By Pat Disabato firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @disabato March 19, 2014 8:20PM Like most basketball players, A.J. Avery grew up dreaming of hitting the game-winning shot that led his team to the NCAA national championship.
“Oh, yeah, of course I would,” said Avery, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. “I’d be in the back yard and start counting down: three, two, one, and then I’d shoot the basket that won the game for my team.”
That childhood dream of competing in March Madness has turned into reality for Avery, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward at Western Michigan. The Broncos are one of 68 squads invited to the Big Dance.
“It’s very exciting,” Avery said, “especially since I’m only in my sophomore year. When we were freshmen, this was our goal.”
While winning the national championship is a long shot — the Broncos are a 14 seed in the South Region — Avery, a 2012 St. Rita graduate, is thrilled and proud to be among several local players who’ll be participating in March Madness.
“There’s a lot of talent on the South Side,” Avery said. “To have an opportunity like this is amazing.”
Avery and the Broncos (23-9) begin their March Madness experience Thursday against No. 3 seed Syracuse (27-5) in Buffalo, N.Y. The Orange, at one point, was ranked the No. 1 team in the country.
“It’s very exciting to have a chance to play against one of the best,” Avery said. “As a competitor, you want the challenge of playing against one of the top teams in the country.”
Avery is averaging 2 points, 2 rebounds and 10 minutes of playing time for Western Michigan.
Of course, he’d like to see more time on the court, as anyone with a competitive bone in his or her body.
Ironically, it was a bone in Avery’s right wrist that prevented him from playing his junior and senior seasons at St. Rita. Avery broke the same wrist on two separate occasions. All he could do was watch from the sidelines.
“It was tough,” he said. “My mom said to me the other day that with all I’ve been through, to be able to play in the NCAA Tournament is really something special. It’s surreal.”
While losing two seasons of playing time certainly hindered Avery’s development as a player, it didn’t prevent Western Michigan from offering a scholarship. Much of that had to do with Avery showcasing his skills while playing for Meanstreets during the AAU season.
However, Avery is well aware of the influence St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare had on Avery’s playing at Western Michigan.
DeCesare, along with Avery’s mother, father and brother, will be in attendance for Thursday’s game.
“Coach DeCesare coming to the game is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” Avery said. “That really touched me. I never expected him to do this.”
The Broncos earned an automatic bid to the tourney — their first since 2004 — by knocking off Toledo on Saturday in the Mid-American Conference championship. In doing so, it denied Hillcrest great Julius Brown, Toledo’s leading scorer, of experiencing a March Madness moment.