The Centerpiece

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Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor

Oraby-Fans-ASU-PC.jpgFrom about as early as he could walk, Omar Oraby played every sport he could get his hands or feet on. He preferred activity to anything else, and so his days were spent swimming, playing tennis, and kicking the soccer ball. Born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, basketball wasn't exactly the country's most popular sport, but for Omar, that didn't matter.  

"Basketball was always the sport that I loved," said Oraby. "My brother and sister got me a ball and I started playing by myself every day until one of the coaches saw me at a local club and brought me on the team. From the beginning I loved basketball, that was the one sport I really wanted to go into."

Even in a country that's rarely scouted for future basketball players, Oraby stood out. He went on to compete for Egypt's Junior National Team where he received attention from American collegiate coaches. He played his first two seasons at Rice and was then granted eligibility by the NCAA to transfer and play for USC last September.

With a new team, came new adversity. The USC men's basketball team struggled last season, finishing 14-18 overall and .500 in the Pac-12 after enduring a mid-season coaching change. The 7-foot-2 Oraby split time at center with Dewayne Dedmon, but ended last season on a strong note with the best game of his career, scoring 18 points in the Trojans' loss to Utah, making him all the more ready to kick off this year.

"I wanted to keep on playing," he said. "I didn't want the season to be over. It was a great opportunity for me to show what I can do and it was a great push for me going into the offseason, motivating me to work harder and come back even stronger this year."

Oraby played in all 32 games last season but started in only four. He averaged just 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game but after ending his season the way he did against Utah, the center knew he hadn't reached his peak just yet. So he dedicated his offseason to getting in shape, improving his quickness and amping up his conditioning. His new coach's slogan, 'When the sun comes up, start running' emphasizing the change in tempo that would be seen in the 2013-14 squad. Oraby said he put in the extra work to fit a team that, in his words, has changed 180 degrees.

"The way we play is much faster. We used to slow the ball down and work a lot on the half court. But this year we push it as hard as we can to score as fast as we can. It's easier to score off of a fast break. It's a much more fun way to play basketball and it's more fun for the fans too," said the center. 

In addition to his summer conditioning, Oraby did a very different kind of preparation for the upcoming season; he went home. His entire support system lives over 7,000 miles away and because he only gets to see them once or twice a year, those visits have tremendous meaning. The Trojan center explained that he has always played for something much bigger than himself. He plays to change the way the Middle East is viewed in the United States. He plays to be a good image for his country, for the entire region, and he plays to make his family proud. Returning home this summer, Oraby was reminded how important that purpose is. 

"It's everything," explained Oraby. "That's what I play for, for my family, for everyone back home, and to make my country look better. They are my support, my family and my girlfriend. They are all pushing me and it was great to go back and spend time with them."

At USC, his family is his team, and as a team, Oraby said the biggest thing they've learned in the past year, is to play through adversity. With changing circumstances the group has been forced to become experts in adaptation, never letting what's off the court impact what's on. Most of the team lives together, they hang out together, and they are all on the same page when it comes to their goals for their team. Oraby, along with his teammates and head coach Andy Enfield, point to the team's close bond as the strongest feature of this year's group. 

"They are a team," said Enfield. "They came together, really care for each other, and they're playing within themselves. They really trust each other." 

Oraby has worked on adapting to Enfield's up-tempo system, moving down the court quickly and increasing his endurance. With all the change, the center still has a huge role to play as the big guy in the middle. As a junior, Oraby had 47 blocked shots, which places him tied for ninth all-time on USC's single-season blocks list. He said that even within vastly different systems, the fundamentals of his position remain the same.

"No matter how fast you play, no matter how up-tempo the system, you still need rebounds and you still need a shot blocker," said Oraby. "Those are things that you can't get rid of no matter what system you're playing in. That's where I come in."

But this season, Oraby has been granted a new role. He is a leader, both as a captain and because he is one of the few seniors on the team. It's a big change for the center, transitioning from coming off the bench on a team with lots of upperclassmen, to becoming a major role player. With 11 underclassmen on the roster, Oraby is aware that his teammates are looking to him every time he steps on the court. To him, the most important key to being a good leader is leading by example. Oraby isn't intimidated by his newfound leadership position, but rather says it's a role he's been wanting to play his entire life. 

"That's what you play for," said the Trojan captain. "You want to be a leader, you want to be the best player on the team, you want to be the guy who carries the team when they need you. That's what I have been working for my whole career. That's what I've wanted to be and finally it's here."

There's much room for improvement for the entire USC men's basketball team this year after losing in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament last season. But the team doesn't simply want to improve, they want to make a statement. This group of Trojans want to bring about an era of basketball not seen at USC in a long time and Oraby wants his legacy to be intertwined with that goal.

"One of our goals is to win the Pac-12 and to make it to the tournament. I think that would be a great legacy to leave behind since it hasn't been done here in a long time," said the senior captain. "We've been under the radar for a while. Five or six years ago basketball was a much bigger deal and we want to bring that back. It's my last chance to do that, to bring back that pride in USC basketball."

At age 22, Oraby has a unique story in his journey to becoming the captain of the USC basketball team. He's played at two colleges, under the guidance of four head coaches, under lonely hoops in Cairo, and in front of thousands at the Galen Center. With all he has endured in the pursuit of his basketball dreams, Oraby says he still loves his sport as much as he did when he first picked up a ball in Cairo. 

"I'm a competitor, so maybe that's what I love about it," pondered Oraby. "Maybe I love it because I'm tall and I have that height advantage (laughs). But I love basketball. I've loved it from the beginning and I really can't explain why. I just love being a part of a team and having a family away from my own. That's a very special thing to have, especially for me. I love making everyone around me, everyone in my life proud."

In their tough season opener on the road against Utah State, the Trojans fell 78-65. Now they turn their focus to kicking off the season at home against Cal State Northridge on Tuesday. It may be a new coach, a new system and a new year, but Oraby still plays with the same purpose, the solid centerpiece of a moving team. 

"After all that we've been through, this is a fresh start. It's what we needed," said Oraby. "I'm having fun playing basketball and I can't wait to see what happens this season. I've dreamed about this my whole life."

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