Yesterday, I found myself with mixed emotions as I watched an athlete take the court for the last time. This wasn’t a superstar athlete. This wasn’t an athlete with a multimillion-dollar shoe deal. This athlete was my brother, AJ, and he was a hell of a basketball player.
AJ was the youngest of four, with me being the eldest. There was an eight-year gap between us and quite a size difference. We also have the luxury of having a large family. So that meant, as the youngest, he had to deal with getting pushed around a lot growing up. In the summer, we would play sports outside all day long. Wiffle ball was our game of choice. I would make my brother pitch to me over and over all summer long. When it was his turn to bat, I would just strike him out. Then, I would make AJ pitch to me again. But he never gave up.
Once, I had him pitch to me with a rubber ball instead of a Wiffle ball so that he could throw harder. I figured it would help me prepare for high school baseball a bit better. That was a mistake. I hit a line drive with that rubber ball straight back up the middle. It hit AJ in the chest with so much force it knocked him off of his feet. Needless to say, he didn’t pitch another ball that day opting to go swimming instead. But he never gave up. He was right back out there on the mound the next day. We used a Wiffle ball wrapped in electrical tape after that incident. That allowed him to throw the ball harder without creating the extra explosion off the end of the bat.
In the winter, we had to settle for playing indoor basketball. We had an eight-foot ceiling in our basement with a six and a half foot rim. This didn’t give us much room to play. We did the best we could marking off a half court with carpets and using chalk to draw a three point line. We would play games to 21. If you were on defense and you rebounded a ball, you had to take it out past the three-point line before you could shoot. It was our own version of street basketball.
I told AJ that if he tried to drive into the carpet for an easy basket I would block his shot. I did. Every single time. But he never gave up. At first, he just kept trying to drive to the hoop to score and I just kept blocking his shot. I would also physical with him and push him around. We have a video of him faking an injury and getting upset over it. He accused me of fouling him. Which of course, I never did. But he never gave up. He was resilient.
Eventually, he learned that if he just sat back and shot threes, I would let him shoot. He missed at first, a lot, but after a bit of time, he started making his shots. All of them. Coincidentally, this marked the time that we grew out of playing basketball in the basement. The games had become too physical and intense. I stopped growing at six feet and two inches tall. AJ never stopped growing.
AJ started playing varsity basketball in high school as a freshman. He eventually plateaued at six feet and seven inches tall. That never give up attitude he had growing up stuck with him throughout his career. He would spend countless hours working on his shot at our downtown court. I would like to think those basement basketball battles with me helped him develop his inside-outside game. He was able to shoot threes like no one else at his height. In high school, this left him virtually unguardable. He landed as a third team all-state selection in Pennsylvania as a junior. In his senior season, he averaged 20.8 points a game to finish as a first team all-state selection in Pennsylvania. He capped off his senior season by leading Penn Cambria High School to their first district championship in over a decade.
AJ used his talents earn a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown to play Division II basketball. He did not waste his opportunity. He played significant minutes in his four years at UPJ and was named a CoSIDA Second-Team Academic All-American his senior season while majoring in Applied Mathematics. In addition to his academic achievements, AJ kept shooting threes with success. He ended his career shooting 47.9% from behind the arc while hitting an astounding 240 threes. He also was named to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference first team for three consecutive seasons. He left UPJ ranked on their all-time list in scoring with 1,539 points and rebounding with 699 rebounds.
Even as the time ticked down in his final game, he never gave up. I know it must have been hard for him leaving the game of basketball he loved for so long. As the game ended, I wondered if he was going to be emotional after the game. I wondered because I had tears in my eyes.