Maryland, Georgetown battling for local recruit Moses Abraham

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; D01

Even as a 9-year-old attending seminary school in Kano, Nigeria, the tall boy with the long arms dreamed he could be a good basketball player. But Moses Abraham thought he wanted to grow up to be a Catholic priest back then, so he played the sport only once or twice a month.

Ten years later, Abraham stands 6 feet 9 and weighs 237 pounds. Though still religious, he has turned his focus to basketball, and less than four months after arriving in the United States, Abraham has become a highly sought-after prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.

On Sunday, Abraham will make his college choice, and while many Division I bluebloods have demonstrated considerable interest in obtaining his services, Abraham is expected to decide between the two schools that have pursued him since nearly the day he stepped on United States soil. Georgetown or Maryland? The region's most prominent college basketball programs await his answer.

Abraham arrived at Dulles International Airport on Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving, sulking under the weight of his only possession: a backpack. He came under the care of Joseph Boncore, a former Good Counsel assistant who now trains and looks after international players. In the coming months, Abraham lived at a boarding house near Progressive Christian Academy, where he attended class and competed on the basketball squad. On the weekends, he stayed with Boncore at his Rockville residence.

Foreign players typically spend more than one year at high schools or prep schools adjusting to American culture and basketball style, but Abraham plans to enroll at a university less than 10 months after departing his home country.

For college coaches looking to fill a remaining spot in their 2010 recruiting class with a high-ceiling big man, Abraham represents a grand opportunity. Consequently, the likes of Texas, Kentucky, Florida, UCLA, Connecticut, Tennessee and Indiana have shown up to make their respective sales pitches.

But Georgetown and Maryland possess the edge of having been involved with Abraham from the very beginning, and each program has reason to believe it will be his choice Sunday.

Boncore said Thursday he did not know which school Abraham would pick and left open the possibility that Abraham might surprise everyone with his decision. When Boncore asked Abraham a week ago which direction he might be leaning, Abraham responded, "I want to still do all the cards."

Trust on Terrapins' side

Boncore once was a well-renowned chef and spent the early part of his adulthood making good money in the kitchens of different high-class restaurants across the country. One day, he said his boss and childhood friend, Mamma Lucia's co-owner Jimmy Fragoyannis, could tell that he was unhappy in his work and suggested Boncore return to his first passion: basketball.

A 5-foot-11 point guard, Boncore grew up on military bases overseas and said he remains the career assists leader for military high schools in Italy. Boncore said Maryland basketball games were the only live college basketball contests that were broadcast over the radio on the military bases.

"Me and my brothers would listen to Adrian Branch playing against Ralph Sampson," Boncore said. "We grew up listening to Maryland basketball even though we never saw them play. We heard about Albert King and Buck Williams, and those were our heroes."

Boncore took Fragoyannis's advice and, through old connections, began training American high school players in the D.C. area, where he has family ties. These days, he drives an airport shuttle and occasionally fills in as a chef at local restaurants.

Last spring, Boncore said he became friends with Maryland assistant Rob Ehsan, who was recruiting some of the players Boncore looked after. As soon as Abraham arrived, Boncore informed Ehsan of his new prospect, and on Nov. 28 -- the day after Maryland returned from playing in the Maui Invitational -- Ehsan came to see Abraham work out.

Well regarded as a personable recruiter, Ehsan quickly developed a bond with Abraham. According to Boncore, of the all the college coaches who have recruited Abraham, the player feels comfortable talking to just four of them: Ehsan, Indiana Coach Tom Crean, Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes and former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr.

On an unofficial visit to College Park in mid-December, Abraham walked on the court at Comcast Center with assistant Chuck Driesell and freshman forward Jordan Williams. Driesell asked Abraham how high he could jump. In jeans and a jacket, Abraham leapt up and hit his elbow on the rim of one of the baskets.

Ehsan remained in close touch with Boncore and Abraham over the following weeks, making it clear from his standpoint that the Terrapins wanted Abraham to sign with them. But Boncore expressed frustration at times when Maryland assistants said they would bring Coach Gary Williams to Progressive Christian games and then not come.

"I'm waiting for Williams to sit down and really say something," Boncore said Feb. 16. "We'll see what happens. Rob is saying one thing, too. So I'm trying to figure out exactly where he's coming from. I mean, I'm a huge Maryland fan. But man, I cannot figure them out. I just don't understand their modes of operation."

Abraham said he became enamored with the Comcast Center fans and their crude chants while attending three Maryland home games with Boncore this season. After Maryland's 92-71 win over North Carolina on Feb. 7, Abraham met briefly with Gary Williams.

This past week, Boncore said Abraham asked Ehsan if he would be a head coach anywhere next season. In a text message, Boncore wrote, "The kid is sad cause he wants to play 4 rob."

A Hoyas father figure

Progressive Christian Athletic Director Renard Phillips said he has never seen Georgetown publicly flaunt its interest in a recruit like the Hoyas coaching staff has with Abraham. Phillips, who also serves as the under-17 coach for the nationally known AAU program D.C. Assault, alerted the Georgetown staff of a workout in which Abraham and a few of the school's other players would be participating in on the day after Abraham arrived in the U.S.

On Nov. 25, Abraham practiced at Progressive Christian with Jordan Goodman, who orally committed to Georgetown on March 2, and a few of the school's other players. Georgetown coaches, including David Cox, a former D.C. Assault coach, were in attendance.

"Through some friends of the program, just the schools that we know, everyone was looking for a big," Phillips said. "And then once they came in and saw him that pretty much started a buzz about him."

Phillips described Abraham as "super athletic" and noted that Abraham's wingspan and his feel for the defensive side of the game set him apart from other players in his class.

"The way he chases shots and blocks shots, he's able to time it and he doesn't go into the offensive player," Phillips said. "He knows how to use his body to just gauge and go get the basketball instead of just going into the guy. His timing is just exceptional, in my opinion."

The Georgetown coaches appeared to agree. Coach John Thompson III has met with Abraham on several occasions, and the coach's father and nearly the entire current Georgetown staff have attended several of Progressive Christian's games in recent months.

In fact, the elder Thompson has been central to Georgetown's efforts on Abraham. Boncore said Abraham, whose father died when he was an infant, sees the elder Thompson as a father figure. After one game in late January, Thompson Jr. approached Boncore and said, "I haven't seen anybody block shots like that since Ewing," referring to former Georgetown center Patrick Ewing, who went on to have a Hall of Fame NBA career.

Boncore said he thanked Thompson. Then Thompson asked, "So, are you going to give him to my son?"

Over a 1 1/2 -hour lunch on March 2 at a Ruby Tuesday's in Upper Marlboro, Phillips made several references to Abraham's recruitment as if it already had concluded. Occasionally, he would clarify that Abraham had not yet made his decision official, but said "it's a strong possibility" Abraham would choose Georgetown.

When asked about how Abraham's skills project at the next level, Phillips said: "He's 6-9, sneaky, his length, he can cover a lot of area with his arm span. I think he'll be more of a face-up four [power forward]. He's physical, but I don't think he'll be that physical. And I think at Georgetown he'll be able to develop a little bit more. He won't have to always, always be underneath the block or always underneath the rim to be able to make it happen for him."

On March 7, Abraham took an official visit to Georgetown, during which the Hoyas coaches asked him if he would like to come play at their program. According to Boncore, Abraham responded in the affirmative, but meant only that he was considering Georgetown, not that he wanted to orally commit right then and there.

Abraham wanted to explore his options a little while longer.

Still up in the air

Abraham will decide Sunday between one program that has an assistant coach with whom he has formed a deep level of trust, and another that has demonstrated an overwhelming public show of interest since nearly the day he arrived in this country.

Boncore said he doesn't have an indication as to whether Abraham will choose to become a Terrapin or a Hoya. The decision, he said, always has been Abraham's to make.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Phillips claimed to have served merely as a facilitator between Abraham and the college coaches pursuing the player. He said he largely has tried to refrain from involving himself too closely in Abraham's recruitment.

As for Abraham, he said recently that after training with Boncore and at Progressive Christian over the past few months, he now knows he can be a great player. But that hasn't made all the attention he's received since he arrived in the United States any easier to handle.

"Sometimes I feel embarrassed by so much big schools coming after and looking after me," Abraham said. "But it's made me work harder, because I don't want to let them down. I have to work harder until I get to the player they've seen in me."

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