Leaning back in a leather chair in the Smith Center players’ lounge, Aaron Rohlman recites Jeremiah 29:11 from memory:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you, not to harm you; plans to give you hope, and a future.
Rohlman is 11 days away from his first and only career start as a member of the North Carolina men’s basketball team. Against Miami on Feb. 27, he will play the first two minutes of the game on senior night. On each of their first four offensive possessions, the Hurricanes will run a high ball screen, trying to force Rohlman, an undersized 6-foot-6 forward, into a mistake.
But on each screen, Rohlman will hedge, double-teaming the guard before getting back to his man, like every big man at UNC is taught to do. He will also force a 6-foot-11 center into an airball and grab a rebound off another shot he contests. He will leave the court to a standing ovation from teammates, coaches and fans.
“Aaron Rohlman just doesn’t work out enough,” analyst Jay Bilas will joke on the ESPN broadcast. “He needs to get into the weight room more.”
But for now, Rohlman, wearing a white Jordan brand T-shirt and taking sips from a bottle of Propel, reflects on what brought him to where he is today. After failing to make the JV team in his first year, he is finishing up his second straight season on the varsity roster. He is a national champion, and poised for a medical career after he graduates in May.
His drive to succeed stems from tragedy: the death of a parent a little over three years ago. On his senior night, his mother, Deborah, will be in the crowd. His father George will not.
“It’s hard for us to step back and look from God’s view and say, ‘All right, that’s what He’s doing. This is what He’s doing,’” Rohlman says. “We just get what we know, and we don’t know a whole lot. I pray for understanding every night — ‘Why did you take Dad?’”
“It could be anything,” he continues. “It could be to give me this story.”
‘Best dad I could ask for’
When it came to car rides, two things were certain.
First, there was always classic rock — George’s favorite genre. He and Aaron sang along to it on every trip. Then, there was a running joke that worked best when Aaron sat shotgun.
“If I was wearing shorts, I’m getting smacked on the inside of my left thigh,” Aaron said. “I’m like, ‘OK, well that’s just unnecessary.’ We had so many good times together.”
The Rohlmans lived in Silver Peak, Nev., a small mining town, until Aaron was 10. It was a job offer in North Carolina that took George, who worked in chemical production, and his family to Gastonia.
Aaron was soon involved in recreational basketball, football and baseball. He played in the YMCA for close to six hours a day on weekends. And George, who was a black belt in taekwondo, was dedicated to a men’s recreational league.
George insisted to his son that he could get his elbow in the rim and once guarded a 7-footer — two claims Aaron still disputes and laughs at to this day. George conceded his palms were too small to dunk a ball but bragged about being able to dunk a volleyball. Aaron would shoot back that he could dunk a volleyball with his head.
Jokes and trash talk were a staple of their relationship. They competed to see who could bench more, who could win more one-on-one games. Before every game Aaron played, George never forgot to give his son the same, not-so-serious pep talk — “Aaron, look, you’ve got to be mean” — to make him laugh.
The Rohlmans also settled in at Woodlawn Baptist, a church in nearby Lowell, N.C. That’s where George met a lifelong friend in Don Trapp. The two served as deacons together, traveling to Charleston and Mississippi for mission trips. George quickly built a reputation at Woodlawn as a willing helper and dedicated Christian.
“My dad was the head of the house when it came to that,” Aaron said. “He's the most faithful servant and best dad I could ask for.”
One of their basketball trips took them to Rocky River High School near Charlotte, where Aaron was playing in an AAU tournament. George’s back started hurting. He had always had slight pain, but it was much worse this time. They left the tournament early.
Aaron had just finished his junior year of high school. He only had a learner’s permit — he rarely drove on the highway. When George insisted that his son drive, Aaron realized how serious it was. They drove home and tried using ice and Advil to dull the pain. It didn’t help.
By 2 a.m. that night, George was in the emergency room. The eventual diagnosis was leukemia in the bone marrow of his spinal cord.
‘Dancing with Jesus’
Through his treatment, George always told Aaron one thing: 'I just want to make it to your graduation.’
As the date in June approached, it seemed like that was a sure thing. After a bone marrow transplant at UNC, George went into remission and came back home, planning to attend Hunter Huss High School’s graduation ceremony where Aaron, the valedictorian, would speak.
“The morning of Aaron’s graduation, he said, ‘I don’t think I can make it,’” Trapp recalled. “But he was rolled out with a wheelchair, and he was there. That was a desire of his heart, to be at that graduation.”
George, who wasn’t supposed to be near others, sat alone in between the students and the crowd on the Hunter Huss football field. He watched his son address the graduating class of 2014, just as he promised he’d do. Aaron pointed out George to the crowd, and spoke on the importance of family and persistence. As soon as the speech ended, Aaron walked to his father and gave him a hug. George left immediately afterward for more chemotherapy.
College was next. Aaron turned down a $50,000 scholarship from N.C. State to come to North Carolina. George made the trip to campus to watch Aaron move in and send off his son. The Rohlmans traveled to New York for more treatment, but by the time Aaron came home for Christmas break, George had relapsed again.
Aaron spent those weeks in the house with his father and the rest of his family. They watched Jeopardy! together. They joked. They laughed. George wanted to go skiing, so the Rohlmans took a trip to Sugar Mountain. George couldn’t ski, so he took pictures instead — something he’d loved to do for years.
School started back up in January. Aaron was playing basketball in Rams Head Recreation Center when he got a call from his mom. His dad had taken a turn for the worse. Aaron and his older brother Austin, then a student at N.C. State, took another trip home where George was in hospice.
“I missed school, but I didn't really care,” Aaron said. “He was in and out of it, didn't really know what was going on. He looked sad, but he knew he was ready to die … he knew that he was going to be dancing with Jesus when he passed away.”
The second call from his mom came a few days later, when Aaron was back on campus again. George passed away Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. He was 55 years old.
“I was in my dorm room — had a single at that point,” Aaron said. “I was just crying to myself.”
‘I know he’s up there’
In the years since his father’s death, some things have changed.
Aaron made the varsity roster, on C.B. McGrath’s recommendation and Roy Williams’ approval, ahead of the 2016-17 season. Teammates and coaches alike praise him for his motor and his commitment to team basketball — Aaron emphasizes he could care less about scoring.
He was supposed to take his MCAT exam last May, but UNC’s 2017 national title run kept him from studying as much as he’d like. He’s slated to take the exam this May, after graduation, and spend a gap year working in a hospital while he waits for his results. The following year, he’ll apply for medical school.
But his dad is still very much on his mind, and his faith is as strong as ever.
“In many ways, the adversity that he’s gone through has worked to make him stronger,” Trapp said. “I have the highest degree of confidence that he’ll make it.”
Now, Aaron realizes getting cut from the JV team as a first-year gave him more time to spend with his dad that he otherwise wouldn't have had. He didn’t know what type of doctor he wanted to be, until his father’s diagnosis. He’s set on pediatric oncology now. All of it is God’s plan.
“I know he's up there right now,” Aaron says, “and he's looking down on me, saying 'Hey, that's my boy. And I am so proud of him and everything that he's done.’ One day, I'm going to get to see him again, and we're going to get to talk about things, and we're going to get to hang out.
“And that's going to be better than anything we could do here on Earth.”