X-Men basketball star eying professional career
By Corey LeBlanc
A picture is worth a thousand words.
There's little doubt that Steve Konchalski and Azaro Roker would agree with that well-known adage, when it comes to a pair of photos taken more than five years ago.
The veteran StFX X-Men basketball coach and his then freshman recruit are wearing wide smiles in one – an arm wrapped around each other's shoulder – as they stand in front of a familiar welcome sign emblazoned with the university's name located near the main entrance to the Antigonish campus.
"I will never forget that day," the native of Nassau, Bahamas says.
Fifth-year X-Men basketball forward Azaro Roker and his head coach Steve Konchalski on his first day on the StFX campus in 2016. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
It was the first time he set foot on the grounds of his now soon-to-be alma mater.
In the second snapshot, Roker stands alone in front of the same sign – arms open wide, as if preparing to embrace what would become his home away from home.
Those same arms – ones that would soon dazzle Atlantic University Sport (AUS) fans with thunderous slam dunks and shot blocks – and the legs that held up his frame could be described, at best, as slender.
"It is night and day," Konchalski says of the physical transformation of his fifth-year forward.
On that late summer day in 2016, Roker weighed approximately 189 pounds.
Now – after countless hours of tireless effort in the weight room – his body is chiseled, no longer spindly, and carries 233 pounds.
"He is a physical specimen, obviously, but I am more proud of how he has matured as a person," Konchalski offers.
Using the word "maturity," the veteran X-Men mentor praises Roker for his transformation – not only physically, but also athletically and academically.
Remembering him as a "raw talent" when he joined the program, Konchalski says Roker has worked tirelessly to become one of the most talented – and feared – big men in Canadian university basketball.
"I am so proud of him," the X-Men head coach adds.
'We are brothers'
At this time of the year – under 'normal' circumstances – Roker and his X-Men teammates and coaches would be heading down the home stretch of the AUS regular season and preparing for the playoffs.
"It is extremely disappointing," Roker says of the cancellation of the campaign because of health measures taken to deal with the continuing COVID-19 global pandemic.
Along with having the conference season wiped away, StFX lost the opportunity to host the U Sports' national championship tournament, which was scheduled for March at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.
"I think we had the right pieces to the puzzle," Roker says, in reflecting on the "high hopes" that the X-Men program had for this season.
He also laments the way in which the career of his legendary coach will end.
"Coach has dedicated his whole life to the game," Roker says of Konchalski, who will retire on April 1.
"It is extremely difficult – so demoralizing."
When it comes to navigating an unprecedented and challenging year, Roker says the "strong bond" shared by the X-Men has "really helped."
"We are brothers," he adds.
Roker notes his teammates have remained focused and "continue to push one another."
"It would have been easy to give up, but that hasn't happen," he says.
"We have really been there for each other."
'Time to move on'
With this varsity season wiped out, student-athletes have retained one year of eligibility, which means Roker could return to the White and Blue next fall for a fifth-and-final campaign.
"It is time to move on – spread my wings and fly," Roker says of his decision to forego that option.
Noting the young, up-and-coming talent on the X-Men roster, he adds "it is time for them to take up the mantle."
Roker in action at the 2020 AUS championship in Halifax (Nick Pearce photo)
As for what's next for the former 1st team AUS all-star and second-team All-Canadian – who will graduate in May with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in development and religious studies – Roker notes his goal to finish his final year as an Academic All-Canadian.
While pursuing that academic achievement, he is also laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be a professional career on the hardwood.
"I have no idea yet," he says of where he is going to be playing next season.
Roker, who has been in talks with a few agents about representing him, notes possible landing spots include Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Vietnam.
"I am still doing my research, so we will see what happens," he adds.
Konchalski says Roker "has what it takes to be successful."
"He is ready for it," he adds of his student-athlete's dream of playing professionally.
Noting Roker has the physical tools required to compete, Konchalski says he needs to continue to work on "acting like a pro."
"Azaro has already started doing that, but there is also a difference between playing in university and being paid to do it," he adds.
Describing it as "regimented" – the 24-7 dedication required in areas, such as training, nutrition and getting enough rest – Konchalski says it is "all about living like a pro."
"I know Azaro has what it takes," he adds.
Noting he has "achieved so much," Konchalski says Roker's growth and development – both academically and athletically – has come with plenty of sacrifice. Having stayed in Antigonish over the past two summers to work on his game, Roker has gone an extended period without seeing his beloved mother and family.
With his time at StFX winding down, Roker – more and more – continues to turn his focus to building a "better future" for his family.
"The sky's the limit," he says.