— Rob Blanchard photo
FORT McMURRAY, Alta. — Since junior high school, Aaron O’Brien’s future seemed to be laid out in one direction.
The young Pasadena native who towered over teammates on the basketball court became a provincial star, then a highly-regarded prospect when it came time to select a university.
O’Brien chose the University of New Brunswick, and played two seasons for the Varsity Reds men’s basketball team in Fredericton. His improvement was gradual, and in certain games he excelled, but he had yet to really take the Atlantic University Sport setup by storm.
Now he’s walking away.
“I’m not playing this year,” the six-foot-nine centre said, when contacted regarding his thoughts on the V-Reds chances to improve on their non-playoff finish last season.
O’Brien felt lost — not an uncommon thing for a 20-year-old kid away from home for the first time, attempting to tough it out at university. First he tried engineering, but discovered it wasn’t his thing. He did various bachelor of arts courses, but again nothing truly grabbed his attention.
“I was just up there playing basketball,” he said. “I didn’t have a direction and it wasn’t for me.”
Now O’Brien has a new direction, one which will take him to South Africa in early January to volunteer in building several sports facilities for the Maasai Women Development Organisation’s Girls Secondary School in Arusha, Tanzania, recently built in conjunction with Reach Out to Humanity (ROTH). According to the ROTH website, the group is a registered, non-profit, secular organization founded on the principle that every human being has the right to proper health care, clean water, education, nutrition and shelter, regardless of race, gender or religion.
Currently in Fort McMurray, Alta. labouring with Canadian Oil Sands, O’Brien is attempting to pay off a few bills and raise money for the trip.
“I’m here on the pipeline, out in the mud,” he said. “What a state.”
He had been deliberating over the South Africa idea since the beginning of last year, before finally deciding that he should take the opportunity while he’s still young.
“I need something to give me some direction in life,” he said. “It’s so hard not knowing the route I want to take. I think this will really help.”
Parents Shawn and Darlene were supportive of his decision, while he said his V-Reds coach Brent Baker wasn’t entirely surprised to hear the news.
“I think Coach Baker, in a sense, saw it coming,” O’Brien said. “He said it felt like I didn’t give it as much of a chance as I should have and I definitely agree.
“But it’s so hard to do something when my heart wasn’t there,” he continued. “I loved playing ... I really did, but it got to the point it began feeling more like a job than a sport to me.”
There was a time when stepping out onto the court meant any troubles he had would be left on the sidelines, not entering his mind again until the final buzzer sounded. A particularly painful memory O’Brien still struggles with is the tragic death of his 14-year-old sister in an automobile accident in December 2010.
Shooting hoops helped him cope.
“I’d go out and put all my problems behind me,” he said. “But it didn’t happen like that anymore.”
Still, knowing how much the sport did for him — and how greatly exercise can positively impact one’s mental state — is a reason why he’s decided to lend his hands and his heart to children in South Africa. The project he’s involved with calls for the building of a soccer field, basketball court and volleyball court.
It won’t just be a construction job either — he’s hoping to interact with the kids and do a little coaching as well.
“Enduring all my hardships, basketball was my out,” he said. “I know a lot of hardships are happening out there and I know the opportunity is there to able to help give what basketball did for me to someone else.”
With three years of Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility still on the table, O’Brien believes he’ll eventually return to the varsity basketball ranks. He hasn’t given up on the game completely, still playing during the summer months, and he said he hopes to be mentally refreshed after his sojourn in South Africa.
“I talked to a couple of people who went on this trip,” he said. “They said it was completely life-changing and gave them a new outlook.”
Whether his return would be with the V-Reds or somewhere else is still as up in the air as an Aaron O’Brien slam dunk.
“I’ll definitely look around,” he said. “UNB if it feels right, yes, but change is good, so who knows?”
For more information on O’Brien’s ROTH project or to donate funds, email email@example.com.