Through Twists and Turns, LIU’s Eral Penn Finds Joy in the Journey

Eral Penn knew something was terribly wrong. As he drove back to Long Island University from Maryland after a preseason break, Penn’s entire arm was swollen and throbbing. He had banged his forearm the wrong way three days earlier in practice, was treated with anti-inflammatories upon his return home at a Baltimore hospital, and yet the arm wasn’t responding to treatment. In fact, the malady worsened as he traversed north on the New Jersey Turnpike, to the point where the 6-foot-7 junior needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. 

“When he got back (to Brooklyn), the size of his elbow was the size of our thigh,” Jim Mack, an assistant coach at LIU, recalled of the incident. 

With much of the LIU basketball staff there for support, the NYU doctors treated Penn’s mystery ailment as if it was a staph or MRSA infection. Within 48 hours however, it was clear the initial treatment was ineffective. Emergency, exploratory surgery to scope out the source of Penn’s swelling and pain was the next crucial step.

“We at first didn’t realize the extent of it, but as they kept going in (to operate), we realized how serious it was getting,” Mack said. 

Penn’s infected arm ended up enduring four surgeries over the course of a few weeks. Doctors successfully removed the entire infection on the final scope, one that literally scraped out debris next to Penn’s ulna and radius bones, but the damage had been done. Penn was going to miss the 2019-20 season due to injury.

Penn’s arm issue improbably had begun four years earlier when he inadvertently struck an opponent’s mouth on a block attempt in a high school game. A tooth from the player wound up missing and Penn was left with a gash in his forearm.

“I went to the doctor and they did an x-ray,” Penn said. “His tooth wasn’t inside of me, so they patched (my arm) up and gave me antibiotics.”

In retrospect, the doctors likely missed an opportunity to treat the injury as a bite and administer a tetanus shot. But everything seemed fine moving forward, even if Penn’s arm would bother him every so often after hard contact at the site of the original injury. One doctor suggested during Penn’s freshman year at LIU that he was suffering from arthritis, while another prescribed more antibiotics. Only after four years of his body fighting a somewhat silent infection did his arm flare up to that dangerous level during the 2019 preseason.

Now hospital bound from several surgical procedures, Penn was fortunate to have full use of his arm and a continuing basketball career to look forward to. Sure, he was initially devastated and struggled with some down moments in the midst of his hospital stay, anybody in that situation would, but the LIU staff and teammates were vital in keeping the junior’s hopes up. 

“They showed me a lot during that process; they were there with me every step of the way through all my surgeries,” Penn said of the support his coaches gave him during the scary ordeal.

Three months later in January, quite remarkably, Penn returned to the basketball court to resume his individual 7 AM workouts with Raiquan Clark, the team’s leading scorer, and Coach Mack. A few weeks later, he was medically cleared to fully practice with his teammates.

———-

Before Penn emerged as a household name among NEC circles this season, the raw yet athletically gifted kid was returning to the United States to play basketball as an unknown high school junior.

After living in the British Virgin Islands with their father for three years, Penn and his twin brother Vedal moved to Baltimore with their mother. The Penn brothers had a desire to hoop at a quality high school, yet they didn’t have the slightest clue where to look. That’s when an impromptu conversation with a security guard at the Maryland State Department of Education changed Eral’s life for the better.

“When I walked in the door, he was like ‘oh, do you play basketball and stuff,’” Penn, who was there to submit his transcript, said of the chance encounter. “Just like small talk and he told us how St. Frances Academy was a good basketball school.”

Heeding the security guard’s advice, Penn and his brother enrolled at the academy and showed up on the first day of basketball tryouts. St. Frances head coach Nick Myles vividly remembers his first impression of the Penn kids. 

“I’ll never forget him and his brother in the corner just nervous, shooting baskets at tryouts,” Myles said. “At my level, normally you don’t get (new) guys that make the team at tryouts. We’re normally a little bit too good for that, but Eral was just so energetic and he was a difference maker from day one.”

Both brothers made the team – Penn called that tryout the toughest practice he’s ever been through – even though St. Frances was routinely among the nation’s elite in the high school circuit. The program was a breeding ground for Division I talent, but that didn’t matter for Penn, who had played against inferior competition in the Virgin Islands. His energy, work ethic and athleticism made its way into Myles’ coveted rotation right from the beginning. The forward stuck and soon was starting games late in the season as a rebounding, rim-protecting role player. 

A year later, Penn emerged as a senior star, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game for a very young, albeit talented St. Frances team. The squad was rife with inexperience however, leading to a down season. It certainly wasn’t Penn’s fault, yet with St. Frances out of the national spotlight, Division I coaches weren’t around as much to recruit the tenacious, high-motored forward. 

There were offers from Siena and Canisius early in Penn’s senior season, although those eventually fell through. An unofficial visit to Mount St. Mary’s didn’t lead to anything. By the end of the season, Penn was left with nothing but Division 2 and 3 offers to ponder, leaving him to wonder if enrolling in a preparatory school was the best way forward to keep his Division I dream alive.

Luckily for Penn, LIU hired Derek Kellogg as its fourteenth head coach in program history on April 17, thereby paving the way for Myles to sell his star power forward’s credentials. The coach had a relationship with Kellogg dating back to when another St. Frances player, Terrell Vinson, became a quality four-year contributor for UMass, Kellogg’s prior coaching stop.

“When (Kellogg) got the LIU job, I just thought Eral was the perfect fit. I just like the freedom that Coach Kellogg gives his players,” Myles said of the offensive friendly, up-tempo scheme Kellogg regularly implements. “I’m a big fan of his system and the way he plays.”

In his recruiting pitch, Myles didn’t let Kellogg forget about the time he passed on one of his former players. The Baltimore product, DaQuan Bracey, eventually landed at Louisiana Tech and later became a Conference USA all-conference first team recipient as a 5-foot-11 senior. With a few scholarships to fill upon his arrival at LIU, Kellogg wasn’t going to make the same mistake of passing on a Myles recommendation. 

“It was one of those things where everything just kind of fell into place and he’s been a workhorse since he’s got here,” Kellogg said of Penn, who’s mother was originally from Brooklyn. 

Since arriving on campus, Penn has been the model student-athlete for Kellogg from day one. “The kid’s work ethic and desire to win, his character, all of those things are what really makes him special,” the long-time coach confirmed. “He’s not chasing the points or the glory or any of that stuff, he just wants to do things the right way.”

That much was evident in Penn’s underclassman seasons at LIU. As primarily a reserve big off the bench, Penn made the most of his opportunities, converting 65 percent of his 2-point attempts while swatting away 63 shots and turning the ball over just 28 times in 59 games. It was his performance in the 58th game of his collegiate career, however, that caught the league’s attention and best exemplified Penn’s linear progression as a player.

In that NEC quarterfinals matchup at Sacred Heart, the six-seeded LIU squad came into the Pitt Center winning three straight, yet were considered slight underdogs to a Pioneers team that surprised the NEC with a 11-7 regular season finish. 

Enter Penn who, like Sacred Heart that season, seemingly came out of nowhere to capture the show in LIU’s biggest moment. “I felt with that game, it was the last game (of the season) so I had nothing else to lose,” he said of his career performance that evening. 

He surely took advantage of the loser-go-home mentality, registering 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and, most surprisingly, draining 3 of 5 from behind the arc in a career high (at the time) 31 minutes. In his previous 57 games at LIU, Penn had attempted just seven 3-point tries, making two. That evening, Penn improbably outproduced the entire Pioneers team from deep, nine points to six.

LIU won the game going away, 71-62, advancing to the tournament semifinals and giving Penn the confidence to realize that he possessed the necessary talent to go from a key role player to an all-conference contributor.

———-

Despite missing the 2019-20 season due to the arm injury, Penn hasn’t missed a beat upon his return to the hardwood this season. He’s officially progressed from bench piece to role guy to NEC superstar.

Within league play for the 2020-21 season, Penn sits inside the top eight among NEC players in a myriad of statistics such as effective field goal percentage (57.9%, 7th), offensive rebounding rate (12.1%, 4th), defensive rebounding rate (24.1%, 3rd), block rate (5.7%, 3rd), free throw rate (61.6% FTA/FGA, 1st) and steal rate (3.4%, 2nd). The last metric illustrates Penn’s superb maturation, as his defensive impact as a NEC five-man has terrified opponents both around the rim and out on the perimeter.

His uncanny ability to block shots and blitz hedges while stripping guards of the basketball is unique, to say the least. Penn’s accumulated 31 steals in his third year after collecting just 20 thefts in his first two seasons combined. And, by the way, he’s rejected 28 shot attempts this season as well.

“That’s why he’s so damn tired right now,” Kellogg joked when asked about Penn’s seemingly limitless defensive energy and impact on the floor. “Those guys are kind of few and far between, because I think everybody puts a premise on scoring points in this day and age and I think he worries about all the other things. And then all of the sudden you get 18 to 20 (points) on putbacks and lop dunks and open 3s and just running the floor and playing hard.”

As someone who’s also coached Penn throughout his LIU career, Mack credits not only the redshirt senior’s insatiable appetite to improve his game, but also his hyper competitiveness with his teammates in practice. “He just progressed and I think one of the biggest things was him and Raiquan would compete every morning,” Mack said of those legendary individual workouts between two close friends. “Those two would go at each other. They wouldn’t hold anything back.”

With two regular season games remaining and LIU sitting at 9-7 in the NEC standings, Penn has undoubtedly emerged as an elite player in spite of not having a ton of offense being run through him. The analytics website BartTorvik.com currently pegs Penn as the second most valuable player in the conference when using its PORPAGATU! (Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game at That Usage) metric. 

Forget about the statistics, the jaw dropping athleticism and even the tenacious work ethic that Penn possesses as a LIU Shark, though. If you talk to opposing NEC coaches, what most impresses them about the versatile power forward is the positive energy he harbors in uniform, whether it’s on the floor as a playmaker or on the bench as a cheerleader. Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo was taken aback by Penn’s presence when his Warriors faced the Sharks over a two-day stretch in early February.

“When you’re playing against him in person he just has this energy and aura about him,” Gallo said when asked about his immediate impressions of Penn. “Every time they shot a three he’s like screaming and yelling and cheering on his teammates on the court. He’s one of those guys you play against and you’re like ‘I wish this guy was on my team.’ I literally wanted to give the guy a hug.”

Rob Krimmel went one further than Gallo after Penn carved up his Red Flash in their second contest versus LIU to the tune of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals. He actually embraced the big man after their post game chat. “You can look at the numbers and say, ‘hey this kid is good,’ but when you get out there and see how hard he plays and how much he pulls for his teammates, that makes it even more special,” Krimmel said.

Being a great teammate has always come natural to Penn. As someone who first grew up in Brooklyn and then lived in the Virgin Islands, hard work and humility were ingrained into his upbringing. The grounded Penn isn’t hesitant about crediting both of his parents when asked about his on-the-court demeanor. 

Of his father, Penn said: “My dad was a huge influence – when I actually moved with him in the (Virgin) Islands, he actually taught me and my brother how to be men. He had us wake up at 5 o’clock every morning and just to have that mindset to get up and go to work, even if I was just going to school.”

The student-athlete then heaped praise on his mother, crediting her hard work and limitless dedication for giving him and his brother the opportunity to play basketball at a private school in the United States such as St. Frances. 

The investment into Penn’s craft and character has paid dividends and caught everyone’s eye, no matter if you’re with him or against him on the court. 

Mack wholeheartedly agrees. “What he is as a human being – loyal, respectful, hardworking, like he’s everything – and I said this to my wife the other day, if my son grows up to be a quarter of the person Eral Penn is, we’ve done a good job. I’m not saying that loosely… that’s the type of kid that he is.”

Given Penn’s journey from Brooklyn to the Virgin Islands to Baltimore and back to Brooklyn, it’s easy to root the 6-foot-7 forward. And there’s plenty of story yet to be written. Somehow, the best is yet to come.

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