Feb. 28, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
With just a handful of games left in his quiet hoops career, Aaron Peek can say whether he plays in any of Georgia Tech’s final few games or not that he’s done a pretty good job ticking through his basketball bucket list.
The senior walk-on didn’t even plan to be in Clemson Saturday, after all, let alone a player for the Yellow Jackets.
Tech’s only two seniors (not counting transfer graduate student Demarco Cox), are on consecutive pages in the media guide, yet Peek and Robert Sampson have traveled vastly different paths to this point.
Sampson was highly recruited out of high school and played a lot in three seasons at East Carolina before transferring to Tech. He’s played in all 28 games this season, and started 11.
Peek has been with the Jackets all along, playing two minutes this season in one game, and has played 25 minutes in 13 games in four years at Tech.
He’s relishing his time, however, and not just the sparse few game minutes.
With just a single bucket to show for all of his hours of work, that coming last year, Peek may have peaked about 10 days ago – in practice.
The smile gives it away.
Asked about career highlights, he’ll mention that layup last season, yet spend more time talking about a recent moment in practice.
“A couple weeks ago, I tip-dunked in practice,” he said with a grin. “I’ve always loved to dunk, but that happened for the first time.”
The 6-foot-4, 188-pounder from Mays High can dunk, but that one – in the heat of practice – rated highly.
Peek says the same about his time at Tech.
“Four years passed pretty quickly. It’s been a great experience, and in developing such close relationships with players and coaches, I can see it coming to a close. But I know they’ll be in my life, and I’m going to be in theirs. It’s just surreal.
“My experience has come with the ability to travel, be with the team, and go places I’d never been. The first time I went to Duke, that was something I had only seen on TV. Since I didn’t know I was going to play college basketball, that’s something I didn’t aspire to do.”
That’s a rub. The only player on the roster who has been here for all four of head coach Brian Gregory’s seasons didn’t plan to be here at all.
Peek was a talented player at Mays, but quite lightly recruited. He had a fine time at former Tech head coach Paul Hewitt’s summer camp the summer before his senior year of high school, and word got around.
The summer after Gregory was hired by Tech, the Jackets were going to be short of players and he’d heard through the grapevine of Peek. Soon, former assistant Josh Posterino called, interrupting a young man’s freshman year of classes and part-time work at Barnes & Noble, with a question: Can you try out?
“I got a call from a coaching buddy who knew the family well, and he said this kid is coming to Georgia Tech,” Gregory recalled. “We didn’t know where we were going to be numbers-wise. I was trying to track down a recruit in the Philippines at that time.
“He fit the characteristics of what we were looking for. He’s been a special part of our program because he’s been here all four years . . . He’s been a tremendous, positive influence on the program.”
With a soft-spoken as Peek appears to be, it’s hard to believe when Sampson says that Peek is at the top of Tech’s list of players who bust the chops of others.
He’s that diverse, though, and abundantly confidence in whom he is, and where he’s going. Playing time has had nothing to do with that.
He played less than four minutes in four games as a freshman, grabbing a rebound against Sienna, and then pulled two rebounds in five games as a sophomore.
In his junior season came the breakout.
Nevermind the three additional rebounds in three games . . . what about that basket? Peek hasn’t forgotten, although he can’t remember if the crowd went crazy or not. He was in a delirious daze upon conspiring with fellow walk-on Brooks Doyle against East Tennessee State.
“It was a fast break, after a turnover, I think,” he said. “I was running down the left side, and I sprinted past everybody. Brooks found me; it was a perfect pass, and I made a layup. He’s more of a shooter, and I’m more athletic. The crowd might have cheered; I don’t know, but it was more stunning for me.”
This is the tale of a grinder.
Peek will graduate in May with a degree in public policy, and he hopes to become a hospital administrator after taking either an MBA at Tech or a graduate degree in health administration elsewhere if he can’t gain re-entry on The Flats.
Always, he’ll remember fondly his time as a Jacket.
“I’ve seen the transition, the mission of accountability and responsibility the whole time [under Gregory],” he said. “It is tough as a walk-on having to manage the strenuous academic schedule and playing basketball, but I wouldn’t trade it.”
Gregory noted that tip-dunk, and, “It was a pretty good one, too,” the coach said. “Those plays are made because of the effort that he’s giving. You feel good for him because I knew when he did that it was big for him.
“Although different than hitting a game-winning shot, it’s every bit as important. He’ll talk about that for the next 30 years, and you feel good for him because of that.”
The coach wouldn’t trade this player.
“As with all students, he had some problems, fought through them and now is going to graduate,” Gregory said. “At the foundation of everything, you do this job because you want to impact people’s lives and put them in a position where when they’re doing playing; they’re ready for the next step, whatever that is.
“As a coach, you meet guys halfway because they have to do the work. In Aaron’s case, he’s exceeded that and because of that I can see him being the mayor of Atlanta one day. He’s that gifted, and the character is there. The intelligence is there, and he’s learned a lot about fighting through adversity.
“He’s seen a lot. He’s seen guys who were given a lot early that didn’t necessarily respect what they were given, the opportunities they had. I think all those things have shaped him into the man that he is and is going to become.”