It has been said time and time again that life is not a race, but a journey, one that starts with a single step. For Dekeba Battee-Aston, a freshman center for Fordham, his journey to the Bronx started with a plane ride when he left his home of Brisbane, Australia for the United States at the age of 14 with hopes of pursuing his dream of playing basketball.
Battee-Aston was born in Cairns, Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef to Don Battee and Joanne Aston and moved to Brisbane when he was four. His father played college basketball at Wichita State and went on to play professionally overseas, which led him to Australia. Battee-Aston takes immense pride in his heritage.
“Probably one of my favorite parts about my life is just being able to call myself Australian,” he says. “It’s a great experience for anybody, really. I enjoy the weather, obviously, which is a lot different from here. The people, culturally, are completely different. Because it’s kind of a hub for a lot of the South Asian community and the Pacific Island community, you have a great mix of different family-based cultures.”
To have to go from that type of culturally-diverse community Down Under to Dallas, Texas, where his father and grandmother lived, would create a culture shock for anyone, let alone a 14-year-old kid.
“Massively,” Battee-Aston says when asked if moving to Texas was a culture shock. “Texas is just completely different. One of the central parts of America—when a lot of people think about the United States they usually refer to Texas, so Texas is about as American as you can get in some places. Always homesick, because all my family and friends were back home. But I knew what I was here for, so I made the most of it.”
Batte-Aston accepted that playing basketball in the states would be the best course for him. He said he went home every summer and sometimes over Christmas, which helped him get used to his new situation. But as a tall, yet still undersized freshman starting center for Richland High School, he faced an even more difficult transition on the court.
“It was a struggle, it was a different style of play. Back home, it’s a lot more European-styled—a lot of passing, a lot of screening, and not really as physically aggressive,” he says. “However in Texas, because it’s a big football state, a lot of the basketball players are also football players, so it’s tough. I was 6-foot-6 and like 190 pounds when I first came over and I played center for my high school as a freshman, so I was going up against seniors who were also linebackers and weighed 100 or 200 pounds heavier than I did, so it was hard to keep up.”
At the same time, Battee-Aston’s father was in the midst of an acting career. You may have seen Don Battee in the hit movies The Matrix Reloaded and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So with Battee’s job taking him all over the country, his son had to move around along with him, leading to stints at multiple prep schools. Battee-Aston spent time at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas and other schools before ending his high school career at Northfield-Mount Hermon in Massachusetts.
“Mainly it was just personal preference. Because of my dad’s work, he travels a lot and him being American himself he already had these ideas of what schools would be best for me. We were kind of just winging it from the start, so he was just trying to find the best situation for me,” Battee-Aston says of the constant moving. “Sometimes it would work out, sometimes it wouldn’t. We were kind of coming in blind and we didn’t really have anybody who was able to guide us through the situation, so a lot of (me moving around) was mainly on us not being comfortable in the situation we were in or because Dad had to move for work.”
But the incessant shifting of his home had taken its toll on Battee-Aston over his four years in the U.S., so instead of going straight to college he returned to Australia and took a year off.
“I just went home to be with my mom, because obviously being over here for four years took a toll on me. So I decided to go home and be with my mom and my stepdad for a while, and also try and take a break away from basketball and see what I really wanted to do with my life, because to continue with basketball would’ve been a really big decision for me and with all the moving I had done I wasn’t 100 percent sure who I wanted to be,” he says.
They say you never really know what you have until it’s gone, and Battee-Aston said he needed to be without basketball to realize how much he missed the game.
“I think it really put my life in perspective and it really helped me make this decision to come back because I knew what I wanted once I was away from it,” he says.
Much to his surprise, Battee-Aston’s size and potential still drew interest from schools despite taking a year away from the sport. One of the schools who continued to inquire about the Aussie was Fordham.
“During his time in prep school, when he was a sophomore we saw him play so we put him on our sophomore list. And then last year when we were tracking guys, we said, ‘Whatever happened to ‘Keeba?’” Fordham head coach Tom Pecora recalls. “We found out he was in Australia and then we called him up for a visit. He and his dad came up and visited—his dad grew up uptown in Harlem so he was very comfortable with the area. Obviously the academics of the school appealed to him, he’s a good student and a bright young man, so that’s how it all came together.”
“At the time I was really just working a day job, which was OK, but I was looking for something more. My dad said Fordham had been in contact with him, and I just took that opportunity,” Battee-Aston says. “There were a couple of other schools my dad had been in contact with, but out of all of them Fordham was the most interesting. When I came on the visit and talked to the coaches, I just loved everything about this program and about this school. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Battee-Aston said his father’s influence was significant to his decision to return to play basketball and he never felt any pressure to live up to his father’s accomplishments.
“He only ever tried to do what was best for me,” he says. “Of course, because of his work and stuff it made it hard because I would have to leave teams and go to other teams, try and make new connections with new players and new coaches, and that was always hard. But I reckon if I didn’t have him I never would’ve been able to make it anywhere in basketball, so I’m really glad to have him.
“My dad would tell you himself, even though I haven’t gone on to play in Europe or anything, he thinks I’ve surpassed him already,” he continues. “Honestly, I think he would’ve been happy with anything; he tells me all the time that he would’ve been, and I believe that. But with the friends that he had who were hall of famers in the Australian basketball league, the truth is I was born to play it. It’s just something that I’ve always enjoyed playing, something that I feel most comfortable with. I feel like it’s my natural habitat.”
When Battee-Aston finally made it to the Bronx, he still faced some major adjustments at Fordham after being away from basketball for so long.
“Well, he was out of shape,” Pecora says. “The year off hurt him in that sense, but he’s done a great job working on that. He’s probably down 20 or 25 pounds. His game was a little rusty, too, but he’s got great enthusiasm, he’s smart on and off the court, and he’s making progress and getting better every day. That’s what we look for from our young players, especially our big young players.”
“Well out of shape,” Battee-Aston stresses. “I had that year off and it was just such a shock for me that I was even here—I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I was still here, because it didn’t seem real at first.”
He embraced the work he had to do to get back into playing shape and has been able to earn some minutes for the 8-16 Rams while playing behind veteran players.
“It speaks volumes to his character,” Pecora says. “He comes from great stock, his parents are wonderful people. He’s determined, he came in and had no false lesions of what he can do right away. He never fought us on the idea of getting in better shape, he understood it would allow him to play more minutes and his conditioning was number-one. A lot of guys would come in and fight you on that, and he hasn’t, he’s been very positive about the whole experience.”
As Battee-Aston continues to work off the rust in his first year, it has his coaches and teammates excited about his potential for the rest of his career.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” Pecora says. “This offseason will be huge for him, to get himself into great shape coming into next year. If he’s able to do that, his skill-set will continue to grow because of all the extra work we do in the spring, summer and fall and his role will increase as we move forward. I think he can progress and play a lot more minutes next year and then the following year compete to be our starting center.”
Battee-Aston also can’t help but to look forward to his future with the Rams.
“All I see is going up,” he says. “I only see upwards potential. Obviously I came from a completely flat situation where I just wasn’t playing basketball, so I honestly think I can only get better. That’s what I look forward to.”