An extra year at junior college and a torn ACL seven months before his Texas Southern debut were just two of the many obstacles standing between Omar Strong and Division I basketball.
The challenges that Strong faced before college didn't end there. But whenever a metaphorical roadblock stood in the Douglass grad's way, his thoughts would inevitably turn back to Baltimore and his now 2-year-old son.
"It's just like I know what I came up from," Strong said. "I want him to have everything I didn't and much more. If I'm [struggling to get] through something, I just think about my son and get through it."
Omar Strong Jr. was on Omar Strong Sr.'s mind throughout the 2011-12 season. The 5-foot-9, 176-pound point guard's first DI season was a long time coming, but absolutely worth the wait. Strong was Texas Southern's leading scorer at 13.3 points per game, shooting 38.9 percent from 3-point range. The former Mighty Ducks star also averaged 2.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists and one steal during his junior season, earning second-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference honors.
All this despite playing on a recently surgically repaired knee.
"I [was] mainly one-dimensional," said Strong, referring to his scoring ability. "I couldn't really move how I wanted to. I still had as good [a season] as I did. … If you're good, you're good. If you're not, you're not."
Those who followed Strong's high school career at Douglass probably won't be surprised by the point guard's college success. A two-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro selection, Strong averaged 22 points, four assists and three steals during the 2007-08 season, leading the Ducks to the Baltimore City title and the Class 2A North regional final.
The only thing preventing Strong from a mid-major basketball scholarship was his academics.
"I had a lot of people around me to help out," he said. "People kept me focused. You can make it if you keep sticking with it. I was sticking with it. Then I found out I was having a son. That's enough motivation for anybody right there."
Strong starred his first year at Cecil College in North East, redshirted his second to focus on academics and fared well again in his third campaign. He was recruited by Arkansas-Little Rock, Coastal Carolina, Coppin State, Mercer, Morgan State, UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington before pledging to the Tigers. "I think I'll have a better experience if I go away," Strong told The Sun in 2010.
Although leaving his home state and young son behind has been difficult, Strong is confident that the long-term benefits derived from his time at Texas Southern will make up for the distance. The Tigers didn't rush him back from his torn ACL – which he suffered during the NJCAA region championship game in April 2011. Doctors might not have expected Strong to get back on the floor with the Tigers to start the season, but playing in November was always his goal.
"I didn't really know what to expect, but God's good," Strong said. "I made it out for my first year. I felt like I was on a mission."
Strong's mission in Texas continues this season when he suits up for a new coach in Mike Davis, the former Indiana and UAB head man. Texas Southern came up just short of the NCAA tournament last season, falling to Mississippi Valley State, 71-69, in the SWAC tournament championship game. Strong finished with a game-high 30 points in the loss.
Getting to the NCAA tournament is his No. 1 priority as a senior. Strong also looks forward to earning his degree in physical education, playing basketball professionally and providing for his son. More than four years after graduating from Douglass, Strong's goals appear well within reach.
"I think [I've become] mentally and physically stronger [with] my mind and body," Strong said. "I'm really happy about that. I was always told that I was going to need … to get stronger. My game really is [about] just getting stronger and getting mentally tough, going out there and playing hard every chance."
The Sweet 16 is an occasional series profiling the best Division I college basketball players from the Baltimore area. Players were selected based on prior accomplishments and projections for the upcoming season.