When University of Illinois at Chicago point guards Marcus Ottey and Godwin Boahen aren’t burning opponents down the basketball court, you can often find them spitting fire into a microphone.
“I’ll sing. I’ll make the chorus, he’ll rap. Or he’ll sing, I’ll rap. We’re both versatile,” says Boahen, a 5’11 junior from Toronto. “We’ve got a little laptop, find an instrumental on YouTube and just start writing or start going.”
His roommate, the 6’2 junior Ottey from just outside of Toronto, remembers the sessions a little differently.
“I always tell him he can’t sing,” he said. “I’ve never heard him sing. I don’t think he sings.”
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure. The only people who get to hear the duo’s music belong to an exclusive group chat, which they started just over 10 years ago with three friends on a Canadian youth basketball team.
It was the same group chat where Ottey broke the news in December of 2015 that he was committing to play at UIC, over offers from much larger schools like Cincinnati, DePaul and Wichita State. Boahen’s response at the time:
“I said, ‘what is UIC?’” Boahen said. “’Are you crazy? Take your time, let the season play out, you’re going to get more offers.’”
Yet soon after, head coach Steve McClain started pursuing Boahen, and with a little urging from Ottey, he too was committed to the Flames by the following April.
Recruiting international talent has clearly been a priority for McClain, who took over a program in 2015 that had posted six losing seasons in seven years. This year’s roster includes six foreign players from four different continents, a claim only eight other schools in the entire country can make.
McClain sees the cosmopolitan nature of Chicago as his recruiting tool. UIC’s campus, after all, is nestled between the Greektown and Little Italy neighborhoods on the city’s west side. He’s brought in players from Australia, Ireland and Ghana to the program in addition to his prized Canadian guards: Ottey, Boahen, and two-year starter Tarkus Ferguson.
The reality is the players were all playing at various junior colleges and prep schools in the United States when they attracted McClain’s attention, as recruiting overseas is nearly impossible on a Horizon League budget. But McClain sees a deeper value in this type of prospect.
“I think one thing about the international kids is there’s a loyalty there,” McClain said. “When you commit to them they commit to you, and you’ve got a chance to beat anybody on [recruiting] them.”
Ottey and Boahen have taken turns at the helm of the Flames’ offense in their first two seasons, with Boahen getting more starts during a 17-win freshman campaign and Ottey emerging as the potential star during a 20-win season last year, the most wins in a season for UIC since 2004.
However, it was when McClain decided to play the two together during last year’s College Invitational Tournament that things really clicked. Even though the team gave up size defensively, the chemistry between the longtime friends translated onto the court. The result was three straight wins and a trip to the finals, where they ultimately fell to Northern Colorado.
“The advantage is we can play fast, and we’re putting three guys on the court who can all handle the ball and make the right decisions,” McClain said, mentioning Ferguson as a potential third point guard. “I think it’ll allow us to have really good flow from the beginning this year.”
The Flames need to come out in good form with a gauntlet of non-conference games that includes road trips to Notre Dame, Saint Joseph’s and Colorado to go with home matchups against Illinois State and Loyola University Chicago.
Whether or not UIC will be able to exceed its projected third-place finish in the Horizon League preseason poll depends entirely on the leadership of its finally experienced guards. There is still not a single senior on the team, and of the players on the roster taller than 6’5, only one has game experience with the Flames. It hasn’t stopped them from dreaming big.
“When we came in, our goal was to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Boahen said. “And, to be honest, our goal was to make noise in it, not just go to it.”
Coming to a gym near you this winter, the Canadian musical duo of Marcus Ottey and Godwin Boahen. One raps, the other may or may not sing the chorus.
But together, they’re writing the next verse in UIC basketball history.