Maryland men’s basketball senior Eric Ayala recently chatted with PressBox to discuss how he became interested in playing basketball, why he loves being a Terp so much and more. Ayala averaged 15.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists last year in helping lead Maryland to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Terps open the 2021-22 season as the No. 21 team in the nation.
PressBox: How did you become interested in basketball?
Eric Ayala: I don’t know, I guess I liked the way the ball goes in the net, hearing the swish. I probably started liking hearing that sound when I was younger. I liked to shoot when I was younger. I just loved to shoot. That’s kind of just how I got into it, finding a passion for it. My friends did it. All my friends played, so it was something I was able to connect with my friends in, build relationships that way when I was younger.
PB: Who was the person who helped get you started in the game?
EA: I’ve had a lot of people have their hands in helping me reach certain points in my basketball career. I couldn’t name all of them because there are so many people, but I would definitely say my mom, [Brandy Truitt], is probably my biggest supporter — helping me get to AAU tournaments. She used to drive to the gyms when I was real young and sit in the gyms with me and stuff. It would just be me and her. There definitely were a lot of people who helped me, but my mom probably is the catalyst for that.
PB: How did playing at a few different stops in high school benefit you once you got to Maryland?
EA: Each stop I feel like helped prepare me for college. When I got to school in Connecticut, that was just a different environment, just being around a whole bunch of people who were equally talented and I kind of had to prove myself. Nothing was handed to me there. Some people experience it when they go to college, their first time playing with other good players. I got to experience that early, at like 16 when I went to school in Connecticut. I’m thankful for that experience. That helped me a lot when I got to college, just already having that experience. I was able to just find a way to stay on the floor and be able to compete and play good basketball and win. When you’re around other good players, everybody comes together and we’re trying to win. I got that experience through there. When I went to IMG, a lot of off-court stuff, just seeing a lot of different pro athletes there in all types of sports — tennis, UFC fighters, NBA guys coming through there. Just seeing how hard they work, that work ethic — at IMG, you’re around people and everybody works hard from the morning to the night. It’s just constantly going. Everybody is going and working out and stuff like that. That had a big impact on me in building that work ethic, which helped me coming here. The facilities were nice. At Maryland, we’ve got top-tier stuff here, too, so I was able to make that transition in the weight room there. We did a lot of the same stuff we did my freshman year. It helped make the transition easier when I got here.
PB: Why did you choose to come to Maryland?
EA: I mean, I can’t see really a reason not to come to Maryland. They’ve got everything — the fans, the basketball program is top-tier, good football. For me personally, it was my mom. Me going to all those different high schools, my mom wasn’t able to come see me play when I was away from home at those high schools. Coming to Maryland, it’s a place where I live an hour and a half away. She’s able to be at every home game. She hasn’t missed a home game since I’ve been here [other than 2020-21]. That was very important for me. I feel like in college basketball, everybody’s kind of under the same microscope. You definitely want to go somewhere where you have opportunity. I definitely see opportunity here where I can do something special, come in and compete at a high level and come into a winning program. I wouldn’t change anything. I love Maryland.
PB: What’s your favorite memory so far at Maryland?
EA: Probably my freshman year because that was like my first college basketball experience. When we played Virginia at home that year — that was the year they won [the championship], too — and I haven’t played in a game like that since. It was a blackout, sold-out game. I can just remember we went on a little run in the second half and I remember just backpedaling and I couldn’t hear nothing. … That was one of my greatest experiences. I feel like every day I learn something new about the school. Every day is a blessing to be up here. Just my whole entire time here, I have a great day every day just being up here, so I really enjoy every day being here.
PB: What’s your favorite thing about the University of Maryland and College Park?
EA: Maryland the school, I love the diversity, just how many different people that are here and how many people in general it is. I think it’s like 40,000, 45,000 people here. I get to see and meet new people every day. I love that about this school. That’s another reason why I came here, too — just to be able to network and meet people. I love that about this school, just how many people [are here]. You meet new people every single day. … Obviously the basketball games are lit as a fan. As a player, you come in and compete in front of all those people, that’s a fun environment. The school camaraderie, everybody supports the Terps and all that. Even in the area, Washington, everybody loves the Terps. Just in College Park in general, I just like all the people. It’s a big school. I love that I go to a big school and I get to interact with so many people.
PB: Who’s your best friend on the team and what’s a story that underscores your friendship?
EA: I’m pretty tight with everybody. I think this year we’ve got a lot of guys from the same area as me that I kind of grew up playing around and playing with — Fatts [Russell], Donta [Scott], Hakim [Hart]. Even with Julian [Reese] coming in and [Qudus Wahab] and everybody that’s committed, I think our team meshes pretty well. I feel like we all have similar backgrounds, so it helps us connect instantly. Fatts coming in, he’s going to be a big part. He’s somebody I grew up playing with, so our connection is already there.
PB: Who’s a player you looked up to early in your college career?
EA: When I was younger, I used to like to watch LeBron, but as I’m getting older, obviously you dream about playing those guys, so it becomes more of a competitive thing versus trying to imitate them. Just finding ways to get better, I think staying in the gym is my biggest motivation since I’ve gotten to college just to constantly keep getting better and having that work ethic, getting better every day. It sounds cliché, but that’s a real thing. Seeing that growth in myself is important.
PB: What advice would you give to younger players?
EA: Stay in the gym and run your own race. You can’t really worry about what other people have got going on. People are going to compare you. You’re going to probably compare yourself to other people. It’s cool to be competitive, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to worry about yourself and know that what’s for you is going to be for you. Just because somebody might have something going on, it might not just be your turn yet. You’ve just got to stay patient and run your race. Your race is meant just for you, nobody else. Whatever other race you think you should be running, that’s for them. You can use this as a competitive thing just to go at people if you get compared to somebody or something like that, just try to compete in that way but still run your own race.
PB: What are your goals for after basketball, whenever it ends?
EA: One thing I’ve learned since I’ve gotten to college is being able to connect with a lot of people. Even with me being here at Maryland, you meet so many people. Just being able to connect with different people, I meet all kinds of people — future lawyers, doctors, future businesspeople. I think basketball has given me the opportunity to meet so many people that I’m able to befriend a lot of these people and build genuine relationships. Throughout the rest of my basketball career, I feel like I’ll be able to meet a lot of people and just be able to find something that I’m really passionate about. Right now, obviously my passion is about basketball. It’s hard for me to think outside of that right this second, but if I had to I would say something to stay close to basketball, but I feel like I’ll be meeting people and different opportunities [will] come about as I do that.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox