It always helps to know good people.

As Erik Copes can confirm, it's even better when one is a family member.

Copes, a 6-8, 220-pound power forward, is a rapidly blossoming sophomore at Imhotep Charter. His bloodline includes Uncle Roland.

The full name is Roland Houston, and that undoubtedly rings a very nice bell for Philly hoops old heads. Though a South Philly native, Houston played his high school ball at Martin Luther King (class of 1978) and then had a strong career at Rhode Island. After playing overseas, he went into coaching and is in his fifth year of assisting at George Washington University after a previous stint at La Salle University.

"My uncle's very supportive. I love him to death."

Copes spoke those words early last night, after Imhotep bested visiting Freire Charter, 60-49, in a Public C game. His contributions included nine rebounds and five blocks. How many points? Three.

"Hey, we have two Division I players on our team," Copes said, referring to wing players Will Adams (bound for Towson) and Sam Prescott (Marist). Another Panther, point guard Parrish Grant, also is receiving D-I interest.

"I don't even think about scoring yet. My job is to rebound and play defense."

That's where Houston comes in.

"I first started asking him to help me when I was 9 to 10 years old," Copes said. "Then, in the summer when I was turning 12, I went to Drexel's camp and started getting serious about basketball. Then, that next summer, I went down to his house [in Alexandria, Va.] and I've been going back ever since. With his help, I'm starting to prove myself."

Though Houston is a salt-of-the-earth good guy, turns out he's quite the demanding personal coach.

"He hits me," Copes said.

Wait. Let him explain.

"When we're doing drills, he likes to hit me with a foam-rubber pad," he said. "On my arms. On my shoulders. On my legs. All over my body. I want that. And need that. He has me doing all kinds of drills. Jump hooks. Blocking shots. Getting the ball off the glass . . . The last time I was down there was in August. We didn't work out as much that time. We just had a lot of talks about how I can become a special player."

Though the game was entertaining and relatively crisp, few would have predicted that after sauntering into the gym. Two Imhotep starters (Prescott and Ivory Wells) were missing because of injury, while five of Freire's top seven guys were unavailable for assorted reasons.

The Panthers pulled away from a four-point lead after three quarters, as Adams scored 13 of his 16 points.

Jamal Jones and Grant scored 10 total points apiece while leading in other categories (Jones 12 boards, Grant four steals). Freire's Jabril Trawick mixed 13 points, six rebounds and three assists.

Copes, who lives near 56th and Jefferson, spent last season playing junior varsity.

"Going into the summer, coach [Andre Noble] told me what I had to work on," Copes said. "When the season began, he never pulled me aside to say I was starting. But there I was."

You know Uncle Roland received a filled-with-excitement phone call, complete with a gigantic thank you. *