A few hours before every Old Dominion basketball game, Frank Hassell's cell phone beeps. Like clockwork, he finds a text message from his father, Franklin Sr.
"Whatever he says, I really take it to heart," Frank Hassell said. "It's based on how he feels that day. One time he said, 'I talked to God today. He told me your jump shot is on.' ... He always tells me I'm the man, I'm the best post player in the country. At times I don't feel like that, but he's always there for me."
Hassell, ODU's 6-foot-9, 260-pound redshirt senior forward, is doing a pretty passable imitation of his father's opinion. He's averaging 13.1 points and 9.4 rebounds for the Monarchs (14-4, 5-2 CAA), tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association and playing host to VCU (14-5, 6-1), tied for first, at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Franklin Sr. gets his inspiration for his pregame messages from different sources.
"Sometimes I think about the old days, when he was a little guy," he said. "I was looking at this picture, and I think he was in kindergarten, and he was hugging on my leg. I'm a big guy. I'm 6-4, 6-4 1/2. And to think that he is much bigger than I am now … I try to say something funny to make him laugh and calm him down, and at the end of every message, I say, 'Make sure you rebound. Make sure you rebound and play hard hard.' "
That, in a nutshell, is how ODU won the CAA regular-season and tournament titles last year, how it beat Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament and how it plans to get back to the Big Dance – and maybe go even further – this season.
The Monarchs lead the CAA and rank 24th in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 59.8 points per game. Their rebounding margin of plus-11.2 also leads the league and ranks third nationally.
Hassell is a big reason for those numbers. In his five seasons at ODU, he's grown from a raw talent whose only self-described skill was rebounding to a low-post force with a devastating left-handed hook shot and a body that has spawned the nickname "Tank," able to repel would-be scorers in the lane like Teflon.
"He was just a pile of potential, (but) Frank was just always wide-eyed and wide-open ears, trying to soak up every little bit of what it would take to become a better player," Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor said. "Some big kids love basketball, and some don't. Some kids are willing to work, and some won't. He loves basketball and is willing to work."
Franklin Sr. has watched that work pay off from his seat behind the ODU bench at the Constant Center. He's proud of the evolution of his son's hook shot and a free-throw percentage that, after a total overhaul of form and attitude, has crept close to 70 percent. But he's always advocating for Hassell to show another aspect of his game that both he and – on some days, it seems - a higher power believe in.
"We're not talking about him shooting the 3-ball, but that 10-foot jump shot off the glass - just to keep the other guys honest," Franklin Sr. said. "Because surely (defenses) are not going to sit down there and let him rebound and score all day long. Other teams are going to get wise - well, they've already gotten wise to that, and he knows that. So I think he's adding some other inside moves to the moves that he has now."
Such addition is possible because of Hassell's commitment to the weight room, a place Hassell didn't spend much time at Indian River High in Chesapeake, dissuaded in part by the slight scoliosis and back spasms that caused him pain throughout high school. At ODU, he learned that the stronger his back got, the better it felt.
"I started drinking protein shakes," Hassell said. "I never did that before. I started lifting more. I started going real hard at it. … I really took pride in that, and I really took pride in being a low-post presence."
That presence was on full display in Wednesday's 64-58 victory against James Madison (15-4, 5-2 CAA). Hassell battled Denzel Bowles, 6-10 and also 260, in big-boy basketball under the basket from the opening tip.
Bowles emerged with a game-high 20 points, but Hassell ended up with 15 points, 11 rebounds and the victory – as well as a swollen right elbow wrapped in ice.
"He's relentless on the glass," said Bowles, a product of Kempsville High in Virginia Beach who grew up playing rec ball with Hassell. " … Every time we play each other, it's always a fight. He's definitely progressed since his redshirt freshman year. He definitely got better around the basket. His jumper got good. He's becoming one of the best post players in the league."
That was evident as Hassell scored 15 points against Notre Dame last March to lead ODU to its first NCAA tournament win since 1995, with Franklin Sr. looking on at the New Orleans Arena.
"Just being there, and then winning a game, and I saw his picture in the New Orleans paper — I was like in another world," Franklin Sr. said. "I didn't believe it. You know sometimes you have to pinch yourself to make sure you're really there? I've got bruises on my arm because I pinched myself a whole lot of times."
Franklin Sr. is already planning another NCAA trip — "He promised me. My bags are packed" — but should that happen, it won't be the moment he's proudest of his son. That will come when Hassell graduates in May with a degree in sociology.
"His mother has two degrees. I have two degrees," said Franklin Sr., a probation officer whose wife works with foster children and whose brother, Leroy Roundtree Hassell, is a justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia. "(Frank) can't play basketball forever, but his degree is something that he will never lose.
"That will be better than any basketball he's ever played, any free throw he's ever made. It will be better than anything he's ever won."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun