PITTSBURGH (AP) – It would have been easy to bail. Nobody would have blamed him. Way too much work. Way too little reward. Way too much else going on in Aron Phillips-Nwankwo’s life.
Only he couldn’t. What would his mother have said? When the rest of his family asked if he was crazy, Stephanie Phillips told her son to trust his gut. So he turned down a full academic scholarship to Johns Hopkins in exchange for five years at the end of Jamie Dixon’s bench in Pittsburgh, a chiseled if limited 6-foot-7 walk-on forward who spends most games as a towel-waving cheerleader.
Sitting with Dixon at a restaurant near his childhood home in Baltimore shortly after Phillips lost her battle with breast cancer in December 2013, Phillips-Nwankwo wondered when the fire that drives him would return or if he would even care if it did.
He didn’t wonder about what his mother would want. Phillips didn’t raise a quitter.
“She’s the reason I just didn’t give up,” Phillips-Nwankwo said. “I wanted to give up but I just couldn’t.”
That future had to include basketball, despite his grief and considerable academic load. Even if he rarely played when it mattered. Even if it forced him to sacrifice anything resembling a normal college life.
Phillips-Nwankwo spent the months after her passing “sleepwalking.” He buried himself in books and the open arms of his teammates. Slowly, things returned to normal. Slowly, the fire returned – both in the classroom and on the court.
He added his mother’s name to the back of his No. 15 jersey before his senior season, a tribute to her faith in him.
When he walks onto the floor Wednesday night in his last regular season game at the Petersen Events Center as the Panthers (19-11, 8-8 ACC) host Miami (18-11, 8-8), Phillips-Nwankwo will hug Dixon and point to the student section that has awarded him cult status because of the jolt he sends through the arena every time he reaches the scorer’s table.
If he gets some more run alongside fellow seniors Cam Wright and Derrick Randall, great. If not, that’s fine. The journey was always more important than the destination for a guy who has played less than 100 minutes in five years.
Phillips-Nwankwo laughingly admits the smarter decision when he graduated from Baltimore City College High in 2010 would have been to fo to Johns Hopkins and concentrate solely on becoming a doctor, the plan since he started watching cable documentaries as a kid and mimicked impromptu procedures on whoever happened to be around.
That path would have been simpler. Sorry, he doesn’t do simple.
He switched majors from biology to neuroscience because there was something about the way the brain works that intrigued him. He voluntarily took out a student loan for his fifth year rather than ask Dixon for a scholarship. He typically is up until at least 2 a.m. with a book in his face before grabbing a handful of hours of sleep so he can start the same weary cycle: class, practice, class, collapse.
Last he checked, a report card with Bs isn’t the best way to get into medical school.
His relentless effort means he can fall asleep instantly, whether traveling by plane or bus or in a film session. And his teammates notice, using his perennial spot on the dean’s list and his post-graduation goals as a way to affectionately bust his chops.
“I get the doctor jokes a lot,” he said. “If something is wrong with somebody, I get ‘Hey doc, what’s wrong with me?’ I’m like ‘Umm, I haven’t been to medical school yet.'”
Emphasis on the yet. But it’s coming. Quickly.
Phillips-Nwankwo spent the last three summers shadowing physicians at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. During one evaluation, Dr. Luke Henry turned the tables on his protege. The clinical neuropsychologist handed the clipboard to Phillips-Nwankwo and asked him to handle the next case, a routine clearance of an 8-year-old patient whose eyes bulged when he saw the large, dreadlocked pre-med student walk in.
“Aron manned up,” Henry said. “He was a little shy at first … but he caught his groove. He came out of there a little charged up.”
It’s a familiar sight to Dixon, who has watched Phillips-Nwankwo treat every practice as if it’s his last in an effort to make the Panthers better and demand his coaches to take notice. Dixon responded by giving the team’s most respected player the first extended playing time of his career this season.
Phillips-Nwankwo provided an emotional boost in a victory over Florida State on Jan. 14, scoring seven points off the bench in a 73-64 win. His momentum screeched to a halt when he dislocated a shoulder against Virginia Tech two weeks later.
Though he’s healthy now, minutes are again scarce on team desperately chasing an NCAA tournament berth. With the next phase of his life – the one without basketball – rapidly approaching, Phillips-Nwankwo is trying to embrace the now.
By the time he turns 23 on April 21st, his playing days will be over. There will be a year or two of volunteering and research then it’s off to med school, where he’ll focus on concussion research in part because it will allow him to stay close to the game. The one he feel in love with as a kid, the one he promised his mother he’d see through until the end.
Don’t bet against him.
“People think you just have to be real smart,” Henry said. “You have to have some depth to your person and some ability in what you are and bring to the table. He’s an awesome, awesome guy. I wish him the best but he doesn’t need my wishes, he just needs the opportunity.”
Follow Will Graves on Twitter at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP