After a long journey that’s taken him all over the world, Isaiah Brock will make his college basketball debut on Friday when Oakland University opens the 2016-17 season against Bowling Green.
Friday holds a special meaning to the decorated U.S. Army veteran for another reason as it’s also Veterans Day. Like so many others across the country on this day, the 6-8 freshman forward from Baltimore will stop to honor the men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces.
“Veterans Day is a time to give thanks and show appreciation to all the people who have served our country,” said the 22-year-old Brock. “So many people have risked their lives, and some gave the ultimate sacrifice. As someone who has served, I’m grateful for our veterans.”
Brock’s story is one of gratitude, service and patience. He joined the Army after graduating from Baltimore’s Forest Park High in 2011 and spent four years with the 54th Quartermaster Mortuary Affairs Company until his contract expired last spring.
A four-sport standout at Forest Park, Brock grew up in a traditional, working-class family and lettered in basketball, football, lacrosse and track. He was a basketball team captain but actually had more success in lacrosse (all-city and all-state as a senior) and track (state runner-up in the high jump).
Brock lacked focus in the classroom in high school—he was also closer to the 6-foot mark at the time—but did graduate. Unsure of his next step, he worked as a lifeguard before following in the footsteps of his uncle and joining the Army.
“I definitely wasn’t mature enough in high school and not worried about getting good grades,” Brock said. “When I was in high school, my uncle and I would visit, and I really looked up to him. He told me I could continue my education in the Army, and that sounded like a good opportunity for me.”
After enlisting in the fall of 2011, Brock finally shipped out the following spring. He served as a mortuary affairs specialist during six-month deployments to Afghanistan in 2013 and Kuwait in 2015.
His job description: Help extract dead soldiers from countries in which the United States was at war. The job was different than what Brock had expected, but he stuck with it.
“Basically, I aided in the process of sending our fallen heroes home,” Brock said. “I had to go through all their belongings, annotate the wounds on their body, put them in a transfer case or HRP (human remains pouch) and then drape an American flag over their casket.”
Brock estimated he was responsible for assisting in the extraction of more than 30 fallen soldiers. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Medal, an Army Service Ribbon and a Certificate of Achievement.
The job taught him lessons that he will always remember.
“It was a very humbling experience and helped me focus on what’s important in life,” Brock said. “I learned how to be selfless and appreciate the small things, like being around your family, nice weather and clean air. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to serve.”
While serving in Kuwait in August 2015, Brock competed in the Hardwood Classic, an event at Camp Arfijan put on by the Troops First Foundation that connects soldiers with basketball coaches.
Longtime Oakland coach Greg Kampe was one of the many current or former college coaches at the event. His team scrimmaged one day against a squad that included Brock, and Kampe was intrigued. Brock was an athletic 6-8 rebounder/defender and had an interest in attending college after getting out of the military the following spring.
“I’m in Kuwait and supposed to be the one there helping the soldiers get through what they’re doing,” Kampe said. “I meet Isaiah and I want to hear his story and not me talking. … He looked athletic and was a foot taller than everybody else, but his story is what moved me. I didn’t know if he could even play basketball, but I knew if he was on my team that my players would have an unbelievable leader to teach them about life.”
Brock felt an immediate connection to Kampe.
“Coach Kampe just wanted to hear my story,” Brock said. “After we talked, he said he wanted to give me an opportunity to go to college and play basketball again.”
Brock, whose mother Deirdre (Lambert) Brock played basketball at Radford, had already taken two online college courses while serving in Afghanistan (he got a B in both classes). After his service contract expired last April, he returned to the United States and stayed with his parents in Baltimore for a month. Brock enrolled at Oakland in June and got an A and a B in two summer classes.
Oakland initially requested that the NCAA grant Brock financial assistance as well as permission to practice and play this season. He was allowed to be on scholarship and practice, but the NCAA rejected the request to play this season due to the grades on his high school transcript from 2011.
After his story received national attention, Oakland submitted a waiver that resulted in the NCAA clearing him in October to compete this season.
“I’d written three or four letters to the NCAA explaining that my high school grades weren’t a reflection of me now, so it was definitely disappointing when I found out I was ineligible,” Brock said. “But I was so excited when the NCAA said I’d be able to play this season because most people where I’m from don’t get this type of opportunity.”
Oakland won 23 games last season but is searching for a new identity after losing star guard Kay Felder to the NBA. Kampe expects Brock to contribute this season, on and off the court.
“He’s like a sponge and wants to be a good player, and he’s going to be good,” Kampe said. “One of the reasons he’s going to be really good is because of his life lessons. … He’s got raw athleticism and jumps quickly a second time like an NBA player and has long arms and blocks shots. He’s going to help us.”
In addition to playing basketball, Brock is majoring in psychology with the goal of helping others as a counselor or mental health therapist. He is also excited about wearing a different type of uniform after proudly serving his country.
“Being a part of this team is like being part of a new family,” Brock said. “It’s also kind of like being in the military because you need to be able to count on the person next to you. Brothers always have your back, and I already feel like these guys are my brothers.”