Rompza paying off big for UCF
Former Whitney Young standout gets point of adversity
Like every kid tagging along with his older brother to the YMCA for the first time, A.J. Rompza dealt with the harsh reality at 9 years old that no one was going to pick him to play on their basketball team.
Rompza couldn't understand why. He believed he was just as good as the older kids on the floor. Afterward, Rompza sulked as he and his brother walked home. His brother felt awful and broke the truth to him -- Rompza was just too small to play with the big boys.
"Too small?" Rompza answered back. "What does that have to do with anything?"
That was 10 years ago, but today is no different. Rompza doesn't stand much taller now than he did as a fourth-grader -- he's generously listed at 5 foot 9 -- and he still has to deal with people questioning whether he can play basketball at his height.
But just as he did as a confident and naive 9-year-old, Rompza, now a sophomore guard at Central Florida, still asks his skeptics, "What does that have to do with anything?"
Rompza was pondering that general question a year ago when he decided to write his own definitive answer to it.
Having defied his lack of size the first time, he was finally given a chance play at the Y. He proved it again throughout his high school career despite playing at highly-competitive Whitney Young in the Chicago Public League and now he continues to do it at the Division I level.
Rompza was driven to share his story of overcoming adversity. What began with a few sentences turned into a few paragraphs which turned into a few chapters, and in a year's time and 30,000 words later, Rompza had written his own book -- "A Little Guy in a Big Man's World."
"It definitely wasn't easy," said Rompza, whose book can be found at www.issuu.com. "It took a whole year. It took a lot of time and effort. I would be up until 3 a.m. writing. The whole book is like a motivational book. It's about my life and dealing with what I dealt with. It's about everyday people who don't have enough in them and can't do it. I want to tell them, 'To get up and do it.' "
In Rompza's prologue, he wrote, "Basketball is my life, and I have taken a lot of beatings because of my love for it. I have heard everything from you're too small, you're not strong enough, you're not quick enough. But I fought, and I still fight to find ways to make basketball my life. If you have a passion for something or you love doing something continue to do it until you can't.
"Don't quit just because people say you physically can't or because you have done it to the best of your ability and you won't get any better. Don't let anything get in the way of something you love doing. You are the person in charge and everything is on your shoulders."
Rompza began forming this opinion at any early age. Told he couldn't play at the YMCA, it only drove him to work harder. When he finally did get an opportunity and proved to himself and others of his ability, Rompza discovered a formula to success that he still relies on today.
"One of the focuses in the book is to make people see they can do whatever they want if they put their mind to it," Rompza said. "As tough as it seems, you got to change it for yourself. It's whatever you put in your mind."
Rompza's mind told him he could play at Whitney Young High School. Others didn't agree. With Rompza being short and white, assumptions were already made about him in a predominately black Chicago Public League.
"We still live in a society that has its isms and prejudices, and people have beliefs in people and things that are not necessarily the truth," Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. "If you talk about white point guards in the Public League, there haven't been many that I can remember. Playing in the Public League as a white point guard on a good team, it took a lot of people by surprise. To see him play and play against him, you came to recognize him and his ability past his color."
In time, Rompza showed he was more than a novelty. He showed he could play. As a junior, he averaged 19.9 points and 7.4 assists. As a senior, his numbers were 18 points and seven assists and was given the highest honor in the Public League -- he was named to its postseason first-team.
Marcus Jordan, one of Rompza's best friends, was a teammate of his at Whitney Young and now at Central Florida. Just as Jordan had to handle expectations placed on him being Michael Jordan's son, Marcus always felt Rompza had to handle similar pressures.
"There's always that negative criticism with me saying that I'll never live up to my father," Marcus said. "There was people saying A.J. couldn't play at the highest level because of his size. There's that parallel.
"I'm sure when people first see A.J. they think he's some punk, some scrappy guard. Once you see him, you have an appreciation of how hard he plays. A lot of people in Chicago respect the way he plays. He's going to fight until the end of the possession. He gets after everybody."
Few saw Division I potential in Rompza, but Central Florida coach Kirk Speraw did and offered Rompza a scholarship. Speraw and the Knights are being rewarded, as Rompza has developed into one of the nation's top defensive pests. He ranks fifth in the country with 2.7 steals a game. He had six steals against UTEP this season, and he's had five games of five steals.
Rompza also averages nine points, 4.5 assists and 2.6 rebounds.
"I think anybody who watches him practice or play admires his approach daily," Speraw said. "Every time he steps on to the court he's giving every ounce of energy he has on that particular day. Every game he brings it. You have to admire it. I think people admire what he brings to the court and does for our team. Our fans certainly love to cheer for him. He's one of those guys your fans love and others hate. You have to have a few guys like that."
Rompza isn't the type to be complacent, though. He still knows there are still people out there who doubt him. He also now realizes the impact he can have on people.
"I'm more overlooked now than I was in high school," said Rompza, who also wrote a blog for the New York Times earlier this season. "When you go out on the floor, no one thinks you can play basketball. Sometimes they think I'm a manager or whatnot. For the way I play, you have to see it for yourself. I'm not trying to be cocky, but for someone with my height, I'm the point guard on a Division I basketball team and [I] lead the teams in assists and steals.
"People come up to me after a game or when I'm walking to class, and they tell me I inspired them. After I wrote the blog for the New York Times, people said, 'It touched me and motivated me to do better.' It's something I wrote. Basketball, it's something I've put in work my whole life to get where I am today. They respect that. That makes you feel good."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at email@example.com.