Jan. 19, 2011

Circumstances often lead us down one road or another. Sometimes we're happy with our choices; sometimes we wish we'd gone the other way. From time to time, we get the opportunity to see what would have happened if we had made a different choice, if we had taken the road left untraveled.

Todd O'Brien was recruited by Saint Joseph's as a junior in high school, but both the Hawks and O'Brien ultimately went in different directions. After playing in 30 games as a freshman at Bucknell, he transferred to SJU and became a Hawk after all.

Sometimes, it's just meant to be.

O'Brien, a seven-foot junior from New Holland, Pennsylvania, started his career the same way that many college student-athletes do: at home in the driveway. However, he soon took his game indoors and showed talent at a young age.

"I started playing organized basketball in second grade," O'Brien said. He played in recreational leagues and for his middle school team until the eighth grade, when he was called up to the ninth grade team. His eighth grade year also saw another jump for the youngster.

"I was always taller than everyone else, but in eighth grade I started the season 6-foot-4," O'Brien revealed. "By the end of the season, I was 6-foot-7."

He used that height advantage and his improving skills to spend four seasons on the varsity squad at Garden Spot High School.

O'Brien credits his father with a big assist in the early stages of his career. In addition to coaching his son, Roy O'Brien brought his son to numerous events, allowing Todd to showcase his talents in the big city.

"When I went to AAU events and workouts in Philadelphia, he was the one who would drive me around," the younger O'Brien said.

Obviously, the city made an impression on him, because O'Brien points to SJU's location as its major selling point when he was looking for a new start.

"I'd always liked St. Joe's when I was in high school and they were recruiting me," he said. "I wanted to come down to the city; I grew up in Lancaster County, out in the country, and Bucknell is up in the mountains. Philadelphia is just an hour from my house, and I thought it would be cool, something different."

One of the highlights of his prep days in New Holland, O'Brien said, was his Senior Night game against archrival Conestoga Valley. Garden Spot won in a rout, but the shared experience with his teammates and classmates is what sticks out in his mind.

"I had something like five dunks," he fondly recalled. "It was fun; all my friends were on the team with me and we were winning big and the crowd was really into it."

Enjoying the time he gets to spend with friends remains important to O'Brien even as he balances his basketball career and his obligations as a student. When he returns home, he eschews the video games that are so popular among college students in the 21st century in favor of the real thing.

"I like to play a lot of sports," he said. "When I'm home with my friends I like to play baseball, tennis, and volleyball. I played some soccer this summer...my friends were playing a lot because the World Cup was on. That was fun."

O'Brien also enjoys the outdoors, specifically spending a relaxing day fishing with his buddies. In addition to those aforementioned pursuits, he had a hidden talent for something that might be considered a little off the beaten path: ping pong.

Was he the best among his group of friends? Of course.

"I used to be," O'Brien laughed. "My friends would always blow everything way out of proportion competition-wise. Back in high school, I would come home from basketball and then that night I'd be playing ping pong in my basement. We used to have tournaments and stuff like that. I used to be real good, but I haven't been playing."

Another thing O'Brien hasn't been playing much of lately is basketball. After suffering a sprained ankle, the tallest member of the team has only recently gotten back into the lineup, playing a combined 14 minutes in road games at Dayton and Saint Louis. It's the first time he's had to deal with the injury bug.

"I sprained my ankle once in seventh grade, but I was only out for like a day," O'Brien said. "This is the first time I've ever seriously sprained it."

"It's frustrating," he continued. "The biggest thing is practicing, but being tentative on it; when it's not a hundred percent, it's sort of in the back of your mind...it's annoying to have that slowing you down."

As he makes his return to the Hawk lineup, the seven-foot center will work his way back into a very young rotation, as five freshmen and two sophomores see significant minutes for head coach Phil Martelli's squad. O'Brien has a very philosophical view when it comes to being a part of such a young team; he knows there will be ups and downs, and hopes to impart that knowledge on his younger Hawk brethren.

"I try to talk to guys," O'Brien said of his de facto role as one of the team's elder statesmen. "We've had some rough games of late...it's never as bad as it seems, and it's never as good as it seems, and I think a lot of them are starting to understand that.

"I just try to let them know that everything balances out," he went on. "We are young, so we're going to have our struggles, but I think we're going to be very good. All the freshmen are very talented, and our sophomores are good, too...we show a lot of flashes [of the future], but we also show some flashes of our youth."

O'Brien knows that such a young group will take time to come together and bring Hawk fans the victories they've come to expect. When that does happen, he'll be right there with them, sharing in the fun with all his new friends.

You could say that it's a matter of circumstance, that things would be different if he never made the move to the big city. You could say that, but you would know better.

Sometimes, it's just meant to be.