If there is any one person at Grand Canyon University who personifies the sacrifice and perseverance it has taken to get to tomorrow’s first game as a D-I basketball program – outside of head coach Dan Majerle – it has to be Josh Braun.
Tomorrow’s home game against Florida A&M will be the first regular-season contest as a fully-accredited Division I program. That journey from D-II to D-I took four years, and both Braun and Majerle will be the only two in GCU Arena tomorrow night that can fully appreciate what it has taken to get here.
Majerle took over the program in 2013, the first year of the transition period, hired with the specific mission of guiding the program into D-I play. Braun, who was a standout player at Boulder Creek High School in Anthem came on board immediately thereafter following a recruiting call from the Antelopes’ new head coach.
At the time, Majerle told the youngster that he reminded him of himself as a college player at Central Michigan University, where he set scoring records during his four years there. Not bad praise from a former NBA player who includes induction into the Phoenix Suns ring of honor after playing eight of his 14 NBA seasons in Phoenix. Generally considered one of the most popular players in Suns history, the team retired his jersey and put him on the bench as an assistant coach for five years before he was offered the GCU job.
However, Braun doesn’t remember when Majerle and Charles Barkley led the Suns to the NBA Finals in 1993. That’s because he was just a year old at the time.
But he still recalls the first time he met Majerle – even if he wasn’t sure just who he was. It was in the first of many Valley restaurants that today bear his name, where Majerle was signing autographs as a way to help promote his fledgling business venture. So Braun, not yet a teenager but interested in anything that had to do with basketball, got in line to get a smile and an autographed poster from the man who would one day ask him to come play for his team.
But, for Braun, the road to the small Christian school on the west side of Phoenix was filled with detours and pot holes. He says his faith was the only thing that kept his dream alive as he rode a roller coaster of emotions that began right after his junior season in high school.
Braun’s first high point came after his junior year at Boulder Creek when he averaged 18.5 points and 9.4 rebounds a game and the college offers starting coming, many of them from D-I programs. But it didn’t take long for the euphoria – and the offers – to evaporate. During a summer AAU game, he tore the ACL in his right knee.
The roller coaster hit a big dip, but an intense rehab regimen got him ready for his senior season, which he was going to spend at Westwind Prep Academy in Phoenix. The transfer to Westwind would provide much-needed increased exposure to recruiters since the school traveled the country playing top high school programs.
Once again, he was enjoying the ride – until the ACL in his other knee gave way. He was left with just two offers, neither top-tier programs. But before he could take the offer from Drake, the school fired the entire coaching staff. His dream of playing college ball appeared over.
Another big dip on the roller coaster of life. One that really tested his faith.
So he decided it was worth an inquiry at GCU, despite the fact that he still had that D-I mindset and the school was a D-II program at the time. GCU had still expressed an interest in him, and it appeared to be his only option to play in college. But, before he could commit, once again the coaching staff was let go. An unbelievable chain of events seemed to be telling him he wasn’t meant to continue with the game.
That was when the call came Majerle. GCU had just made the commitment to apply for D-I status and begin the four-year transition to show that it could play at that level. When Majerle left the Suns, former Suns’ owner Jerry Colangelo, who was already on board as an advisor to help the school through the process, saw an opportunity to bring in a high-profile head coach who could energize the program and put together a quality program that would gain NCAA acceptance.
Braun accepted the offer, just glad to have finally found a home for his passion for the game, and the talent he would bring to it.
But then – wait for it – another injury. A torn meniscus resulted in a redshirt freshman season, and Braun would have to wait another season to get his college career going. He couldn’t even practice with the team. But at least he had a team.
Today, that team belongs to him. The redshirt senior guard is recognized as the team leader and enjoys the same love and respect from the GCU fans and student body that Majerle was given during his time as a Phoenix Sun. And his talents have been recognized beyond the border of his home state; the top two publications in college sports projected Braun, who averaged 17.5 points a game last season, to be this year’s WAC Player of the Year.
Together, he and Majerle stand a good chance of leading the Lopes to the Promised Land, the NCAA Tournament. For the past four years, the Lopes were ineligible for postseason play while they transitioned to D-I. But they’re ready now, with what Majerle feels is his best team to date.
GCU, which has finished runner-up the last three seasons, is favored to win the Western Athletic Conference this year. That will be their ticket to March Madness.
And that will be the answer to the prayers of a young man that never gave up on his dream to play D-I ball.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)