This article appears in the December 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Abdul Herrera's introduction to United States basketball wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy.
South Miami's 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior center was a long, lanky baseball and soccer player from Panama when he arrived in Florida shortly before his freshman year. He was accustomed to beating up on the competition around La Chorrera, a little country town about 40 miles west of Panama City.
It wasn't until Herrera saw what Florida ballers can play like that he realized just how far La Chorrera was from Miami. It might as well have been light years.
"In Panama, you don't see too many tall guys," says Herrera, 19, who didn't start playing organized basketball until his freshman year with the Cobras. "I was the tallest player in the country, so it was easy living down there. I come here and one of the first guys I see is Amare Stoudemire. The first time I saw him, I was like, ‘Dang, he's big.' Luckily, I didn't have to play him because that boy would have killed me."
Three years later, Herrera is now considered one of the most promising scholastic big men in the country, rated the No. 8 center and No. 68 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com.
He averaged 17.3 points, 15.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game during a junior season interrupted by 43 days of ineligibility as the FHSAA investigated an unsubstantiated claim that Herrera had expended his eligibility by playing in Panama. Herrera returned in time for the district semifinals and helped the Cobras reach the Class 6A state finals, where they lost to Edgewater.
Though he played in only about half of South Miami's games last year, Herrera showed more than enough for Conference USA powerhouse Cincinnati to take an interest. Herrera committed to the Bearcats at the end of September, and he's accepted his transformation from oddity to commodity in stride.
"I'm used to it," he says. "When you're 6-10, you're in the eye of everybody. When you go out, people want to take their picture with you or get an autograph. I feel proud about that, and it's only going to happen one time in your life. I can take any situation. That's how I was raised."
Still, with celebrity comes expectations. Once a guy becomes a big-time Division I recruit, the doubters start popping out of the woodwork. Doubters who can make a double-double stat line seem like an underachievement.
But Herrera is realistic about his own expectations. He also figures his are the only expectations that really matter.
"It's hard for tall players," says Herrera, whose 17-year-old brother, Roberto, is a 6-foot-7 senior forward for the Cobras. "People expect too much. And they don't understand that college can be tough. I'm ready for anything. I'm going to Cincinnati, and I'm going to work my behind off. That's the way I grew up. I learned that nothing in life is easy. I don't promise anything. All I promise is I will work hard."
If you ask South Miami sixth-year head coach Fred Jones, expect a lot and you shall receive when it comes to Abdul Herrera.
"I think he's gonna be a great player because he has tremendous upside and he's just starting to reach his potential," says Jones, who's coached 21 years in Dade County and enters his 22nd season just nine wins shy of 500 for his career (491-152). "He's a complete post-up guy, which is unusual nowadays because most big guys want to be guards. That's the big plus with him — his inside game."
True enough. Herrera boasts an impressive arsenal, including both a left- and right-handed jump hook, a tough-to-handle drop step, and an explosive ability to turn, face and drive. In fact, he's gotten so good so fast that it's hard to believe four years ago he was just a freakishly tall kid running around some Panamanian soccer field.
"I'm impressed at his progress, but I'm not surprised," says Jones, who's coached teams to four state title games in his career. "I see the effort he puts forth. He wants to be great. He's in the weight room. He's in the gym. He's not satisfied with being an average player. He's very hungry and he wants it."
For his part, Herrera prefers not to dissect his own game.
"I don't like talking about myself," says Herrera, who owns career highs of 34 points, 21 rebounds and nine blocks. "I just concentrate on what coach tells me. I can't see myself playing, so I'll let other people evaluate me. I just play."
Of course, some of those evaluators have less complimentary things to say. Some say he spends too much time in the high post for a 6-foot-10 guy. Others whisper that he's too soft down low — a suggestion not helped by his habit of smiling throughout long stretches of games.
Herrera may not be one to talk, but he does have answers for those critics.
"I've played the low post since I started playing this game, and to me, it's like my bread and butter," says Herrera, who practiced with the team as a freshman despite being ineligible to play in games as an out-of-state transfer. "The way I see it, I've added the outside game they're talking about. Inside, I've got that down. I have to get stronger, but I've got it.
"Sure, I try to play with a happy face," he adds. "But inside, I'm mad. I have fun and I try to laugh stuff off, but I'm trying to kill myself to win. If we're up by 40, I might be smiling outside, but inside, I just want to get the ball and destroy you. You've got to play against me to know how it is."
We're betting that's not exactly a warm and fuzzy experience either.