His work ethic beats the odds
Schenectady's Freeman a star getting noticed
By Mark Singelais, The Albany Times Union Staff Writer, 11/11/2006

University of Massachusetts forward Rashaun Freeman decided to shave his hair into a Mohawk this season, a fashion statement he hadn't revealed to his family in Schenectady.

How, Freeman was asked, will his 72-year-old grandmother react when she comes to a game and sees his head?

"I think as long as we win, she'll be happy," Freeman said.

Certainly, Freeman has been full of surprises since he arrived at UMass, mostly the pleasant kind.

The fifth-year senior has developed into an NBA prospect, defying those who believed he wouldn't last a year in college.

Freeman had to sit out his first year at UMass while he worked to become academically eligible.

"I know my first year coming here people thought that because I wasn't playing, I wouldn't last in Amherst," Freeman said. "By doing the work and things like that, I proved them all wrong. I wanted it so bad that I worked like I never worked before."

As Freeman's fortunes have risen, so have those of the Minutemen, who have improved from 10-19 in Freeman's first season of action to a predicted second-place finish in this year's Atlantic-10 preseason poll.

Freeman, who is 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, was named preseason first-team all-conference after averaging 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest last season.

"To be honest, the expectations at first are overwhelming," Freeman said. "What I try to preach to my team, to the young guys who don't have a clue, is that (the predictions) mean absolutely nothing."

His supporting cast includes freshman guard Emmanuel Mayben of Troy, eligible after missing a year for academic reasons.

The Minutemen, who begin the regular season against Dartmouth on Saturday, enjoyed a five-game exhibition trip to the Bahamas in August.

Making his first trip out of the country, Freeman jet-skied and snorkeled, things he certainly had never done in the gritty Hamilton Hill neighborhood where he was raised by his mother and grandmother.

"I enjoyed it a lot," Freeman said of the trip. "But it was so much fun that you want to come back home because that's not really life, that's paradise."

Reality is the two-family house where Freeman grew up with his grandmother, Daisy Smythe, and his mother, Dametress Mayers.

Smythe said people told her Freeman should take up a trade, "something he can do with his hands," because his severe learning disability would prevent him from ever going to college.

He finally got the help he needed from Schenectady special education teachers.

"In the first place, they said he would never go to college at all," Smythe said. "Even when he went, everybody thought that was just basketball. And certainly nobody, including me, expected him to get on the dean's list. He was just a local kid from this little hick town."

Freeman earned a 3.5 grade-point average in the spring semester of his freshman year, the highest on the UMass men's basketball team.

A sports management major, Freeman plans to graduate in the spring.

"It'll be the happiest day of my life," Smythe said.

The NBA could be on the horizon for Freeman, whose game has blossomed under second-year UMass coach Travis Ford.

"I think he's garnered enough attention by our league and within their league (the A-10) as a dominant player," said Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting.

Wherever he plays professionally, Freeman plans to save enough money to buy his grandmother a ranch house so she no longer has to struggle up the steps of her home.

"She's the reason I work as hard as I do," he said.

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