Basketball High Schools

Gratitude a driver in AJ Osman’s pursuit of basketball stardom

Ottawa’s AJ Osman. Photo provided

By Charlie Pinkerton

There’s something about AJ Osman that’s unlike other talented young athletes.

For many who have pro dreams, like Osman does for the NBA, it’s easy to be mesmerized by the glamour that could possibly await them.

But the soft-spoken Osman is different.

The member of the Canadian youth national team is at the beginning of the years that’ll determine if he can reach his lofty aspirations. Yet, appreciating who’s got him this far is central to what drives him.

Born and raised in Ottawa, the 16-year-old is playing on courts quite far from home, as he’s partway through his debut season at Dream City Christian School in Glendale, Ariz.

Dream City is home to a national travel program, alike countless others in the U.S. for elite-level basketball players. It, and programs like it, are increasingly becoming the go-to destination for the sport’s top high school-aged prospects, including Canadians and other non-Americans.

They’re chock full of players like Osman: physically gifted natural hoopers who have sky-high on-court aspirations. For most of them, high school is where their hoop dreams will be broken; but for the best few, it’s when standing out takes them one step closer to the glitzy pro game.

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Up until now, standing out has just been what Osman’s done when he’s between the baselines.

Because of both his family background and his physical abilities – he’s a quick, springy point guard with natural skills central to the game – it may come as a surprise that Osman wasn’t immediately drawn to the sport of basketball.

AJ is Abe Osman and Rosie Warden’s son. The pair were local standouts in their day. With both playing from 1997-2001, each was an all-star level player, with the elder Osman playing for Algonquin College, and Warden for Carleton, where she was a three-time Ravens’ MVP.

Before taking after his parents, AJ played hockey and soccer – including with Ottawa South United, where his father has coached many of the city’s best youth teams for almost two decades.

Mom’s Impact

Wanting a break from hockey to try something else after a few years, Warden suggested to her son that he try basketball.

“After that first year, I got a passion for it,” Osman told the Sports Pages in an interview.

Osman’s mother doubled as his coach growing up, teaching him the fundamentals – everything from shooting to ball-handling and passing – the parts of the game he excels in to this day.

“She laid down the foundations for me,” Osman said. “I don’t think I’d be where I am without her today.”

Warden is also responsible for bridging Osman with his two most important non-parental basketball connections. She introduced Osman to Aaron Blakely, a long-time Carleton Ravens assistant coach who’s been integral to the improvement of youth basketball in Ottawa, as well as to UPlay Canada in Toronto, where Osman played under coach Dwayne Washington, whose previous pupils include RJ Barrett and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, two of the NBA’s best young Canadians. Osman credits Blakely, Washington, his mother and his father – who he said “was always making sure that I was working out, conditioning and preparing myself when I lost sight of where I wanted to reach in basketball” – as being the four most important people in his young basketball career.

(AJ’s father’s stressing of the importance of academics has also clearly impacted his son, who said his lowest grade score was around 90 per cent — which, naturally, was in American History.)

Close to when he reached his teenage years was when Osman said he realized he might have a serious future playing basketball. Around that time is when he says his athleticism “really took off.” At age 13, he was consistently dunking.

But tragedy also struck when Osman was coming into his own as a basketball player. Warden was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. She died in November 2020 at just 42 years old.

Talking about his mother’s death, Osman impresses a sense of serenity that’s unusual for a 16-year-old. He explained that because his mother knew she was going to die for a while, he grew to come to terms with her imminent passing.

“I think that preparation that she gave me helped me overcome it,” Osman said. “By the time she died, I was ready for it, and I accepted it – and we both accepted it together… Having that time to get everything out in the air and just leave no regrets and nothing unsaid really helped me move on.”

AJ’s road to Arizona

Before he left the nation’s capital, Osman played with top local programs including Ottawa Elite, where he was coached by Blakely, and Canada Topflight Academy.

Reflecting on their player-coach bond, Blakely emphasized that Osman’s talents extend well beyond his inherited gifts.

“He’s pretty unbelievable in terms of how he takes instruction,” Blakely said. “He’s very easy to work with because he’s like a sponge.”

Osman moved on from Ottawa to Toronto to play on scholarship with Royal Crown Academic School’s elite basketball program and UPlay – a travel team that regularly competes against top U.S. talent.

He also played on Canada’s under-16 national team this summer at the FIBA U16 Americas Championship in Mexico in late August.

He described the tournament as being eye-opening to him about how much talent there was among his age-group, particularly on the high-powered American team, who bounced Team Canada from the tournament’s semifinals.

Until Canada’s final game, the bronze medal match, Osman struggled to score – which is usually a strength of his. Even though Canada beat the Dominican Republic for bronze, and Osman scored 13 points in the game, he wasn’t satisfied.

“I don’t think I’ve taken my medal out of my bag since I got it,” he said.

Ahead of the Dream City Eagles’ season, the Grade 10 student was assigned to the program’s junior team – something not unusual for a player of his age, given that the opponents of Dream City’s varsity team would be as old as three years his senior, and some of the best players of their age group in the world.

In the short term, Osman is focused on his first season with Dream City. He’ll also be hoping to land another spot on Team Canada next year on the U17 team. Canada’s team has qualified for the World Cup tournament in Spain, where they’ll get another shot at the Americans.

Further ahead — and thanks to those behind him — Osman’s focused: “I’m trying to stack up my Division 1 offers, play Division 1 in college out here in the States, and then go to the NBA from there.”

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