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Aaron Anderson. Submitted photo

IN THE SPIRIT: Off the court with Aaron Anderson

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We, their fans, are legion.

We know them by name, we know them by number. Our eyes follow them up and down the court and we watch their points and fouls flash in red and orange on the scoreboard at The Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.

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It’s all part of the much-loved hype at UND men’s and women’s basketball games.

From my No. 8 seat in Row D Section 404, I marvel at the quickness, agility and dunk-ability of the players. They have a game plan but then, so do I. Not only do I love to watch their maneuvers, my strategy is to explore the heart and soul of some of them.

This time it’s Aaron Anderson, a 150-pound 5-foot-10-inch senior guard who wears the O jersey. Aaron and I had a nice long chat this week. I also had the pleasure of speaking with his parents by phone.

In a past sports story, Aaron was quoted as saying, “God didn’t give me the height, but he gave me the heart.” That told me this young man gives credit where credit is due.

Something else Aaron said impressed me. It was this: “My dad always told me, ‘If you don’t work for it, it’s not yours.’”

Both academically and athletically, Aaron has worked hard all four years at UND. As a result this is what is his: an average of 10.7 points per game which ranks third on the team. He’s the team’s leading 3-point shooter making 28 so far this season with nine conference games to go. Plus Aaron has never missed a game in his career. All this while maintaining excellent grades. At the end of summer, he’ll graduate with a degree in business economics and hopes to continue playing basketball overseas.

Full of Hope

One thing that really stands out in this 22-year-old is how much his family means to him. Love and respect is written all over his face when he speaks of his parents, Ernest and Norma (Hope) Anderson, and his brother, Allen, 16, of Brooklyn Park, Minn.

Both Aaron and Allen were given their dad’s first name as middle names and with their mother’s maiden name being Hope, Norma has always told her sons, “One thing no one can ever take away from us is hope because we were born as Hopes.”

Ernest Anderson works at a printing company and is a Realtor. Norma sells life insurance.

“My mom’s the outspoken one yelling at the games,” Aaron said. “She’s a very hard worker, the disciplinarian. She’s tough. She taught me right from wrong, things to do and not do. And my dad taught me everything, his work ethic he passed on to me and my little brother. My dad gave me everything that I need to know from high school, to college, to basketball. He’s taught me all life’s lessons. His motto is: live life with the least regrets. Minimize your regrets.”

A smile spreads across Aaron’s face when he speaks of his brother. “Allen goes to my old high school (Osseo). He’s about an inch or two taller than me. He’s playing varsity (basketball) as a sophomore. I’m more outgoing, he’s more laid back. He’s a big technology guy and he tries to give me advice on a basketball game. He calls and tells me what I should have done.”

Cradle to court

Not many basketball stars get their start at 6 months of age as Aaron did.

“My dad put a little basketball hoop over the crib and he made a video of me and him playing,” Aaron said. “He would place the ball in my hand, pick me up and tell me to drop the ball in the hoop. When the ball went in he’d say, ‘Two points! They can’t stop you.’ ”

As Aaron grew to boyhood and beyond, work came first.

“Dad raised me and my brother to work hard and play later,” Aaron said. “If I wanted things like shoes and clothes and candy I had to cut grass and shovel snow. My dad always told me, ‘Don’t be one-dimensional in sports, the classroom or interacting with people. Be the helpful type, not the one who thinks he knows it all.’”

Back home Aaron and his dad ran basketball clinics and taught the skills of the game to “the little guys,” Aaron said. One thing they stressed was, “size doesn’t matter,” Aaron added. “And my mom likes giving back and helping the homeless and doing Meals on Wheels.”

When Aaron came to UND he pursued community service opportunities. “I shot hoops for a girl named Brittany to raise money to try and help cure her leukemia. My sophomore year, my teammates and I went to the Salvation Army and delivered food to people on Thanksgiving. I’ve read books to kindergarten kids at elementary schools and twice I’ve spoken to high school National Honor Society students at Red River (High School) on academics, personal responsibility, service to others and how that shapes character. And every year, I’ve participated in helping little kids expand their basketball game at our summer camps.”

Aaron smiles a lot, but some things do make him sad. “Losing a game and not being around my family,” is one of them, he said, “and wondering what it would have been to have a sister.” He did have a sister named Amber who died at birth.

“When Aaron was 3 and we lost our daughter,” Norma said, “Aaron would pray every night for God to send him a brother. He takes great care of his little brother.”

Aaron has nine pairs of court shoes. Using a permanent market, he has written words on that have special meaning on all of them. The words, “Anderson,” “Hope,” and “Amber.” Also on the shoes are the names of a cousin who was killed at age 21 by a drunk driver, and the name of a deceased high school teammate.

Considerate son

Norma Anderson said she is most proud of Aaron for the compassion he shows for others. When he played high school basketball, they had to raise $2,500 to cover his travel expenses. After reaching that goal, Aaron received $500 from an aunt so he gave that money to another boy so he could be on the team.

“I was so touched by him doing that,” Norma said.

Aaron already has his philosophy for life in place. “Enjoy and live every day to the fullest as if it’s your last,” he said. “You are not promised a tomorrow. Dad says, ‘Live in the moment. Enjoy it because, once it’s gone, it’s just a memory.’”

Speaking of memories — Aaron will carry many with him wherever he goes.

“I’ve enjoyed my four years here at UND,” he said, “from the studies, to the athletes to the fans to the little kids and the camps in the summer time. I’m going to miss playing here.”

Reach Dunavan at naomiinthespirit@aol.com. Read her blog at inthespirit.areavoices.com.

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