By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
Now, it’s Richard Solomon doing the pump-faking, instead of being pump-faked. Now, it’s Richard Solomon making the right pass. Now, it’s Richard Solomon playing under control and understanding his role.
He may have had to navigate some potholes along the way, but Cal’s big man is finally using his dynamic combination of size and athleticism in a productive way for the Bears. After an uneven three years sprinkled with on and off-court obstacles, Solomon has turned into arguably the top center in the Pac-12 and a big reason for Cal’s early-season success in 2013-14.
“He’s had some tough times, but he’s stuck with it,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “He’s gotten to the point now where he’s a factor in this league.”
There were times when many, including Solomon himself, wondered if he would ever be able to say that. At 6-foot-11 with a unique athletic body that allowed him to become a black belt in karate at age 12, Solomon has spent most of his Cal career finding himself, both on and off the court. He missed the second half of his sophomore season after being declared academically ineligible. On the court, he struggled to find his comfort zone.
“Before I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and now I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Solomon said.” It feels pretty good.”
It feels pretty good for Montgomery and the Bears, too. Solomon leads the Pac-12 in rebounding with an average of 10.6 boards per game. Coupled with his 11.8 points per game scoring average, Solomon is one of only two players from a major conference across the nation that is averaging a double-double.
Former Cal star Allen Crabbe, last year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year and now a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers, has been friends with Solomon since age 7. They attended Price High School in Los Angeles together and were roommates at Cal.
Crabbe said he still watches every Cal game he can, either live or on tape, and has definitely noticed the change in his friend.
“It’s good to see Rich getting it. It’s finally clicked for him,” Crabbe said. “It’s good to see his improvement.”
Much of Solomon’s production this season is directly related to his improved feel for the game. Solomon has become a smarter and more efficient player on both ends of the floor and focusing more on his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.
“I realized I’m 6-11,” Solomon said. “I was trying to play like a video game rather than how I should play. You play a video game, you want to do all the flashy stuff. I realized if I stay in the paint, I’d be a lot more successful. The light just went on and success is coming.”
One reason why it may have taken Solomon a little longer to begin fulfilling his potential is because he started playing basketball at a much later juncture than most of his Division I counterparts. Solomon didn’t play on an organized team until he reached high school and didn’t make the Price varsity squad until his junior year.
“A big part of it is experience,” Solomon said. “Most of the other guys have been playing their whole lives. It’s just learning. I feel like the more I play, the better I get. Over the years, you gain experience.”
Instead of playing basketball during the younger years of his childhood, Solomon immersed himself in karate. He started at age 5 and immediately began participating in tournaments. He spent most of his childhood doing karate, and that’s where he met most of his friends.
And yes, Solomon was usually taller than his competitors, something that gave him an edge.
“It can be an advantage because you have long legs and long arms,” Solomon said. “Obviously, it’s harder for somebody shorter to try to hit you because you are so long. You have an advantage with your reach.”
Solomon’s increased maturity is evident in how he reflects upon his sophomore struggles. He called his academic ineligibility a “wake-up call,” something that undoubtedly led to his changes both on and off the hardwood.
“You just learn that there aren’t any shortcuts,” Solomon said. “You have to pay your dues. You have to go through what you have to go through. I just didn’t take academics as seriously as I probably should have.
“It was just a wake-up call for me, that I had an opportunity here. I am at one of the best universities in the world. You have to take advantage of it. Not many people have a chance to come here on a scholarship. I just don’t think I really appreciated the opportunity that I had. It took some humbling to really appreciate that.”