Fans at Crisler Arena have grown familiar to seeing a 6-foot-10 Mauritanian jump off the bench with unbridled enthusiasm during each timeout to high five his teammates. While many fans may not know who he is, or that Amadou Ba wears the No. 50 or that Mauritania is in Western Africa, every Wolverine understands his importance to the team.
At the beginning of each timeout, Ba jumps off the end of the bench and runs out to midcourt to offer his teammates words of encouragement. High-fiving the Wolverines one by one, he is a heartening sight to his teammates.
“It is great because you know that he cares so much about you and the game,” senior LaVell Blanchard said. “He may not get as much publicity, but he is one of the most important players on the team.”
The sight of players doing this is new to the Wolverines this year. Under Michigan’s previous losing culture, teammates were not typically outwardly supportive of each other during difficult times. Players like Ba are something that Michigan coach Tommy Amaker has been looking for help to improve the atmosphere and camaraderie among the team.
“It is just something that I can do to motivate and help my teammates,” Ba said. “I feel like that is what I can bring to the team this year not being able to be on the court. I am just trying to bring some effort and enthusiasm to the team.”
Ba, who was redshirted this season, is just one of the players who brings enthusiasm in his limited role on the team. Players like J.C. Mathis, a junior transfer from Virginia, is also a key member of the group of unsung heroes whose contributions can’t be measured on the court.
Mathis is considered one of the most fervent and animated players on the team. Teammates say, win or lose, the junior shows up to practice yelling at the top of his lungs that it’s a great day for practice. He has even been known to yell at other players, forcing them to raise their level of effort, in an attempt to make practice as successful as possible.
While he was embarrassed when confronted, he says that teammates have called him, “Cal” after the Baltimore Orioles’ star Cal Ripken Jr., ever since he said he “shows up to work everyday.” Blanchard said that he also calls Mathis “Lunchbox,” but his favorite nickname is “Soul Train,” in honor of the show’s host, Don Cornelius. Blanchard uncovered a team secret by revealing the origin of J.C – Johnny Cornelius.
Mathis is also known as one of the loudest players on the team by several accounts. Blanchard went so far as to say that if Mathis is quiet, there is probably something wrong with him.
In addition to making teammates laugh with his antics, the power forward also helps improve their play. After playing two seasons in the ACC, Mathis knows how to use his body in the post and his experience to teach the team’s freshman big men.
The Brooklyn, N.Y. native, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds at Virginia, is known for his solid defensive skills and physical style of play.
He helps with “how to defend people in certain spots,” freshman Chris Hunter said. “He is a veteran in this game, and I just try and learn as much as possible from him.”
The two are part of the Wolverines’ blue team, named because of the jerseys they wear in practice. They act as a scout squad, whose job it is to execute opponents’ plays in practice. While they may not receive face time on television, their contributions are as important to Michigan’s turnaround as any other.