There were times when Aaron Brown felt alone.
Not only was he 300 miles from home and missing his family and friends, but he also wasn’t quite sure why his playing time with the West Virginia men’s basketball was drying up.
But whenever he felt that way, Brown knew exactly what to do: Call his father, William Brown.
“It was tough, man,” said the younger Brown, now a senior at St. Joe's. “There were nights I would call him frustrated. He always had the right thing to say. I’d like to thank him for that.”
These days, the elder Brown goes to every one of his son's home games and takes long car rides for most of the road contests, too. But back then, when the Darby native and former Penn Wood High star played for West Virginia during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, Brown’s father couldn’t get to as many games as he would have liked. Instead, he tried to lift his son's spirits as often as he could on the phone, telling him to work hard and keep his head up.
And even though Brown had some good moments with the Mountaineers, including getting the starting nod in their 2012 first-round NCAA Tournament game vs. Gonzaga, they both agreed it was time to move on and try something else after two seasons in Morgantown.
"When he wanted to transfer, he said, 'Dad, I want to come back home,'" William Brown recalled from the Hagan Arena lobby during halftime of the Hawks’ win over Saint Louis on Sunday. "I said, 'Fine, pick a school you want to play for, talk about it and find a good fit for you.'"
In many ways, that school was always going to be St. Joe's, which recruited him hard while he was at Penn Wood, where he won a state title in 2010. And it’s definitely fair to say that picking the Hawks worked well as Brown is now a veteran fifth-year senior on a surprisingly dominant SJU team that will go for its 25th win of the season Wednesday night vs. St. Bonaventure before coming home to face Duquesne in its regular-season finale Saturday — Brown’s final game on Hawk Hill.
"I've been through a lot of ups and downs in my career,” Brown said. "To finish my college career on top, having a very good season, with the chance of doing some good things in March — that’s all I can ask for."
Brown might not be the star player he was in high school anymore but he doesn’t have to be. DeAndre’ Bembry and Isaiah Miles, two of the best players in the Atlantic 10, handle that just fine. Like everyone else on the Hawks, Brown understands his role, emerging as a very solid third option (he’s third on the team in scoring at 9.1 ppg). And unlike his rocky tenure at West Virginia, Brown feels secure in his place in the rotation, having started every game this season while providing valuable leadership, on and off the court.
“He’s handled his business like a senior — and I mean his business here on the court and his business on the hill,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “He’s driven to get a degree, and that’s watched by everyone here because for a long time you would have identified him as a guy that’s just into basketball.
“And he’s been willing to sacrifice. As Isaiah’s game has taken off, Aaron’s opportunities have become a little less frequent. But he fits. From a very young age, he’s been driven to win, and he has brought that winning approach to our locker room and on the court for us.”
Brown got his first taste of winning at St. Joe’s during his transfer year two seasons ago.
It hardly mattered that he couldn’t play in games because of NCAA transfer rules; he still felt like a big part of the team because of the fierce battles he had against ex-Hawks star Langston Galloway in practice, among others. And Martelli still marvels at how quickly Brown got onto the court from the stands to celebrate the Hawks’ 2014 Atlantic 10 Tournament championship.
"I would say this," Martelli recalled. "I don’t think anyone was more excited."
Perhaps that shouldn’t have been too surprising. How could he not get excited when his hometown team booked a place in the NCAA Tournament? And that excitement only increased when Brown began to suit up for the Hawks the following season, playing in front of many family and friends, just a few miles from where he grew up, where he likes to return every Sunday for a home-cooked meal.
Of course, the homecoming also came with its share of challenges with Brown admitting he had to "block out some people" and focus on those giving him the "right advice," like his dad. But Martelli thinks those issues are all in the past, especially as Brown has grown and matured.
"I think early on it was hard because the people at home were telling him certain things — out of love, not out of disrespect," the St. Joe’s coach said. "And I think that he heard the noise and kind of didn't know which way to turn. But I think certainly this year he's been very zeroed in on what I have to say to him about academics, what I have to say about handling his business in the community and what I have to say to him about basketball.
"And the people that have been closest to him have been very supportive because they want success for him."
This season is already a success as St. Joe’s already has matched its best win total since the famous 2003-04 campaign. Did Brown think that was possible after the Hawks sputtered to a losing record last season, his first one playing for them?
"We always thought that if we worked, we could be as a good as anybody," Brown said.
"Everyone asked me, 'How are you guys gonna be? How are you guys gonna be? I was always like, 'Listen, we’re gonna surprise a lot of people.' I’ve been saying that since Day 1 and that’s what we’re doing."
Given their regular-season success, many hope the Hawks will continue to surprise people in the Atlantic 10 tourney and then the NCAA Tournament, where it increasingly looks like they’ll finish their season.
For Brown, that would naturally be a great bookend to his college career — one that proved to be tumultuous but also, in the end, extremely gratifying.
And he’s ready to feel the madness of March one last time as a college basketball player.
"The experience was great," Brown said of his appearance in the 2012 NCAA Tourney. "I enjoyed every minute of it. That’s why I try to stress how important these games are — because that feeling of the NCAA Tournament is like no other. I would like everyone to feel that."