PASADENA The bags are packed and he’s ready to go — just about, anyway.
“The goodbyes are going to be tough,” said Aaron O’Brien, as he sorted through his belongings, trying to figure out the best way to box up his television. “It’s going to be tough to leave home ... I never thought I’d say that, but you don’t realize how good you got it. You really don’t.”
O’Brien will be driving his newly-purchased car to Port aux Basques on Sunday. He’ll board the ferry, cross the gulf and begin life on the mainland as a university student on a basketball scholarship.
The University of New Brunswick (UNB) is his destination, a five-year engineering program his plan, although he admits he isn’t closing the door on anything just yet. It is, after all, his first year.
Standing at six-eight (and a half) — “I call myself six-nine, because I’m just about up there.” — and weighing 220 pounds, O’Brien was a beast on the basketball court in this province. Grown men in the local senior league couldn’t physically handle the then-high-schooler and most opponents his own age didn’t even try.
Not to hark back to terrible sitcoms of the 1980s, but university will be a different world from where he came from.
The current starting centre for the UNB Varsity Reds is six-foot-10 Australian Michael Suffield. The St. Francis Xavier University X-Men, for example, boasted twin tower centres — seven-foot-two Riiny Ngot of Sudan and six-foot-10 Rodrigo Madera of the Dominican Republic — on their roster last season.
O’Brien knows his height is suddenly about to go from extraordinary to extra ordinary. Sure, he’ll still be one of the taller players in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) setup, but he’ll need to come up with some other defining characteristics in order to excel.
“In Newfoundland I was always the tall one,” he said. “Every now and then I’d get a bit of height up against me, but I’m expecting a lot more muscle, a lot more pushing around and a lot more people my height.”
That’s not necessarily a negative though. Playing with Suffield will give O’Brien a firsthand look at different ways a player can use his size to his advantage.
“I’ll probably learn a lot off him and hopefully me and him can share the floor a bit after my first or second year,” he said. “Who knows ... we’ll see how I develop and how he develops.”
He’s been spending his summer working with Pasadena’s recreation program, while fitting in as much time jogging and frequenting the gym as he can.
He hasn’t played any serious basketball since the school year ended, but has gotten out to the courts to shoot around by himself on occasion. The brief break, he feels, actually did him some good.
“It gave me a chance to hit the gym and pack on a bit of muscle before I go and get thrown around by all the big guys,” he said.
Varsity Reds coach Brent Baker has been in touch with him via telephone more than a few times over the summer, as have other UNB alumni, interested in the hot hoops prospect from the Rock.
Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s a fairly safe bet O’Brien’s name will be on the final roster when it’s released. His role, of course, has yet to be determined.
“From what I’ve heard, we’ve got a nice few rookies coming in, so it gives me a chance to fight for a spot,” O’Brien said. “Everyone hopes to get a bit of playing time their first year ... if there’s any chance at all for me to get some playing time, I’ll work for it and do whatever it takes.
“I’ve got nothing else to do,” he added with a laugh. “I’m going up there with no friends, so all I’ve got to do is study and play basketball.”
O’Brien hooked his own residence room at McLeod House, which will give him some much-needed privacy and help him adjust to his new surroundings at his own pace. It was a brutally tough year for the Pasadena clan, after a car accident claimed the life of Aaron’s little sister Holly in December, so there’s an obvious hesitation in leaving on his part.
But there’s also a tinge of excitement, the chance for a little change.
“It’s exciting because it’s a new start,” he said. “There’s so much opportunity, it’s just a matter of trying to make the best of it all.”
The Varsity Reds’ first game is scheduled for Nov. 12 against, coincidentally, Memorial University of Newfoundland.