Right Place, Right Time

Former Detroit Mercy forward Eli Holman has taken the CBA by storm.
by December 24, 2014
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Richmond (CA) junior point guard Rodney Frazier was murdered in his front yard six weeks ago for what, police determined, was a mistake in identity. Another horrific casualty on the dark streets accurately depicted in the 2005 movie, Coach Carter.

Frazier was just 16 years old. His death was North Richmond’s fourth homicide in 2014; coming only days after four other classmates were wounded in shootings in Richmond—where 13 people have been murdered this year.

“That’s the kind of place these cats come from, man,” said longtime Richmond coach Robert Collins. “It’s rough and tough. It ain’t no joke.”

Collins has a picture of Frazier on his desk from this past summer. The spirited floor general is beaming while sandwiched between two Richmond alumni and current professional basketball players Wendell McKines and Eli Holman. After playing college ball at New Mexico, McKines now plays for Elitzur Ashkelon in Israel. Following a successful career at Detroit Mercy, Holman is the leading rebounder in the Chinese Basketball Association per 48 minutes for Zehjiang Guangsha.

In January of his senior year at Richmond, Holman, like Frazier, found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. While dropping off his younger brother Antoine at a party, Holman was struck in the back by a bullet. Fortunately, the random spray failed to penetrate his skin. As he recuperated in the hospital, Holman learned the bullet narrowly missed his spine by two centimeters.

“He’s lucky, right? Rodney wasn’t so lucky. They shot him 20 times,” Collins said. “He’s your point guard, your captain. I’ve been working with him since the fifth grade. He wasn’t a gang member. This is why it’s amazing Elijah has been able to overcome everything he went through to get where he’s at: It wasn’t a walk in the park.”

Ray McCallum Sr, then an Indiana assistant coach, immediately boarded a plane to be with Holman’s friends and family after his injured recruit was shot.

“Your players are like your family members,” McCallum Sr said. “You want to be there for ‘em in times of need.”

Holman was a member of Kelvin Sampson’s loaded 2007 Indiana recruiting class. The now 6-10, 265-pound center was due to arrive in Bloomington that fall alongside Eric Gordon, Brandon McGee, Jordan Crawford, Jarmarcus Ellis and DeAndre Thomas.

He played in six games during the 2007-08 season. Then, amidst what Tom Crean viewed as controversial series of events, Holman transferred to Detroit Mercy to follow the new Titans’ coach, McCallum Sr.

“A lot of people have their sides of the story, but it was just a thing where I was devoted to coach Ray McCallum because he took our relationship beyond basketball,” Holman said. “That’s why I left. Tom Crean recruited me at Marquette, I just wanted to play for a coach I would die for.”

Holman grew exceptionally close with McCallum Sr as the 17-year-old Northern California kid transitioned over 2,500 miles west. While the rest of Indiana’s class hailed from the Midwest, McCallum Sr consistently checked in on Holman’s family back in Richmond.

The McCallum family welcomed Holman with open arms. They celebrated holidays and birthdays together. He grew close with the coach’s children Brittany and Ray Jr. The big man became a big brother figure to Ray Jr, who Holman calls “Little Ray.”

“I was in the ninth grade when I met him,” McCallum Jr said. “That’s why I think our chemistry on the court was so strong.”

The duo played two seasons together under McCallum Sr at Detroit. The Titans captured the Horizon League championship in Holman’s senior 2011-12 season, earning a 22-14 record, and reached the NCAA Tournament.

Most mid-major opponents failed to even challenge McCallum Jr-Holman pick and rolls. Holman’s NBA size overpowered opposing forwards and McCallum Jr’s next-level decision-making and handle broke down defenses aplenty.

The combination helped propel McCallum Jr into a second-round pick as the Sacramento Kings selected the 6-3 point guard 36th overall in 2013. Holman has since traversed through the international basketball scene, bolstering his profile and stock at each stop.

With Hapoel Eilat in 2012-13, Holman averaged 12.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 27.8 minutes per game. Only beginning his competitive basketball career during his freshman year of high school, Holman’s offensive skillset was still limited to mostly his right-handed, over-the-left-shoulder jump hook Collins taught him and the counter moves to that bread-and-butter he learned from McCallum Sr.

“He basically did 99 percent of his damage inside the paint,” said AJ Mitnick, a veteran Israeli coach currently serving as an assistant with Bnei Herzliya. “His best skill is offensive rebounding. It’s the reason his two-point percentage is always so high: It makes him much more efficient.”

In 2013-14, Holman led the Turkish league in rebounding. And this past offseason, Holman had a dozen NBA teams vie for his services in Summer League. Holman joined the Miami Heat in Orlando and played with the Toronto Raptors in Las Vegas.

Just as he grew under Collins and McCallum Sr, Holman soaked up everything Juwan Howard helped him develop in July.

“A couple things I learned from him I actually brought over to China,” Holman said. “He kind of just showed me some ropes, some inside things that he learned. For example, being able to use your body. I’m strong. I can jump. I’m long. I’m a defender and I’m a rebounder. But I’m a bit undersized. He just wanted to show me ways to use my body, and to extend my range a little bit too. We worked on that 15-, 17-foot shot too.”

Holman has since taken the CBA by storm, posting 20.0 points, 14.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in a career-high 34.9 minutes per game. His efficiency from Israel has endured, as Holman is shooting a ridiculous 65.5 percent from the field along with a career-best 73.0 percent at the line.

His Lions are 16-5 as of press time and second in the league. Holman has already received Summer League interest from roughly a dozen NBA teams and four teams have shown interest in him for February following roster changes around the trade deadline.

“I think Eli, he’s hungry,” said McCallum Jr, who sees some of his teammate Reggie Evans in Holman’s game. “He’s got the work ethic, he’s got the game and he has the size. He’s got all the right tools, the right attitude and it’s just about being in the right situation and timing. If he can just continue doing what he’s doing, I don’t think there’s any question he can play in this league.”

Holman spent the majority of his youth skateboarding and while trying to avoid the gang activity that riddles the Richmond streets. Being so close to the NBA doorstep was once unfathomable.

“I couldn’t chew bubble gum and run, but it was fun,” Holman said of his first days on the court. “I never thought I would be where I’m at today with basketball. I didn’t think I’d be able to get a scholarship. I was doing it because it was fun and it helped pass time. Then I realized, if I keep working I can get better at it, I might be pretty good at this.”