Just imagine being Josh Sankes.
You're 7-feet tall and weigh 275 pounds. You wear size 16 sneakers. Your mild case of cerebral palsy makes your hands shake on the court, sometimes in full view of the crowd. Hecklers are brutal and the ones who get really personal know you were at the center of one of the most bizarre incidents in recent college basketball history.
There's nowhere to run and hide from the gawkers. People lurked around the halls at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and still do in college. You've spent a lifetime hearing the hoots and giggles. That's why the last two years have been so satisfying.
It's taken all of Sankes' courage to finally carve a niche in basketball as a senior at Holy Cross. In his first year at the tradition-laden school in Worcester, Mass., the one that produced Bob Cousy, Sankes grabbed 11.9 rebounds per game last season. No returning Division I player had more entering the 2000-01 campaign.
Although dogged by an inflamed Achilles tendon, Sankes is having a solid senior season. He's averaging 12.4 points and a Patriot League-leading 9.2 boards as the Crusaders (20-7) have emerged as Patriot regular-season champions and the favorite to go to the NCAA Tournament.
"When you're 7 feet tall, some people are intimidated by you and others have sky-high expectations for you,"Sankes said before a recent game at Colgate. "I'm a shy guy anyways and it's always been tough. People think you'll be like Shaq or something, getting alley-oops and dunking everywhere I play.
"I get a lot of stares and I didn't like sticking out when I was younger. I tried to stick behind the scenes but it's kind of tough to do that. I've become more confident now."
"I'm so proud of him," said Tim Lennon, Sankes' coach at St. Joe's. "It's a nice testimony to him that he's stayed after it. He's a bright boy from a good family who could have given up a long time ago. He went through a lot because he was not the most coordinated kid on the block."
A dream turns sour
Sankes was a standout player at St. Joe's, but when he went to play at Rutgers in 1996, folks in local basketball circles snickered. The knocks were plenty: too slow, bad hands, out of his element in the mighty Big East.
Turns out they were probably true. Sankes averaged just six minutes per game and scored only nine points his freshman season. Things were no better as a sophomore: 5.2 minutes per game and 15 points for the year.
"I've always felt like I've been out to prove myself to everybody, and that's why I went to Rutgers," Sankes said.
Midway through the sophomore year came The Contest. It was during Christmas break in 1997 when Rutgers coach Kevin Bannon, who said he was trying to inject some levity into practice, made his players compete from the free throw line in a bizarre game of strip shooting. Every miss cost the culprit a piece of clothing. By the end, Sankes, teammate Earl Johnson and a manager allege they were made to run naked.
Sankes doesn't discuss details of the incident much, although they came out in New Jersey media reports and through a since-dismissed lawsuit against Bannon and Rutgers.
"I lost trust in people because of what happened," said Sankes, who transferred after that season. "I was very close to just saying, "forget it' to basketball. My dad told me he would pay for school if I quit and I thought about just coming home to go to UB."
Sankes, however, still had the urge to prove his critics wrong. Not to mention the fact that he felt guilt about having his father pay for college instead of going on an athletic scholarship.
Enter former St. Joe's teammate Chris Spitler, who met Sankes when they were in ninth grade homeroom together after Sankes transferred from Grand Island. Spitler was playing at Holy Cross and told the coaches he had a friend - a big friend - with some basketball left in him.
"I didn't think he wanted to be finished with basketball because I never felt he had gotten to a point where he had really achieved," Spitler said from New York, where he's a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs. "Even in high school, he never felt he really dominated. I didn't think he was done even if he did."
It was Spitler who picked up Sankes at an airport in Providence, R.I., when Sankes made his recruiting visit. The Holy Cross team took Sankes bowling.
"You should have seen him try to fit into rented bowling shoes," Spitler said. "It was wild."
"I ended up using sneakers," Sankes said.
The trip was apparently a way to heal Sankes' bruised psyche. Sankes was going to Holy Cross to play basketball again.
Spitler knew his friend needed help with his self-esteem, particularly after the Rutgers fiasco. Spitler erupts when Bannon's name is mentioned.
"I was furious, absolutely furious when I heard about that," Spitler said. "What a horrible thing to happen. The kid has been self-conscious about his height his whole life and then you do that to him?"
A new beginning
Sankes thought briefly of another transfer when Holy Cross coach Bill Raynor was fired following the '98-99 season but Spitler and the new coaching staff, headed by ex-Pittsburgh boss Ralph Willard, made sure he stayed.
"He had to get his passion and aggressiveness back for the game," Willard said. "He told me he didn't enjoy the game when I first met him and that he thought he didn't want to play. I told him, "You never want to look back in your life and say, "Maybe I should have." Give it a try and if it doesn't work out, you won't take any grief from me.' "
Even before Rutgers, basketball had been difficult for Sankes. Spitler tried to inject fun at St. Joe's by playing one-on-one against him with a twist: The big guy could only shoot threes, Spitler could only drive against his foot-taller friend.
"He took so much abuse and harassment," Spitler said. "People were constantly saying that he was no good and that made it hard for him to have fun. When you're that big, you can't just go play (shooting games) P-I-G or H-O-R-S-E with everybody else."
"Hey, it's tough to be 7-feet even though most people don't think so," Lennon said. "But he never backed away from the best competition. He'd play in the Niagara Falls Y(MCA) league, at the Father Belle center (in Buffalo). You don't always succeed in a speed game like those were and we just went day to day. He's deceptively athletic. He can run. He's not some clod."
Lennon had doubts about Rutgers being a good fit, especially since he was more sold on William & Mary in the lower-profile Colonial Athletic Association. So he was thrilled to hear of the Holy Cross decision.
Sankes, meanwhile, was initially intimidated by Willard. After all, the last thing he needed was another coach from the Big East.
"I was scared of him big-time," Sankes said. "Now I love the guy. I was just so used to getting yelled at at Rutgers that I had to overcome that."
The first day of preseason workouts, Willard noticed his big man was missing. One of the assistants told him Sankes was so nervous he was in the bathroom throwing up.
"He had been around so much negativity that I knew I had to restore his faith in people," Willard said.
In addition to Willard, Sankes has grown close to a 51-year-old Holy Cross classics professor, Rev. Edward Vodoklys, S.J., who also has cerebral palsy.
Sankes took a Greek mythology and literature class from Vodoklys in the fall of 1998 and the friendship grew. Vodoklys knew Sankes had left Rutgers amid turmoil but didn't know the exact circumstances. He said that Sankes eventually confided in him the details.
"He hadn't had that sense of dignity maintained after what happened at Rutgers," Vodoklys said. "It really helped him to have Spitler here. Once he started feeling comfortable with the school, he's really settled in and felt more confident. Most people who transfer take a while to settle in, but people liked Josh right away and that always helps."
"A great person I was fortunate to meet," Sankes said of Vodoklys. "I've talked to him about my problems in life and he's helped me sort things out."
While getting comfortable with campus life, Sankes quickly caught the attention of opponents last season as an injury-plagued Holy Cross team went 10-18 in a rebuilding year. He had 13 points and 11 rebounds in Holy Cross' season-opening upset at Providence, a career-high 30 points against Northeastern, two 19-rebound games and a monstrous total of 20 double-doubles.
"It's easy to restore somebody's confidence when they ask you, "How many rebounds and how many blocks did I have?' " Willard said. "Not how many shots he took or how many points he scored. That's the type of kid he is."
It's been more of the same this year as Sankes has collected 13 more double-doubles and become Holy Cross' all-time leader in blocked shots. Sankes had a huge game - 25 points, 17 rebounds - as Holy Cross posted a 78-65 upset of Massachusetts in a Thanksgiving weekend game.
"He absolutely destroyed us," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "He's a huge kid. You're just not going to move him."
"There was a lot of shock there," Sankes said. "We shut them down defensively and they got frustrated. Then I got the stats and I was surprised. I had no idea I had that many rebounds against a team like that."
The UMass game was a defining moment for Sankes. This wasn't against a Patriot League weakling. This was against an Atlantic 10 team with a huge front line, a program that was in the Final Four during Sankes' senior year at St. Joe's.
"You have to want to rebound," Sankes said. "A lot of players don't, but you have to make it a priority and a goal. You have to anticipate where the ball is going."
The only flaw in Sankes' game is his free throw shooting. He hit just 43.8 percent last year, but has improved to 56.0 this year (58.3 in his last 10 games). The reason? Hypnosis. After his mother saw a segment on "AM Buffalo," Sankes has taken the plunge into hypnosis, helping his body relax - rather than shake - while at the line.
"I guess you can say I'm a nervous person," he said. "I have to condition my body to be relaxed when I'm on the court."
"He knew a lot of it was mental and I think it went back to the whole rigamarole at Rutgers," said Willard, who's helped with some mechanical adjustments. "But he had enough courage to go work on it."
Willard, a former New York Knicks assistant under Rick Pitino, said Sankes certainly will get an invitation to an NBA camp. He's expected to attend the prestigious Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational this spring for college players heading to the pros.
"Everybody needs shot-blockers and rebounders," Willard said. "He has great position, pursues the ball, really goes and gets it. Anytime you can block shots and rebounds, they'll want you."
Last chance to dance
Holy Cross has posted its first 20-win season in eight years and looks like the favorite to win the league title, although the first two rounds of the tournament are at Navy, its strongest challenger. The championship game would be March 9 at the site of the highest-remaining seed.
"We really want that game at our place," Sankes said of Holy Cross' 4,000-seat Hart Center. "That would be unbelievable."
Sankes and teammates/roommates Patrick Whearty and Ryan Serravalle have even made a pact to get tattoos, likely of the school's shield logo, if they get to the NCAAs.
Whearty filled in ably for Sankes when the pain in the Achilles became too great. The Crusaders know, however, that their gentle giant from Buffalo is their meal ticket.
"We've been calling him "Gameday Josh' because his Achilles has been bothering him but he's been able to get through it," Whearty said. "He's so consistent. Every single game, he's performed, even when he hasn't practiced."
If the Crusaders make the Big Dance, it will be a moment Spitler will watch with envy. When Holy Cross played its final home game against Lehigh last year, Spitler was removed for one last ovation in his college career. Willard took him out at the same time with Sankes, the high school teammate and friend whose career he helped resurrect.
"The crowd was cheering and it was great to be standing next to him since I've known the guy since freshman year of high school," Spitler said. "He was finally getting respect. Everyone in the gym knew he was the best rebounder in our league and one of the best in the country. I was so happy for him. I was just standing there thinking "Good for Josh. Look how much he's accomplished.'
"I have a right to be proud of him after knowing him for eight years. When they go to the NCAA Tournament - and I expect them to - Josh will be the one who's going to take them there. People in Buffalo should see him now."