September 24, 2010

Aiken chooses to stay close to home

This isn't the typical story about a highly touted freshman who started playing basketball as soon as he was old enough to dribble.

C.J. Aiken originally wasn't a big fan of the game. In fact, he joined a basketball team in fourth grade only after his mom talked him into it.

"I just liked to hang out with my friends," Aiken recalled. "I'd stay home and play video games and stuff. I was always tall, so she just wanted me to put that to use."

Mother knew best.

Aiken developed his game well enough to mature into a top-100 recruit. Now a freshman forward at Saint Joseph's, Aiken was the No. 79 prospect overall in the 2010 class and one of the highest-rated freshmen to choose a mid-major program.

This might seem like an improbable story. Then again, Aiken has been beating the odds his entire life.

First, he wasn't healthy enough. Then his grades supposedly weren't good enough. Yet he somehow emerged as a dynamic 6-foot-9 forward who won a high school state championship and earned a Division I basketball scholarship.

The first hurdle was the toughest. Aiken was almost 7 when he was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, a form of childhood cancer. Even after he recovered and became healthy enough to participate in recreational activities, Aiken continued to spend most of his days at home.

That's what caused his mom to sign him up for a basketball team that a family friend was organizing.

"When he started, he wasn't good at all," Gloria Aiken said. "He didn't want to do it and didn't put any effort into it. He'd complain about it."

But as his body continued to grow, so did his game. Aiken comes from a family of tall people. His mom is 5-10 and his dad is 6-3. But it became apparent that he would sprout above all of them.

"In sixth grade, I noticed C.J. was extremely taller," Gloria Aiken said. "I was scolding him one time and realized I was looking up at him."

As he grew taller, Aiken started becoming more interested in basketball. By the time Aiken had finished his freshman year of high school, he knew he might become good enough to play in college.

But first he had to get to college. When Aiken transferred to Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in suburban Philadelphia for his junior year, he seriously needed to upgrade his academic performance to have any shot at earning a college scholarship.

And that's exactly what he did. Plymouth Whitemarsh coach Jim Donofrio said Aiken "pretty much doubled" his grade-point average in his last two years of high school.

"You could look at him and say, 'Listen, this is the situation you've put yourself in. Here's a two-year plan and this is what you have to do,' " Donofrio said. "Every time you told him what he had to do each semester, that's what he did."

By that point, Aiken already had a good idea he wanted to go to college close to his home in Conshohocken, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb about a 10-minute drive west of the St. Joe's campus. Aiken, one of seven siblings, didn't want to leave his family far behind.

"I just like staying home," Aiken said. "I don't like going far for that long. [At St. Joe's,] I can go home anytime I want."

Aiken's home life helps keep him grounded.

"I think he needs his family base," Gloria Aiken said. "He's the fifth child out of seven kids. It's a very close family. He's very close to his brothers and sisters. They definitely keep him humble. He's not C.J. Aiken -- basketball star -- at home. He's just silly C.J."

Aiken also considered two other Philadelphia schools, Temple and La Salle. He developed a good relationship with Temple coach Fran Dunphy and La Salle coach John Giannini.

But he built much more of a kinship with St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli. While neither party can explain what caused them to gravitate to each other, Aiken and Martelli wasted no time establishing a bond.

"It's just unique," Martelli said. "You try to build that connection. For some reason, with C.J. the connection was almost immediate."

Not everyone had been able to get through to Aiken in that manner. As much noise as Aiken makes on the court, he's that quiet off the floor.

"He's a naturally introverted and private person," Donofrio said. "Every year you see him get a little more out of his shell socially. He reads people well. There are certain people he trusts."

Choosing a different path
Saint Joseph's big man C.J. Aiken is the No. 79 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, and he's one of the more highly touted freshmen to choose a mid-major program. Here's a look at the top-150 prospects who also signed somewhere other than Memphis or a program in one of the six major conferences. The top two guys on the list -- Central Michigan's Trey Zeigler and Detroit's Ray McCallum -- are playing for schools coached by their fathers.
28thG Trey Zeigler6-5Central Michigan
43rdG Ray McCallum6-1Detroit
46thF Dominique Ferguson6-8Fla. International
49thG Juwan Staten5-11Dayton
79thF C.J. Aiken6-9Saint Joseph's
86thF Justin Martin6-7Xavier
116thC Alex Kirk6-11New Mexico
118thF Khyle Marshall6-6Butler
122ndG/F Jay Canty6-6Xavier
124thG Chrishawn Hopkins6-1Butler
126thG Daryl Traynham5-9Massachusetts
129thG Brandon Peters6-2Western Kentucky
130thF Jordan Latham6-8Xavier
134thG/F Kyle Collinsworth6-6BYU
139thG Brandon Spearman6-3Dayton
Aiken's taciturn nature is at odds with his style of play. Although he rarely let his emotions get the best of him and he fouled out just once in his two years at Plymouth Whitemarsh, Aiken possesses the type of shot-blocking and dunking ability that can bring a crowd to its feet. He was named Pennsylvania's Class 4A player of the year as a senior while averaging 16.9 points, 10 rebounds and 6.5 blocks.

He closed his high school career by collecting 19 points, seven rebounds and five blocks as Plymouth Whitemarsh defeated Penn Wood 58-51 in the state championship game. Aiken's effort allowed Plymouth Whitemarsh to end Penn Wood's 24-game winning streak.

His signature moment came near the end of that performance. Plymouth Whitemarsh was protecting a fourth-quarter lead when Aiken blocked a shot from Penn Wood's Aaron Brown, a 2012 prospect who already has committed to West Virginia. Aiken then raced down the floor and delivered a one-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass.

"I had a great angle and all I said is, 'You've got to be kidding. He threw it too high,' " Donofrio said. "It was probably 12 1/2 feet in the air legitimately. C.J. can get about 6 inches above the square on the backboard. That's getting up there. He just went up and thundered it through. I think the whole place was shocked for a couple of seconds."

The sheer athleticism required to make that kind of play has raised hopes that Aiken can make an immediate impact at St. Joe's, though Martelli is trying to temper those expectations.

Sure, Aiken can block shots and dunk. He also is a good passer who can make the 3-point shot. Whether he's physically ready for college basketball remains uncertain.

"C.J. will have a dramatic impact on the defense for us," Martelli said. "He will create a 'wow' factor for the fans with his reach, his jumping ability and his timing. He'll make dunks that will knock people's socks off.

"But at the same time, you're talking about somebody who's 187 pounds. He's going to be competing against guys 50-60-70 pounds heavier and three to four years older than him."

Martelli wants Aiken eventually to look the way Phoenix Suns forward Hakim Warrick did during his college career. Warrick was listed at 6-8 and 219 pounds as a senior at Syracuse. Aiken is hundreds of gym sessions away from getting there.

No wonder Martelli is preaching caution.

"He can be part of the solution here, but by no means do any of the coaches here expect him to be the whole solution," Martelli said. "The success of our team this year doesn't ride solely on his shoulders."

So the guy who wasn't healthy enough or studious enough now isn't quite heavy enough. Aiken's track record suggests it's only a matter of time before he clears that hurdle as well.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at

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