ROCHESTER, MICH. - Jeff Konya struggled to stay composed during the ovation.
It was Aug. 31 at the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights, and Oakland University’s athletic director was welcoming the school’s student-athletes. Instead of a lecture about rules and regulations, he showed the 300 or so players “Eye in the Sky,” a movie about a drone-led military conflict that raises moral and ethical considerations.
Before the event, new OU basketball player Isaiah Brock had been introduced to the room. It was mentioned that he had come to Oakland after serving four years in the U.S. Army.
“He received a standing ovation,” said Konya, who was choked up. “It was a very powerful scene. At a time where the country has so many issues that need to be discussed, that showed that there is something to be said for service, giving of yourself and protecting freedom.”
Then, late last week, the NCAA informed Oakland that Brock was academically ineligible to play this year.
All were surprised. Months of applications and letters had explained how Brock, 22, had changed over his four years of military service, possessing far more discipline than the roughly 2.0 student he was in high school.
“I just believed that it would happen,” Brock told the Free Press this week, after finding out that he can be on scholarship at OU this year but cannot play basketball until next season. “Then I kept my belief in it. But when they denied me, I was like, wow.”
Growing up in Baltimore, Brock wasn’t serious. About school. About sports. About much of anything, except for getting out of the “pretty rough area” after graduating from Forest Park High School.
His grade-point average sagged because he didn’t care, he said, not because he wasn’t able to work. Brock enlisted in the military in 2012 because that was his most secure path.
“To get away from there,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to play sports in college, so I saw the military as -- you can still get a degree (from) the military and get away from home, go away from that area. There’s really nothing good there in Baltimore.”
So he enlisted and went to basic training at Fort Lee in Virginia. When he arrived, the job that he expected changed. He and fellow enlistees were taken to a morgue in Richmond, Va. A body bag was unzipped, revealing the corpse of an elderly woman.
“I was like, OK, so I guess this is what we’ll be doing,” said Brock, now certified as a mortuary affairs specialist.
As difficult as the process was, he speaks about his duty proudly -- and in the present tense.
“When a solider dies on the battlefield, we’ll go retrieve them, and they’ll come to us,” he said. “We’ll process their remains, search through their belongings, search through their body, annotate all their wounds and everything that happened. You see all the ramp ceremonies with the flag draped over their body? That’s what we do, then we send them home.”
Brock grew up quickly. The hard streets of Baltimore were no match for the carnage of war.
He did a six-month tour in Afghanistan. Then back to Fort Lee. Then six months at the Armed Forces medical examiner’s office in Dover, Del. Then Fort Lee again. Then six months in Kuwait.
He served his country via a task that no one envisions when they enlist.
And it changed him.
“It’s made me a little cold inside when it comes to dying,” he said. “I felt, if it’s your time, it’s your time. But it made me enjoy life more and not look down on things. Getting this opportunity to play here (at Oakland), I’m very grateful for that.”
Oakland’s opportunity to land Brock came by chance.
Brock was 6 feet when he graduated high school. But he didn't only grow internally during the four years in the military. By the summer of 2015, he was 6-feet-8 and standing out on the basketball court in Kuwait.
When a few college basketball coaches went overseas to visit troops for a week, Brock was placed on a team coached by former UCLA and St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. But he connected with another coach, Oakland's Greg Kampe.
“I’m thinking to myself, it’s 130 degrees in Kuwait, he’s out there in the full uniform and boots with a backpack, and I’ve got kids (in Rochester) complaining they’ve got to run up and down the hill,” Kampe said. “I just thought this is an unbelievable story, I would love this kid to be around my team. He looked like a pretty good athlete but had no idea how to play basketball.”
Kampe told Brock that, when his service contract was up, he had a scholarship offer to attend Oakland.
The school admitted him after he got a qualifying score on the ACT. In late June, after living with his parents following the discharge, he was on the road to Rochester.
“When we got Isaiah here in the summer, we knew he was, technically, a nonqualifier to get him financial assistance for him to be able to practice and for him to be able to compete,” Konya said. “The basis of our waiver was the totality of his circumstances, his life story, that he warranted relief from the typical NCAA legislation. Due to his military service, due to his performance in high school in an environment that wasn’t conducive to college preparedness. And the fact that he had already done 12-15 credits of college work.”
Oakland expected the NCAA to understand. Years earlier, Brock took a psychology class and a math class through the University of Maryland University College while in Afghanistan. Because he was focused, he earned an A and a B.
In the summer term at Oakland, he took two classes and got B's.
To Brock and OU, that seemed to be evidence of progress, not evidence of a need for an “academic year of preparedness,” as the NCAA responded.
“I thought they would be more lenient -- not show me sympathy, but review my service,” Brock said. “I understand you’ve got to look back on the grades and all that, but that was five years ago. Of course you’re going to be a changed person. … But clearly, I wasn’t worthy.”
Brock already is involved in the campus community, tutoring other students. He has a goal of becoming a counselor.
And at this point, he’d only be a minor contributor to the Golden Grizzlies on the floor. At 6-feet-8 and 191 pounds, he can leap and rebound a bit. But he’s still learning what to do in the post. He runs the floor smoothly but doesn’t have college-level court awareness nor comfort.
That’s what Kampe doesn’t understand about the NCAA's verdict. This is an unusual circumstance, not about pushing a star player to be eligible. It’s about giving back to someone who served the country.
“My question to them is why? You’re able to make a decision like this because of him? This guy came eye to eye with the Taliban, and you’re going to tell him he can’t play basketball? Because, four years ago, he didn’t care about school?” Kampe said. “He’s gotten three B's and an A in college work. So why are you doing this? Who are you hurting if you let him play? What’s the purpose for this? And they can’t give us an answer.”
The NCAA usually does not comment on individual cases and did not immediately respond to the Free Press’ request for explanation.
Oakland will submit an appeal. The athletic department will try to present its case differently. It's hoping for resolution before the season starts Nov. 7.
Konya has reached out to his NCAA contacts to try to get information beyond the email and phone call the school received about the case last week.
“They’re holding him out for an academic year of preparedness,” Konya said. “In my limited scope of understanding, he’s proven he can do college work. So that rationale doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
If the appeal fails, Konya, his compliance staff, Kampe and the basketball team will be disappointed.
But you know who won’t be crushed? Isaiah Brock.
“The military already did that, it gave me that drive to be successful,” Brock said. “When I came here, it just enhanced that drive. Now I’m really full-force.
“It doesn’t matter if I’ve got to sit out this year, next year, as long as I’m focused on getting my degree, playing basketball and winning a ring.”
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