Victory Christian School holds its Thursday boys basketball practices at 6 a.m.
Jaime Arizaga wasn’t around for them last season, but practiced at the same time.
Just not in the same zone.
Six a.m. at Victory means 3 p.m. in Dubai.
The Eagles’ 6-4 go-to senior got a one-year American-centric education in the Middle East, moving to the United Arab Emirates city and playing basketball for the 1,500-student American School of Dubai.
While a far cry from Victory’s K-12th grade 200-student population, his initial sleep deprivation came from more than just adapting to time zones.
“I was extremely nervous at the beginning,” said Arizaga, a South Mills native who returned to Victory last March. “I have a thing where if I feel stressed, I get extremely tired and almost fall asleep. On my way to school the first day, I fell asleep in the 10-minute car ride just because I was so stressed about it.”
Arizaga’s father, a bomb-disposal expert, brought his wife and son to the region in February of 2011. A former Navy Seal, the elder Arizaga is an independent contractor who works with Middle Eastern countries to better their security at public facilities such as shopping centers.
Jaime Arizaga, who averages more than 19 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks a game for the Eagles, had attended Victory since the fifth grade. He’s close friends with his senior classmates, all five of them.
His class at Dubai — more than 350.
“I liked it there, but it was so big,” Arizaga said. “I was there a year, and I didn’t even meet half the people in my class. Here you know everybody, and everybody knows you and we’ve kind of grown up together. Plus there I couldn’t drive.”
Dubai’s legal driving age is 18.
And another hurdle: when he tried out for the basketball team, he battled with 100 other eager students for spots. But Arizaga made the team, at 4A classification size for North Carolina, and even took a starting role.
Students at the school must speak fluent English, and almost all either lived in America or are Americans, which bridged the transition. More than 70 percent of the country’s population are non-nationals.
That didn’t keep Arizaga in any protective bubble, however, when it came to the team’s competition.
The American School of Dubai faced a conference full of squads from neighboring countries, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
It was a Model UN hardwood experience, making friends with Pakistani, Indian, Korean and other students from across the globe.
Arizaga’s 6-4 height and American background only afforded him the stereotype of being a good basketball player, and although he did his part — Arizaga scored a season-high 29 points and 20 rebounds in a conference tournament semifinal win — he mostly stood in awe of his teammates and rival players.
“We had one guy with NBA 3-point range, and the guards on the team were ridiculous,” Arizaga said. “It was amazing to watch. Sometimes I would just sit back and go, ‘Wow.’ I’m watching some highlight video just seeing them play.
“With our school, basketball was the biggest sport there. The crowds at the basketball games were bigger and since it was an American school, basketball was naturally bigger. Our bleachers were always completely filled.”
Arizaga, a 4.0 GPA student who earned a presidential scholarship to attend Campbell next year but will likely not pursue college basketball, gets the reverse treatment now from Victory kindergarteners, who giddily greet and high-five him with A-lister status throughout the school day.
It’s more than his height that’s vital to Victory’s success, coach Gene Chory said. One reason for the Eagles’ 7-2 start, despite just a seven-player rotation, is Arizaga’s basketball acumen and the understanding that with prior high-level experience, he must balance taking charge and getting his teammates involved.
“He is probably one of the better ones as far as having the knowledge of basketball in the last few years,” Chory said. “He’s got one of the best mindsets, and his talent level in being able to communicate and direct is what sets him apart.
“He does have a sense of unselfishness, and I haven’t had to tell him that he needs to shoot more baskets.”
Arizaga notes the sharp change in competition has made for some trying moments.
“It’s been hard to play with my team and not try to do everything myself,” Arizaga said. “If I can get in the low post here, I can score any time I want to. I’ve been working on not trying to take the ball all the time and share it. And when we’ve been doing that, we’ve done a good job moving the ball and everyone taking shots.”
It was also a whole new ballgame for the Arizaga family to figure out life in a country that leans towards Western ideals, but is still thousands of miles from northeastern North Carolina.
Escalating tensions towards Americans in Iran, which is to Dubai’s north across the Persian Gulf, prompted Arizaga’s father to want his family back home, and his mother also wanted him back at Victory to graduate with his lifelong classmates.
Arizaga said he never encountered trouble during his time in the Middle East, but there were other differing matters. Many, although culture-based, were insignificant overall, such as a Sunday-Thursday work week.
Others made for unique inconveniences.
“We had a problem with the satellite provider, and my mom tried to call them, and when they heard her talk, they hung up on her multiple times,” Arizaga said. “They would not speak to her when dealing with business matters. To drive, she had to have a permission slip written in Arabic from my dad saying he was allowing her to drive. That was very striking.
“She didn’t go out that much, but they’re not as bad as in Saudi Arabia where the women aren’t allowed to do anything at all. She could still go to the mall, she could still drive with the note and shop, but she couldn’t do anything that would make her a person of power.”
Upon his March 2012 return, Arizaga was flooded with questions by friends about his time spent overseas. His 30-minute drive from South Mills to the private school are already routine again, even the 6 a.m. Thursday practices, which really are a wake-up call now.
“Everyone asked if I was coming back to Victory or going somewhere else and what was it like,” Arizaga said. “I wish I could release an official statement, so I don’t have to keep answering questions.
“But when I signed back up at Victory, it was like I never even left.”