From humble beginnings, Erick Dampier’s game is poised to make him the next Bulldog great in the NBA
Often times, storybook basketball tales begin with a phenomenal talent working his way out of the inner-city and to a successful college or pro career by playing pick-up games on the playground. Sometimes they involve the blue-collar work ethic of a gym rat who shoots baskets until well after closing time. Still others simply begin with a kid, a backyard hoop and a dream.
For Mississippi State center Erick Dampier, his basketball story begins with a bicycle.
“When I was little, I made my own basketball goal,” Dampier said. “I took a 10-speed rim and knocked all the spokes out of it and put it on a backboard. That’s how I got started. In my family, especially on my dad’s side — his brothers and sisters – they all played basketball. I guess that made me want to play.”
A lot has changed since then for Dampier. And a lot continues to change.
He moved from shooting baskets through a converted bicycle tire to playing prep ball at Lawrence County High School in Monticello, Miss. A two-time all-state selection, Dampier was a defensive force for LCHS, while Cougar teammate Vandale Thomas handled much of the offensive load.
“When I was in high school, Vandale was like an offensive machine,” Dampier said. “I was able to defend and block shots.”
It wasn’t until Thomas graduated, however, that Dampier began realize some of his offensive potential. His scoring average increased more than eight points his senior season, as he averaged 20 points per game during his final prep campaign. In all, Dampier helped LCHS to a three-year composite record of 103-12, including back-to-back Class 4A state championships in 1991 and 1992.
He continued his offensive output after graduation as he was named Best Offensive Player of the Coca-Cola Mississippi High School All-Star Game following his senior year. In addition, Dampier was selected to participate in the 1993 Asics Roundball Classic and Derby Festival Classic all-star games, showcasing his talent on the national level.
Then came perhaps the biggest change for Dampier. In previous years, other in-state stars had chosen to write the next chapter of their basketball stories at programs in other states. Following the lead of Thomas, Dampier came to Mississippi State to continue his career.
“I didn’t really have any doubts about coming to Mississippi State,” Dampier said. “Once Vandale signed, that had a little of an impact on me when I was making my decision since we wanted to play together. Some big-name players go away to big-name colleges, don’t do that well, and you hardly hear about them again.”
People haven’t stopped hearing about the 6-11 Dampier since his arrival in Starkville. He became MSU’s most heralded freshman in more than a decade, posting the highest scoring and rebounding averages for a Bulldog freshman since NBA stars Jeff Malone and Rickey Brown, respectively. He was named to the All-Southeastern Conference second team by both the league coaches and The Associated Press and was a unanimous first-team selection to the SEC All-Freshman team. He broke the school record for blocked shots with 65 rejections his freshman year and ranked third in the SEC in both rebounding (8.7 per game) and blocked shots (2.2 per game).
Things changed again for Dampier just 11 games into his sophomore season, as Thomas transferred to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. Many wondered whether Dampier’s performance would be affected by the departure of his lifelong friend. However, Dampier answered by once again earning all-conference honors, this time as a consensus first-team all-SEC selection. He was also named an honorable mention all-American by The Associated Press and the College Player of the Year by the Mississippi Sports Writers Association.
“I couldn’t really let that affect me when Vandale transferred,” Dampier said. “That was his decision. He really knew what was best for him.”
Dampier continued his storybook tale throughout his sophomore campaign as he topped the SEC and ranked fourth nationally in field-goal percentage, shooting at an incredible 64 percent clip. He broke his own school record for blocked shots, contributing 78 in addition to tying the single-game school standard with eight rejections against Utah in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He earned SEC Player of the Week honors in early January for the second time in his career and was chosen MVP of the Missoulian/Coca-Cola Classic XV.
For all his success, however, Dampier was still primarily known for two things — his defensive ability and his shyness.
“Coming into college my freshman year, I wasn’t really an offensive threat,” Dampier said. “But I think I’ve learned a lot since I was a freshman. I’ve worked on my offensive moves. I just try to come in and help my teammates play a lot harder, rebound more and be more of an offensive threat.
“I’ve learned a lot from the coaches here. They’ve taught me what moves to make and when to make them. I’ve learned how to get open and other simple things that have helped my game a lot. I think it is a matter of adjusting to the college game.”
A quiet person, Dampier has always seemed to shy away from the interview spotlight, choosing instead to let his basketball ability do the talking for him.
“As for me being quiet, Dampier said, “I think once I’m around people a lot more, I’m more outspoken and talkative. When I first came here, I wasn’t used to doing a lot of interviews. Since I’ve done more of them, I have gotten a little more used to it and I think I’ve gotten a little better at it.”
Interviewing is not the only area in which his skills have changed. Mississippi State fans had cause to worry after last season when it appeared as if Dampier’s story would possibly jump a few chapters and he would declare himself eligible for the NBA draft. He has gone from a defensive force to the first option on a basketball team that last season went 22-8 and made a trip to the NCAA “Sweet 16.” The fact that his offense has improved has NBA scouts lining up to watch Dampier play.
“It’s not really a distraction,” Dampier said. “I just have to put that aside right now and focus on college. The NBA is something that comes after college, but right now, I’m not really worried about it. I think I’m having more fun this year playing the game.”
It shows. Earlier this year when the Bulldogs travelled to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers, Dampier was seen grinning from ear to ear on the court. LSU’s Garrick Scott got the ball under the Tigers’ basket when he looked up to see Dampier towering over him. He pumped once, twice and even a third time, knowing that Dampier was waiting to block any shot attempt.
“I didn’t think he wanted to shoot,” Dampier said. “I was just sitting there smiling at him, waiting for him to shoot the ball. He pump-faked a couple of times and they called three seconds in the lane on him. I was just smiling because I know him and I knew he didn’t really want to shoot the ball.”
As the center of attention for a team picked to win the SEC’s Western Division and return to the NCAA Tournament, Dampier realizes the expectations put on the team by others. Yet, at the same time, he understands the differences between this year’s team and last year’s squad.
“Last year we had some good players to help us to a 22-8 season,” Dampier said. “This year we have a lot of new players who have come in and they have to learn their roles and adjust to the SEC. As the year goes on, they are going to be great players. I don’t think this team has anything to prove. The only thing we want to do is get back to the tournament and try to go further than we did last year.”
Things have indeed changed over the years for both Dampier and the Bulldogs. Along the path of his own story, Dampier has helped to write new chapters for the Mississippi State basketball program. He looks to be the next in a line of Bulldog first-round NBA picks, continuing the story begun by such former MSU greats as Bailey Howell and Malone.
Dampier’s own story has come a long way as well, and should go further still. The setting, which began in tiny New Hebron, Miss., could very well be changed to the bright lights of a big city. The simple bicycle rim which provided the opening backdrop will most likely be replaced by the glitz and glamour of an NBA arena.
Regardless of which NBA colors Erick Dampier may eventually wear, Bulldog fans all agree that No. 25 will always look best in Maroon and White.