Sports, Men's Basketball

The Journey Man

“Life is a journey, not a destination” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

That’s the sort of amorphic phrase you may expect to hear from your artsy, free-spirited friend who’s studying English, philosophy or theology. But there is also some truth to it—at the end of each part of our lives, if we haven’t learned, experienced, or felt something new, then what type of life are we living? The journey is our teacher, and it shapes how our lives will go in the future. It can end up defining us.

Aaron Brown’s journey has been a long and winding road. To be precise, from his hometown of Hackensack, N.J., to Chestnut Hill, Mass., it’s been a road spanning eight years and 2,634 miles. It hasn’t been an easy course, but he’s taken everything he can from it.

Brown’s journey started at Paramus Catholic High School, but after his freshman year, he transferred—a move that would become commonplace for Brown. Saint Benedict’s Preparatory High School in Newark, N.J. wanted Brown to play for its team. Perennially among the top high school basketball teams in the nation, Benedict’s often plays against other top schools. Notable alumni from Benedict’s include Tyler Ennis, current point guard for the Phoenix Suns, and J.R. Smith, current shooting guard for the New York Knicks.

Brown points to this experience as the light switch flipping on in his head, changing his path. “Playing with them and putting up numbers, I was like ‘I could do this at the next level.’” Brown said. “So, just staying at it for three years, and also in the summer playing with my national team, the U.S. Virgin Islands national team, playing with pros, just getting as much exposure as I could, I knew then that I could play at the next level.”

Brown wasn’t alone in his thinking—he was aggressively pursued coming out of Benedict’s. He was able to narrow his choices down to three schools, Temple, Harvard, or Miami. Just as Brown was about to make his decision, however, his favored path turned into a dead end: then-head coach of Miami Frank Haith, who had recruited Brown, left the Hurricanes to coach at the University of Missouri.

With that avenue closed, he made his choice—he would become a Temple Owl. “That was the best school after that—I think it was the best school, they were top-25 every year,” he said.

Brown’s career at Temple hit an early pothole, as he hadn’t known that the Owls’ head coach, Fran Dunphy, had a tendency not to play freshmen their first year at the university. In the past six years, only two freshmen have averaged more than 15 minutes per game playing for Dunphy. Brown averaged 9.8 minutes per game, the third most over that timespan. “It wasn’t a thing where me and Coach Dunphy had a bad relationship or anything like that—to this day we still talk and all that stuff—but I think it was a learning process for me,” Brown said.

By the end of his freshman year, however, Brown proved himself to Dunphy, to the point where Dunphy ended up starting his freshman small forward for the final eight games of the year, including the NCAA Tournament. Brown flourished at Temple in his second year, averaging 6.4 points per game on 46.5 percent shooting and corralling 2.1 rebounds per game. At that point, however, Brown felt like his path was leading him away from Philadelphia. “Going into my junior year, I just felt like I needed to go somewhere else where I could showcase my game to help me for advertisements and play at the next level,” he said.

Brown cited a multitude of reasons why he didn’t think Temple was the best place for him to continue working on his game. Chief among them was that Dunphy was playing him out of position. “When we beat Duke, I was playing the 4 against the Plumlee brothers; when we played Maryland, I was guarding Alex Len,” Brown said. He also saw the benefits of playing against the bigger guys, however. “It also helped me because I would just sit at the top of the key, pick, and pop three.”

Brown’s successful year was cut short early, however, as his trajectory sharply changed mid-season. “I was on track to win Sixth Man of the Year, then I didn’t play like the last eight games—don’t know why,” he said. Brown saw the dead end coming up ahead, and he decided to make the turn on his own this time. “I knew then it was time for me to go somewhere else,” he said.

Brown, granted his release from the Owls, turned his attention to three other options—another Boston school, this one endearingly loved by Boston College students (Boston University, of course), Wagner College on Staten Island, and the University of Southern Mississippi. Brown expressed a desire to reunite with his Saint Benedict’s coach, Dan Hurley, at the University of Rhode Island, but the transfer within the A-10 conference would have cost him two seasons instead of one.

Brown eventually chose the Golden Eagles at the University of Southern Mississippi, citing the fact that Jareem Dowling, his head coach for the U.S. Virgin Islands’ national team had gotten the head assistant job at the school. “I went with him,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Let’s keep it in the family.’” Brown thrived under Dowling and his new head coach, Donnie Tyndall. He finished fourth on the team in points per game with 9.9 on 42.9 percent shooting. Brown also led the team in three-point percentage with 39.1 percent of his shots dropping. Meanwhile, Tyndall was leading the team to its first regular-season conference championship and into the National Invitation Tournament.

“We shoulda went to the [NCAA] Tournament last year,” Brown griped. Still, he appreciated his time as a Golden Eagle, saying, “As a basketball player, I think I got better in my all-around game, so I wouldn’t say that was a bad move for me. I think it was a good move for me.”

While it may have been a good move for Brown, another curveball was coming his way. Tyndall was recruited to coach the University of Tennessee’s basketball program, leaving Brown in limbo for a third time in his college career. “I had sensed it coming since like January, when we were winning games, and they were talking about firing people,” Brown said. “His name was all around—Missouri, there, and a whole bunch of other jobs was on the table, so I figured he’d be leaving.”

Tyndall’s departure was just one factor in Brown’s asking for his release, however. “It was far from home,” Brown said. “I can say that a lot of stuff outside of basketball made me wanna leave, but from a basketball standpoint it was great.” Brown, as the lone starter at Southern Mississippi with remaining eligibility, admitted that the idea of staying a Golden Eagle and becoming “the guy” there was tempting, but in the end, the allure of coming home for his final year was too strong.

Once Brown got his release, he immediately became a popular guy, estimating that he got about 22 calls from different schools in 48 hours, including Pittsburgh, Oregon, Florida State, and other ACC programs. Life opened up numerous options for Brown, and he eventually chose to follow the pathway known as I95 up to BC.

Why BC? Brown went from two teams that had made either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT to a team coming off an abysmal 8-24 season, had just fired its head coach, and had lost two of its best players. Brown was looking for that challenge, and he liked BC head coach Jim Christian’s approach to it. “He’s got that kind of East Coast swag,” Brown said. “Just the way he talks and how he communicates with me.”

Brown is also fully on board with Christian’s coaching philosophy and style. For Brown, rebounding isn’t a toughness thing, it’s a discipline thing. He likes that Christian shares that dedication to defense with him. “He’s big on defense, and that’s what wins games,” Brown said. “Not making shots and not making passes, yeah, that helps, but defense and rebounding is what wins the game, so that’s what I like.”

Despite the team’s recent struggles, Brown has high expectations for this iteration of the Eagles, saying it should be every team’s goal to reach the NCAA Tournament and that this team is no different. If that were to happen, it would certainly be an interesting path to watch the Eagles traverse.

Brown’s transition to BC has been easy, according to him, both on a basketball level and on a school level. Having gone through this before, Brown is no stranger to packing up his life and moving elsewhere. As he eloquently put it, “I feel like a free agent.”

Brown has settled into his role on the team quickly—Christian was clear that he wanted Brown to be a leader, and Brown has stepped up. “Somebody’s gotta hold everybody accountable and make everybody play and just bring energy … teach them, but not anything negatively,” Brown said. Brown believes part of Christian’s reasoning behind wanting him to be a leader has to do with his past experiences with winning teams.

All along the way to joining the Eagles, Brown has learned more than just basketball skills. “The lessons I learned with basketball can prepare me for after basketball, even with my family,” he said. He’s also picked up quite a bit of basketball along the way—skills he hopes will help him transition to the next level.

The journey that Brown has been on through college is coming to a close after this year, but at the same time, his journey through life is still early on. While he’s faced plenty of twists, turns, and dead ends along the way, it’s safe to say that he hasn’t seen his last change of direction. And when Brown arrives at his destination, he can look back at his journey and see how he’s changed, and how he has effected a change on a team desperate for one.

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

November 6, 2014