There is a conversation going on in Mark Potter’s office, no different than so many others in his 15 years as men’s basketball coach at Newman University.
Potter is telling someone, usually one of his players, to swallow their pride. To think about the bigger picture and what’s at stake.
Progress requires sacrifice, he tells them. Sacrifice your pride and work to make yourself something better than what you are today.
Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t.
Shamar Acuay is listening. And sacrificing. And progressing.
“That’s what I want,” Potter said. “I want to get past that pride, that major pride that we all have and struggle with sometimes and tap into something bigger and better.”
Acuay, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, already had the sacrifice part down by the time he showed up on Newman’s campus in the summer of 2011 after putting his basketball career on hold for several years to help take care of his ailing mother back in Richmond, Va.
Acuay, originally from Queens, N.Y., moved with his family to Virginia in 2005 for his senior year of high school, then played at Hiwassee (Tenn.) College his freshman season.
After the coach who recruited Acuay to Hiwassee was fired, he left school and went back to Virginia, where he worked for a couple of years before former Colby Community College coach John Woods noticed him while scouting a pickup game in Richmond.
“There’s not a whole lot out there, so it was a little bit of a culture shock for me,” Acuay said, laughing. “Colby’s a tiny town ... just a Wal-Mart, a few stores and the highway. But (Woods) told me the Jayhawk Conference was one of the toughest leagues in the whole country and I really liked that.”
Acuay excelled at Colby, averaging 21.9 points and 9.1 rebounds in his one season. But as coaches from four-year schools came calling, Acuay headed back to Virginia, where his mother, Annette Esau, had fallen ill. It would take two years in hospitals and going through physical rehabilitation for Esau, who lost most of her mobility and half her body weight because of a muscular condition/disorder, to be able to live on her own.
“I got a call from my brother and he just told me, ‘It’s not good, she’s not doing well,’ ” Acuay said. “I guess since she raised me on her own that I’m a little more attached, and that’s why we’re so close ... but once I heard something was wrong I didn’t even think twice about going home.”
It was a hard time for everyone, but the family made it through.
“When I was sick (Acuay) was just always so supportive of me,” Esau said. “He knows just what to say to get me through the bad times.”
Acuay re-established contact with former Newman assistant Chris Popp, who had recruited him while he was at Colby, and Potter eventually offered Acuay a scholarship.
Academic difficulties sidelined Acuay for the first semester of last season, and when his grade reports showed Acuay was still struggling in school, Potter suggested a test for dyslexia on the advice of his wife, Nanette, who works as a reading specialist.
“Shamar was going to class, we had him in study hall and his grades were still dropping ... something didn’t add up,” Potter said. “I talked to my wife and she had no doubt it was dyslexia and told me we needed to get him tested, now.”
Tests showed Acuay had severe dyslexia — something he struggled to accept at first.
“He didn’t want people to think he was stupid, which is what he thought they would assume if he needed somebody to help him read, or if he needed special accommodations,” Potter said. “And I told him, ‘Listen, anybody that talks to you knows you’re not stupid’ because he is a very intelligent young man. What’s scary to me is things like (dyslexia) go undiagnosed and somebody like Shamar struggles, then leaves school altogether. That would be tragic.”
With the proper help from his professors and tutors to deal with dyslexia, Acuay blossomed. He became eligible in the second semester and averaged 14 points and 3.4 rebounds in 16 games. He was named Heartland Conference newcomer of the year and second-team All-Heartland.
“He’s a fun player to watch and to coach,” Potter said. “He can do a lot of things other kids can’t.”
Newman was picked to finish third in the Heartland in the league’s preseason poll and opens the season Nov. 12 by hosting Tabor.
Acuay will need another year, at least, to get his degree in Criminal Justice.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m here another year or another two years,” Acuay said. “I just want to make sure my mom knows that I got my degree. Everybody can’t make it to the NBA ... you need to have a plan. With finding out I had dyslexia ... I don’t look at it like a disability. It’s kind of done the opposite for me in that it’s motivated me not to slack off, to make sure I’m doing things right. ”
Esau, no longer ill, has gone back to work full-time.
“Shamar has always been someone who has been on my level, who I could always sit and talk and relate to,” Esau said. “I see the man he’s becoming, since he went to Newman, and I’m just ... more excited than a mother could ever be for her son. It just makes my heart feel good.”
Newman women picked fourth — The Newman women were picked fourth in the Heartland Conference preseason women’s poll. Arkansas-Fort Smith was picked first.
The Jets are coming off back-to-back regular-season titles and their first NCAA Division II Tournament berth. Newman has a new coach in Darrin Spence and returns two players in seniors Anna Sonka and Kianna Flannagan.