Tale of Two Athletes

Panthers basketball stars grew up worlds apart

By James Gutierrez

Jordan Aaron had no problem sleeping that Friday night in February. “Usually when you have a good night’s sleep before a game it benefits you,” said the UW-Milwaukee’s star senior guard.

Less than a month earlier, more than 4,200 people came out to watch the UWM men’s basketball team play the Phoenix of Green Bay in Milwaukee. Aaron and his teammates had grown since that loss, using the overtime defeat to rally around. They vowed they would not lack intensity when they traveled to Green Bay to play their rival again on February 8. 

The morning of the rematch, the Panthers players woke up in their own beds, got ready, and met at the Marriott in downtown Milwaukee. The buffet of French toast, eggs, sausage and bacon would fuel them for their 1 p.m. tipoff 120 miles north. The assistant coaches went over the scouting report that was given out the previous night, which players were instructed to memorize “like their ABCs.”

In Green Bay, UWM sophomore and junior college transfer Matt Tiby got taped up and prepared for “war.” Before sitting out last year due to transfer rules, he was used to crowds in the double digits while starring at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“I’m coming here and when we played Green Bay, we had like 4,000,” Tiby says. “That was just a big step for me.”

The Resch Center filled Saturday, February 8, with a recorded attendance of just over 6,000. The game was televised on ESPN, giving Aaron’s family in the Bronx, N.Y., and Tiby’s family in Urbandale, Iowa, the opportunity to watch the two teams square off again. About 30 minutes before the game, Aaron and Tiby were getting familiar with the rim. They watched shot after shot fall, and anything that New Yorker Aaron didn’t make, the shaggy forward from Iowa rebounded and passed out for a second look. Swish.

“Almost everything was going in,” Aaron says, “I felt like it was gonna be a good day.”

***

 How can you not be a baller if you’re named after the greatest of all-time? Michael Jordan is a six-time NBA champion, five-time league MVP, 10-time scoring champ, 14-time all-star, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and the unofficial ambassador for the game of basketball.

Michael Aaron, one of Jordan Aaron’s five older brothers, begged his mother at the hospital to name the baby of the family after the NBA star.

“We would sit down all day and watch tapes of Michael Jordan,” the youngest Aaron recalls. “I had a basketball in my hands when I was in the crib.”

Aaron calls his family his support system and realizes he’s lucky. The backbone of the family was always his mother, Norma “Kooda” Aaron – who also proved to be the backbone of the neighborhood and borough.

“We would have people knock on our door at night and she would bring them in the house, talk to them, yell at them, and tell them that their mother is right,” Aaron says proudly. “They would go back home and apologize.”

Michael Aaron believes that the game of life has made his brother, Jordan, fearless on the basketball court. Five years ago, the Aarons faced the death of their mother from cancer.

“It was very hard on Jordan; it wasn’t even like five months after (our mom’s death) and we lost our grandma to a heavy heart,” Michael Aaron says. “He was only 7 or 8 when our older brother Craig was murdered.”

The Bronx is the northernmost borough in New York City and has a population of approximately 1.4 million. According to New York State’s 2013 Poverty Report, over 40% of children in the Bronx grow up in poverty, which is more than populations of Madison and Green Bay combined.

Urbandale, Iowa is located more than 1,000 miles west from the Bronx, but kids there grow up bred on basketball very much like Jordan Aaron. Aaron’s future fiery Panther teammate, Matt Tiby, grew up on a basketball court. Tiby’s mother, Beth, recalls the days of bringing Matt to her husband’s games as he coached.

“Matt was sitting on the bench in a car seat at a month old,” she says. “Basketball is in the blood.”

Beth Tiby played for her high school team, which went to state her senior year. Matt’s dad, Mark, was an all-around athlete in high school and is known around Urbandale as “coach” – something he’s been doing for 35 years, most recently for the local girls team. Beth has served as an assistant coach and statistician.

Matt and his older sister, Rachael, were raised in what he refers to as a “small town in Iowa that no one has ever heard of.” The town is about the size of Brookfield, with hardly a trace of poverty -- or diversity.

“It doesn’t matter where you grow up or how small of a city you’re in, there are still opportunities for you to be seen and to shine,” Tiby says. “You got to be unique somehow so that’s what I’m just trying to do.”

***

UWM Assistant Coach Duffy Conroy says Matt Tiby has stood out in his first year at UWM. “He has had an amazing year,” Conroy says. “Plain and simple.”

The first half of UWM’s game February 8 versus UWGB played out very much as expected: high energy, back and forth, punch and counterpunch. Tiby sparked a 13-0 run with 10:34 left in the first half with one of his trademark “hustle plays.” It took seven seconds for Tiby to check in on defense, cheat over baseline, anticipate an entry pass, knock it free, and send it on a beeline to the corner end line, and then lay out for it, full extension.

Any time Matthew Tiby plays competitive basketball he should be wearing kneepads and elbow pads, maybe even a helmet.

At halftime the Phoenix led the visiting Panthers, 29-28, as both teams were having problems dealing with their opponents’ pressure defense. And as the second half began, UWM began to make plays.

The Panthers jumped out to an early lead after Jordan Aaron stole an inbounds pass and laid it up for 2, putting UWM up 37-32. Moments later the game tightened back up at 39-38. Then the Panthers get hot from beyond the arc. Tiby started things off with one triple from the left wing. They then connected from long range on four of their next five possessions, three of them coming from Aaron.

***

Beth Tiby says that Matt had the same competitiveness playing board games when he was 5 years old that he does now playing ball. He never wanted to lose at anything.

She watched Matt shoot alone for hours in the family’s driveway. She would stay with him, in her work clothes, sometimes up to two hours, and teach him post moves or rebound for him while he got 200 reps in from the top of the key. To her it is was an opportunity for mother-son bonding time with her baby.

“I really looked up to Shaquille O’Neal when I was little and I wanted to grow up to be like (him),” Matt says. “So she helped me develop a drop step and she helped me develop a hook shot to the middle.”

The thing that Beth noticed that separated Matt from the other kids his age was his willingness to accept advice and learn new things. The driveway was their basketball classroom.

Urbandale High School coach Brad Bjorkgren remembers Matt’s drive to be great from an early age. His son was in the same grade as Matt, and as the two would play basketball in his driveway, Bjorkgren remembers having to tell Matt to stop screaming.“Those screams that he does when he makes a big play, he’s been doing since third or fourth grade,” Bjorkgren says. “We’re really proud of him back here. And he’s not going to stop improving because that’s just the kind of young man he is.”

Bjorkgren coached Tiby in his first varsity start, a game played on the home court of Drake University. And while Urbandale lost, Tiby led the team with 15 points against a squad that featured the NBAs Harrison Barnes, and Creighton’s standout forward, Doug McDermott.

While Tiby has played against some of Iowa’s top homegrown talent, Jordan Aaron never had trouble finding capable competition in New York. One of Aaron’s best friends growing up was the NBA’s 2012 top pick and Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving.

“We spent nights at each other’s houses, weekend after weekend,” Aaron says. “And when you play in New York you play against the best almost every night and you have to come into those games with confidence cause if you don’t it can get really bad for you.”

Anyone who knows Aaron will vouch for his confidence on the court. It’s that same confidence that led him to transfer from his B Division high school to one of the top high school leagues in the nation, the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) in New York, joining the Bronx’s Wings Academy. In the year Jordan starred there, he helped lead Wings to the Bronx Borough Championship, making it all the way to the City Championship where the team fell in the semifinals to Brooklyn.

“Our kids play with a chip on their shoulder because they want to get out of their particular environment,” Wings coach Billy Turnage says. "I absolutely knew he would make an impact at the D1 level. When you can score the ball like that and you’re as strong as he is and athletic, there is a spot for you.”

After High School, Aaron wanted to get away from home. Too many distractions. Coach Turnage told him to take advantage of his athletic ability and make sure to get a degree because one day that ball will stop bouncing. After fewer than two years of junior-college basketball in Iowa, he and nine of his teammates were dismissed from the team for breaking into a school store and stealing merchandise.

Jordan’s older brother, Michael, sees it as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told his little brother that those events can make you look like the kind of person you’re not.

“I told him he needed to get his act together,” Michael Aaron said. “It’s all about growing into a man and watching who you put yourself around.”

UWM head coach Rob Jeter and assistant coach Duffy Conroy were confident that Jordan was not the kind of person portrayed by the slip in judgment. They let him know there was still a scholarship if he was interested playing for the Panthers.

***

At one point, Aaron scored 10 straight points against the Phoenix. Step backs, pull-ups, 3- pointers, tickling the net on free throw after free throw. Anything he wanted to do for the next 20 minutes on a basketball court he did, including winning on the home court of the conference leaders UWGB, 73-63.

Tiby finished the game with 8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and countless floor burns. Aaron scored 23 of his game-high 30 points in the second half, where he shot 6-7 from the field, including 3-3 from 3pt, and finished 10-10 on free throws.

UWM had won just their second game on the road this season and improved to 16-9 (6-5) but still trailed UWGB, whose record was 19-5 (9-2).

Coaches and players from both benches were impressed with the Panthers’ intensity, effort, and Jordan Aaron.

UWGB coach Brian Wardle bluntly said, “Aaron has really broken our back in the second halves in both games.” The Horizon league’s probable player of the year, and Aaron’s counterpart, UWGB guard Keifer Sykes, came away impressed.

“You could see they wanted it more,” Sykes said after scoring 26 points in the loss. “They accepted the challenge coming in and you could tell they were the tougher team.”

Sykes could have been referring specifically to the time in the second half when Tiby laid out, full extension, again, and beat him to a loose ball. Even though Tiby was whistled for a foul on the play, it typified the Panthers that day. Tiby, always the competitor, was able to bottle those feelings and just smile at the call.

“Boy, when he smiles on the court it just lights me up,” Beth Tiby says. “I can tell you after that play though, he was probably ready to rip some heads off.”

Beth, who made the journey from Urbandale to Green Bay for the game, believes it was the largest crowd her son has played before. She says she has only missed one of Matt’s basketball games and it’s because she was “dead sick with the flu.” The life lessons that Beth and Mark have taught Matt from the game of basketball have molded him into a leader on this year’s team.

“I would tell him, ‘Matt you’re always going to be outmatched strength-wise, height-wise, or athletically,’” Beth says. “But nobody can take away your hustle and good things happen if you work hard.”

Jordan Aaron sees it and knows that when he’s gone next year, Tiby will lead the team without hesitation. He compliments Tiby on being a “great vocal leader” and “helping step up the competition in everything the team has done.” But for now, the team very much still needs Aaron’s scoring, leadership and heart.

“We did everything we were supposed to do, we listened to our coaches, and did almost everything perfect,” Aaron says with a New York smirk after the win. “One of the most exciting days I’ve had as a Milwaukee Panther.”

While Aaron’s family watched the nationally televised game in the Lambert neighborhood of the Bronx, Jordan believes that his mother, “Mama Kooda,” is watching from above and is proud of what he has done.

For now, the Milwaukee men’s basketball season moves on and, as Jordan puts it, “there is still work to be done.”

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