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Oakland wins appeal; Army vet OK’d to play basketball

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Isaiah Brock

It was an August evening in 2015 when Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe first met a tall, lanky soldier named Isaiah Brock, at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.

Oh, and it was hot. Very hot.

"Every day was hot over there," Brock said, laughing. "One-hundred-and-thirty, every day!"

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that after feeling some heat over the last week, the NCAA quickly changed its mind on Brock, and on Monday declared the decorated Army veteran immediately eligible to play basketball at Oakland.

The decision came less than two weeks after the NCAA initially declared him academically ineligible, based off a five-year-old, high school grade-point average, rather than the real-world experiences he stared down on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Oakland appealed, or technically asked for a "reconsideration." On Thursday, it filed paperwork asking the NCAA to reverse course, and on Friday it added to the file a letter of support from Michigan Congressman Mike Bishop.

And on Monday afternoon, Brock, Kampe and athletic director Jeff Konya got the good news.

Brock, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward from Baltimore, told The Detroit News on Monday morning he wasn't nervous or frustrated by his situation, but he was hoping for the best. He's a changed young man, after all. Seeing what he saw in the Middle East, that'll do that to a soldier.

"Truth be told, he could have been valedictorian, that's how good he used to be in school," said Deirdre Brock, Isaiah's mother, who moved the family from the suburbs to the city before Brock started high school at Forest Park in Baltimore. "We moved to a certain area, the friends were different, the environment was different. His mindset changed, as far as being serious about school and taking advantage of an education."

Brock wasn't a troublemaker, his mom said. He didn't disrespect teachers or elders. He didn't get into fights. He just was hanging with a new crowd of friends, and somewhere along the line lost interest in his studies, and cared far more about his many sports.

He decided on the Army out of high school, and it took all of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina for Deirdre to see that her son had changed for the better.

"Once he signed up for the Army, wow, his maturity level just skyrocketed," Deirdre said over the phone Monday. "He bought a car, and car insurance. I didn't have to help him with any of that.

"I've seen like a 360.

"It's just nice to see him grow up into a young man with integrity and responsibility."

Memorable trip

The NCAA didn't get to see maturation process, nor did it get to see what Brock saw in the Middle East. He went through a seven-week mortuary affairs training program in the United States, before his first six-month deployment, in Afghanistan. He later spent six months in Kuwait. During both deployments, it was Brock's duty to retrieve fallen soldiers from the battlefields and prepare them for their final trip home, where loved ones would hold a military burial.

Isaiah Brock runs the floor during Oakland's practice on Monday.

Brock first caught Kampe's attention during a goodwill basketball tournament in Kuwait, where eight current and former college coaches headed to the Middle East to hold a "draft" and scrimmages before coaching soldiers in a three-day tournament.

The competition wasn't great, nor was it about that, nor was it any semblance of a recruiting trip. It was about getting to know the soldiers, swapping stories and putting a smile on their faces.

But a 6-foot-9 forward on Steve Lavin's team happened to catch the attention of the opposing coach, Kampe. Brock was blocking shots left and right.

After that game, Kampe sought him out, and the two sat down briefly before agreeing to meet later that evening at a base rec center. It was there that Brock told Kampe his story, and the grizzled coach had never been more moved.

"Once he told me his story," said Kampe, "he had me."

Kampe wasn't sure if Brock — who also ran track and cross country and played lacrosse and football in high school — ever would be able to help the Golden Grizzles in the stat sheet. It's not like he had secretly found the next LeBron James, and was about to pull one over on his coaching peers back home in the U.S.

Still, Kampe offered Brock one of Oakland's precious scholarships.

Not every coach would do that, offer a fringe prospect an athletic scholarship, but Kampe kept thinking about where Brock had come from, what he had gone through, and where he wanted to go — to college, like his mom had. In the end, it was the easy call, the right call, for Kampe.

"I was thinking at the time, I said to one of the other coaches, 'My guys are (griping) they've gotta run the hill in the summer time,'" Kampe said. "This guy is in 130-degree weather, wearing a 50-pound uniform. I need this guy around my guys.

"What he's gonna do for the players on my team, the leadership that he's bringing, the perspective that he's bringing. He is gonna make everybody on my team better."

Now that Kampe has seen Brock, 22, practice for about three weeks, he believes Brock could actually see the floor a fair amount as an advanced-age freshman.

Brock got out of the Army in April and moved back with his parents in Baltimore, before arriving in Rochester in June. It didn't really cross the minds of Kampe or Konya that the NCAA would have an issue. This was a soldier, after all, not to mention one who took a couple classes while deployed, earning an A and a B, and took classes this summer at Oakland, earning one A, one B, and one pass in a pass-fail course.

'I've definitely matured'

Handling the coursework was never going to be an issue in their eyes.

That's why the NCAA's initial ruling, based on grades Brock accumulated by his senior year, in 2011, when he was just a lost teenager, before entering the Army in 2012, was so shocking.

Folks in Rochester and around the nation immediately jumped to Brock's defense, including Bishop, the Republican congressman from Oakland County.

"We send these soldiers into battle, into very difficult circumstances. Then when they return home, we should be doing everything we can to support them and encourage them," said Bishop, a good friend of Kampe's. "This guy stared down terrorists in the Middle East. I don't know what could've prepared anybody more.

"The NCAA shouldn't stand in the way from continuing his forward progress."

The NCAA originally ruled Brock could stay on scholarship and continue practicing with Oakland, but it stopped short of ruling him eligible to play in games.

It didn't take long to reserve the decision, which, thanks to national-media exposure — from news and sports outlets, alike — has sparked an important debate about how soldiers' on-the-job experiences should weigh into a college application, as opposed to outdated high school marks.

After all, many young men and women enter the armed serves to find direction and maturity, and emerged very changed, and typically for the better.

"I definitely was a careless one, I was very immature, I really didn't see the importance of getting a good education, getting good grades," Brock told The News on Monday. "I played a lot of sports, I was mainly focused on sports. I blew off my education.

"The military definitely helped me see the importance of getting good grades. I've definitely matured as a man.

"I really appreciate the support I've been getting ever since my story went viral. It was surprising. I really didn't expect it to blow up this much."


Twitter @tonypaul1984