By: Mason Nesbitt, TMU's Sports Information Director
A box score printed on the night of Oct. 26 would relay the essentials: The Master’s University beat Bethesda University by 30. Brock Gardner scored 18 points. A lot of people were there to watch.
What it won’t show is that Gardner came off the court in the second half, with the game well in hand, flung his arms into the air, scrunched his face and unleashed a guttural yell. Moreover, it won’t tell where that particular brand of relentless intensity comes from (Gardner’s father, Troy, isn’t even sure).
Other aspects of the younger Gardner’s makeup, while still outside the scope of statistics, are easier to trace. Like, for instance, the 6-foot-7 forward’s highflying attacks on the rim, which serve as a nod to Troy’s playing days, when dad dunked it for Eastern Arizona College, the school where Brock’s mother, Holli, also hooped.
“I liked to dunk before dunking was cool,” Troy, a full 6-6, says.
Then, and maybe most importantly, there is Brock’s willingness to make basketball decisions that fly in the face of conventional basketball wisdom: say, when he forsook a large public high school for a tiny Christian one in Chandler, Arizona. Or when he willingly left a prominent club team. Or, this past summer, when he transferred from NCAA Division 1 Liberty University in Virginia, where he played in every game as a freshman, to The Master’s University.
The ability to make against-the-grain decisions also comes from Holli and Troy, who made a point early on of laying out the pros and cons and letting their four children choose, for better or worse. And it’d be hard to argue, through the first month of the 2017-18 season, that their youngest child’s latest choice wasn’t for the best.
On Dec. 2, Gardner scored a season-high 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting in the NAIA No. 5-ranked Mustangs’ rout of Pacific Union, upping his season average, at the time, to 13.8 points a night.
He’s currently averaging 6.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and a gigawatt of energy every time he touches the floor. That, he said, was his goal early in the season when he came off the bench: He wanted to provide a spark. Eventually, he so lit it up that coach Kelvin Starr named him a starter.
The move was familiar to Gardner, who played varsity at Tri-City Christian Academy in Chandler as an eighth grader (per rules of the school’s athletic association) and served as a role player.
He was roughly 6-2 at the time and brimming with promise if not yet playmaking ability. But by season’s midpoint, his efforts forced the hand of coach Paul Brown.
“I couldn’t keep him off the floor,” the coach says.
Really, there was no guarantee Brown could keep Gardner at all.
Gardner was torn. On one side, he saw a clearer path to Division 1 basketball at Arizona’s Gilbert High, the public school his sister, Macey, attended before becoming one of Arizona State University’s all-time great volleyball players.
On the other, Gardner saw the close-knit atmosphere he thrived in at Tri-City — the coaches and teachers he loved, the spiritual accountably he valued. He felt a sense of loyalty.
Over the summer, he played with Gilbert, which might have misstepped by posting up the now 6-6 freshman-to-be. Troy had played inside and outside at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, Arizona — and then at D2 New Mexico Highlands University — but he fancied himself a perimeter player, and that’s where Brock had always played. Still, Brock could picture himself at Gilbert. He could see the positive of grander exposure, of playing under brighter lights.
When Tri-City’s warmth ultimately won out, some dubbed it “basketball suicide.” Gardner says, “I had to trust the Lord. I felt he was calling me to stay at Tri-City. And I couldn’t have been happier with that choice.”
You be the judge.
Over the next four seasons, as coach Brown kept his star pupil out of the post, Gardner competed in four state title games, winning two. He averaged more than 24 points, 10 rebounds and four assists over the course of his junior and senior seasons and came up clutch in big moments.
His stat line in the 2015 state title game: 29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks. In the 2016 state title game: 20 points, 13 boards, seven assists, two blocks.
More impressive was the eye test. Namely, YouTube clips of Gardner gliding toward the hoop for powerful flushes or positioning himself behind the arc and striking from range.
“Oh man, exceptional player,” says Brown, a varsity coach at Tri-City for the last 18 years. Brown says Gardner helped change the program’s culture, paving the way for kids to stay at the small school without abandoning dreams of D1 ball.
“To this day,” Brown says, “four of my current players are here because of the elite level that Brock Gardner played at.”
Gardner remembers the phone conversation, even if he won’t divulge the caller’s name. He recalls hearing a handful of expletives in connection to his decision to switch club teams. Before his sophomore year, Gardner — already a budding college prospect — began to believe the culture of his well-known club didn’t mesh with his walk with the Lord. So, he opted to join a friend on a far-less prominent team.
Obviously — by the phone call — not everyone agreed. But those whose opinions counted were firmly onboard.
“We’d rather have a well-grounded young man than a well-recruited young man,” Troy says. In the end, the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
Gardner earned scholarship offers from Liberty, Air Force, Central Arkansas, Lehigh, UC Davis and UTEP, according to AZCentral.com.
He picked up offers from Ivy Leaguers Dartmouth and Columbia, too. But the choice, it turned out, was as much about aviation as athletics.
As a hobby, Brock and Troy spent afternoons flying remote-control planes and attending air shows. Brock was hooked. Now, if only more schools with D1 basketball had offered the major (Brock estimates 17 did at the time).
The decision, then, was narrowed to Air Force in Colorado and Liberty University in Virginia. Air Force intrigued Gardner, but the military commitment was a turnoff. He found it hard to part with so much, well, liberty. Virginia it was.
“They had the aviation program, they had the Christian background, Christian education, and awesome basketball,” Gardner said in a video sponsored by the school at the time. “… It was all you could ask for, so it just seemed like the place to be.”
Taking it coast-to-coast
It’s not that Gardner didn’t like Liberty. It was just, eh, too much. All of it. He found the balancing act tough, almost impossible, between arduous aviation studies and the nearly full-time duties of a Division 1 athlete.
“It came to the point where either my grades or basketball were going to suffer,” he says. After the fall semester, he switched his major to accounting. That didn’t add up, either. On the court, he made eight starts in 35 appearances and averaged a tick under six points a game. But he felt restricted. He found himself wondering whether his coach would approve of this shot or that drive.
His high school coach, Brown, believes the squad’s half-court style hampered the high-tempo Gardner, who trained with Liberty over the summer before his sophomore year but wasn’t convinced he’d return.
Finally, in mid-August, Gardner decided to bolt. But where to? It was late.
How late? New students were due at TMU, where Gardner knew family friends Josh and Mackenzie Delo, in a week’s time.
Gardner’s decision didn’t take long.
“It was literally a 24-hour period where he decided he wanted to come here,” Starr says. “The meaning of that is this: The kid wants to be here.”
Here being a place that feels something like Tri-City, a close-knit community with outsized basketball talent.
“We’re playing at a really high level even if it isn’t (Division 1),” Gardner says of a team with two other Division 1 transfers in point guards Hansel Atencia (Liberty) and Darryl McDowell-White (Fresno State).
In the classroom, Gardner has declared as a biblical studies major. He envisions himself, potentially, as a military chaplain, preaching the word of God with passion. But that’s a decision for after basketball. And who’s to say Gardner won’t have more rims to attack and threes to shoot after his years at TMU are done?
“The safest way to the next level is to be where God wants him,” Troy says. “It’s a non-traditional path. But he’s happy. We’re happy. I listen to chapel on a weekly basis, and I’m ecstatic he’s hearing that preaching and being influenced by the people he’s being influenced by.”