When Isaiah Brock abruptly left Oakland University’s basketball team in August, the question on everyone’s mind was why.
Brock, a U.S. Army veteran, was initially ruled academically ineligible because of five-year-old high school grades. It took a national campaign, including support from U.S. Rep Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, to convince the NCAA to allow him to play, and after a successful freshman season in which he was named to the Horizon League’s all-defensive team, many around Oakland were scratching their heads about his departure.
“I had to get my priorities straight. I had to take a hard look into my future and what I wanted to do with my career,” Brock said at Oakland’s basketball media day on Thursday, after announcing last month he would return to the team.
“Basketball is not No. 1 in my life. I want to be more academically focused, and that’s what that time was. That time was for me to sit back and reflect on what I wanted to do.”
Coach Greg Kampe was on a goodwill overseas visit years ago with several college coaches when he had a conversation with Brock, who was deployed in Kuwait at the time. Kampe was impressed with Brock and told him a scholarship would be waiting when Brock was discharged. Fast forward to July, and Kampe was hospitalized with a life-threatening case of sepsis when he heard about Brock’s decision to leave Oakland.
“I was in the hospital when all that went down, so I didn’t know what was happening,” Kampe said. “We finally got to have a meeting a while after that, and it made a lot of sense what he said to me. He’s 24 years old, he was in the army and he had no clue that college basketball was going to be like being in the army. I was probably as tough as some of his drill sergeants were. I think when he got out of the army he was kind of looking forward to life without that.”
Brock and Kampe’s relationship wasn’t always rosy, but both said their relationship has evolved in a positive way since Brock’s leave of absence.
“I treated him like a freshman, and he was 23 years old,” Kampe said. “I’m not the greatest with freshmen. Most freshmen are immature, and I’m an old-school guy. They need to be told what to do and how to do it, and they need to be held accountable for doing it right and growing and learning. I saw greatness in him, and I tried to bring that greatness out, and he was just trying to understand life.”
Brock said stepping away for the brief period of time strengthened his bond with Kampe
“You would think it was strong before, but it’s stronger now,” Brock said. "I’m different. I didn’t come straight out of high school like most people did. It was a big change for him to deal with a guy coming straight out of the army, and I was older than most guys on the team, so you adapt."
After taking the time to reflect on what he wanted to do, Brock was ready to return.
“Basketball starts and here’s this 6-foot-9 kid walking around campus, and everybody’s wondering, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ Everybody had their own opinion of why he wasn’t going to play, and I think he got tired of that, and I think he missed basketball,” Kampe said. “I think our whole team was excited that he’d come back because, No. 1, he’s a great kid, and No. 2, he’s a great player. He doesn’t have to touch the ball, and he affects the game, so we were elated that he came back.”
Brock’s defensive prowess manifests in an impressive ability to block shots. He had 72 last year, fifth in program history. His lanky frame helps, and his leaping ability is among the best in the Horizon League. He joins a senior-laden rotation that is the odds-on favorite to win the Horizon League.
Brock had a tumultuous summer, but there isn’t a lot of time to readjust before Oakland’s schedule gets tough, facing Kansas, Syracuse and Michigan State in the non-conference schedule.
“We’ll learn how mentally tough we are and how we adapt to environments we’re not used to. As long as we have each other we can adapt and overcome,” Brock said. “Expectations are high, and we’re glad they’re high.”
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.