Basketball is a family affair for BJ Fitzgerald. The Danville native and McDonald’s All-American nominee came into this season as the leading scorer among returners on the Virginia State University men’s basketball team after averaging 11.6 points per game in the 2019-2020 season.
This year, Fitzgerald hasn’t skipped a beat, stepping into a larger leadership role and scoring over 100 more points than anyone else on the team thus far.
However, Fitzgerald hasn’t forgotten his basketball roots and those who put him on his path to success.
“Basketball runs heavy in my family, from my cousins, to my sister, my dad, my mother,” Fitzgerald said. “Everybody plays basketball.”
Fitzgerald started playing basketball at around four or five years old. His father coached in a local rec league, and Fitzgerald remembers the older kids pushing him around when he tried to play.
The pattern continued at home where his cousins and sister would bully him on the court up until Fitzgerald turned 13 and was able to fight back. The sibling rivalry would go on to create two accomplished athletes, as his sister, Bronaza, had a successful basketball career at UNC Asheville before signing a pro contract to play in Germany in 2018.
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Fitzgerald was forged by his tough competition, and in turn started using his size and shooting skills to bully opponents in AAU and high school. After an impressive sophomore campaign at Westover Christian Academy, Fitzgerald transferred to Carlisle School, where he was once again met with strong opposition.
“It was an adjustment,” he said. “I was used to just playing like it was AAU, and it wasn’t like that. When I got to Carlisle I was playing schools like Blue Ridge, Miller, VES, who had people [who are now] playing at power five schools. When I first transferred, it was a rough start.”
During Fitzgerald’s junior season, Carlisle was only able to muster six wins despite his commendable individual effort. However, coming into his senior year, Fitzgerald earned the trust of his coaches and teammates and was cut loose to devastating effect.
He credits his coaches for helping make Carlisle a better fit.
“My senior year, Coach [Brandon] Smith and Coach [Quentin] Cook basically let me go,” Fitzgerald said. “They gave me the key to the team and allowed me to lead… They let me be a killer, and they let me have fun, most importantly.”
Fitzgerald had a monster senior season, averaging just under 30 points per game, leading Carlisle to a 24-8 record and a VISAA DIII state semifinal appearance, a game in which he scored 39 points. He was named to the VISAA All-State first team for his efforts, and in the spring he signed to continue playing at Norfolk State University.
However, just like before, Fitzgerald faced adversity. At Norfolk State he wasn’t seeing the court, playing fewer minutes than prior seasons. Much like his high school experience, he just needed the right fit, and he made the decision to transfer to Virginia State University the following year.
VSU is where he broke out, becoming a true scorer and leading the team in total points despite serving in a sixth man role coming off the bench for much of the season.
Fitzgerald says he keeps the mindset Carlisle instilled in him to drive him to success at VSU.
“[My coaches] taught me to play with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “There were some games where I didn’t play the whole game… They told me to keep on playing with a chip on my shoulder for the whole game.”
After a COVID-19 disruption, Fitzgerald has picked up right where he left off this season, stepping into an even bigger role with the team as a scorer and a leader.
“My fit on this team is me doing whatever I need to do to win,” Fitzgerald said. “Just lead, honestly.”
He sees a lot of promise in a VSU squad that has hit a skid after a hot start to the season. After three early wins, the Trojans dropped their next six. They had a “get right” game Monday against Claflin University, winning 84-70 to make their record 4-6. Fitzgerald had 29 points in the winning effort.
“Once we get everyone back together after the break we’re going to be strong,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald has an extra year of eligibility after he graduates due to COVID-19, and his goals are set on being around basketball for as long as he can, including a hopeful professional career in some form. After he can no longer play, he wants to return to his local community to coach and help the kids like him reach even greater heights.
For now, he’s just enjoying the ride and working on getting better every day, growing as a player and a person.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Fitzgerald said. “[My experiences] make me the man I am today, and right now I love who I am. I can grow more, but I wouldn’t change anything.”