I have a bad game, okay, it happens. Learn from it and get better. Just keep working hard. And no matter if I play zero minutes or if I'm logging in 20 minutes, I gotta be the same. I gotta be the same mentally. I just gotta approach it all the same."
Acy's patience and persistence were recently rewarded. With big men Jonas Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani out with injuries, more minutes materialized. Acy made many mistakes but head coach Dwane Casey is impressed with how he's improved in the past month, picking up nuances, getting a better understanding of angles and schemes.
"When opportunity knocks, you gotta be able to walk through the door," Casey says.
Earlier this month, Udoh played against the man he mentored at the Air Canada Centre. Their first regular season NBA game against one another, it was a moment both had been waiting for.
"He did his thing and now he's here," Udoh says proudly. "Now he sees what I was talking about."