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C.J. Aiken finds his comfort zone

PHILADELPHIA -- When his teammates go to watch a women's game, he's with them, sitting in the stands. When they hang out in the players' lounge cracking jokes, he's laughing. When the day ends and classes and practice are over, he stays on campus.

And when he goes to McDonald's, he actually orders his own food.

This is how Gloria Aiken knows that her son finally has found what has been for him the most elusive of commodities.

C.J. Aiken has found comfort. He is comfortable in his surroundings and more important, comfortable with himself.

"He'd go to McDonald's and he'd say to his sister, 'Order me this,'" Gloria said. "I remember his high school coach told me they'd be on the road and C.J. would be standing next to him, texting his coach his order. Last season, he'd beat me home after games and he'd be here five or six nights a week. Now I'm asking when he's coming home. It's wonderful.''

Comfort never has come easily for Aiken. Blessed and cursed with a 6-foot-9 stringbean frame that makes him impossible to miss, he'd rather be the sort of kid you never notice.

Except fate decided that the kid who preferred to fade into the backdrop would instead live a life front and center: A cancer survivor before he was a second-grader, the Pennsylvania basketball player of the year as a high schooler, C.J. now is a one-man wrecking crew for Saint Joseph's.

The kid who looks like a human exclamation point, all angles and elbows, plays like one, too. He is the nation's second-leading shot-blocker on one end of the floor and a dunkmaster supreme on the other. In the Hawks' recent win against rival Villanova, Aiken blocked four shots and threw down three dunks, including one monster connection on an alley-oop that redefined posterizing.

The win, coupled with an upset of then-No. 17 Creighton, served notice that the Hawks -- just like their mascot -- hadn't, in fact, died.

Just a year ago, fans wanted Phil Martelli fired over his inability to capitalize on the Jameer Nelson Era. Now some those fans are slightly cranky with their coach over his handling of Todd O'Brien's wish to transfer to UAB, but considerably more tolerant. A 10-4 record heading into Atlantic 10 play after 42 losses in two years will do that for you.

That St. Joe's improvement on the court comes with C.J.'s ease off of it is no coincidence.

"I used to go home because I just liked it better there. It was home,'' said Aiken, a man of few words. "Now it's changed. Now I'm comfortable here.''


He felt the pains not long after his family moved from Glenside, Pa., to nearby Conshohocken. Gloria Aiken presumed her son -- then 7, the youngest in the family -- was merely nervous about starting a new school.

C.J. always had been the quiet one in the family. Even close relatives never saw the "real C.J.," the one who laughed and joked with his older siblings. Already tall for his age and self-conscious because of it, Gloria wrote off his tummyache to the jitters.

She let him stay home one day, but on the next, when not even the television or video games caught his attention, she packed him off to the family doctor.

"He said it was a stomach virus, something going around,'' Gloria said.

Two days later, her son was still lethargic and in pain so she went to a different doctor, who ran some routine blood work. They decided to keep C.J. overnight at Abington Hospital, but Gloria, who stayed with him, wasn't terribly worried. She figured they were concerned with a more serious stomach ailment.

The next morning, while they were running a few more tests, Gloria snuck out to do some errands. By then, C.J.'s dad had driven up from Delaware, so C.J. wasn't alone.

"I came back and his dad was there with tears in his eyes,'' Gloria said. "I said, 'What's wrong?' and they said, 'Cancer.' My world just crashed.''

I came back and his dad was there with tears in his eyes. I said, 'What's wrong?' and they said, 'Cancer.' My world just crashed.

-- Gloria Aiken

Specifically, C.J. had Burkitt's lymphoma, an aggressive but treatable form of cancer. C.J. immediately underwent surgery to remove some of the affected intestines and then was transferred to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for another surgery.

"That first night, he stayed with another child who was maybe 2 or 3 and that baby cried all night,'' Gloria said. "It just all hit me, how serious this was.''

C.J. remained in the hospital for nearly a month, enduring chemotherapy and radiation after. He remembers only snapshots of the entire trauma -- throwing up frequently, the needles that terrified him, his brothers and sisters crowded around his hospital bed, crying -- even though the scar that bisects his stomach serves as a daily reminder.

"It's weird. I look at my scar every day but I still don't think about it,'' C.J. said. "It's like it was so long ago, it never happened.''

His mother wishes she had the same luxury. She will never forget any details, not the day she heard of the diagnosis, not the moment she walked back into his hospital room trying to be brave and crumbling inside, not the awful time she had to hold her screaming son still while he endured a spinal tap, not the five years of worry before he was cleared and cancer free and not every single fret over every single bellyache since.

"Last year during the season, he told me that his stomach hurt,'' Gloria said. "Right away those red flags go up. I told him to get to the hospital. Turns out that time it was just a stomach virus. In fact, he came home and made the whole house sick.''


It didn't take long for C.J. to get back to being C.J. -- a happy homebody who loved loafing around.

But the illness only made an introverted kid quieter. Never much of a talker and always more content to stay with his family, he was even more reserved. He struggled academically because of the time off and socially because he was not only the new kid, but also a new kid who'd been sick.

Tired of watching him lay about, Gloria pushed him out the door, signing up her extraordinarily tall son for basketball.

"I hated it. I hated everything about it,'' C.J. said. "I hated practice. I hated running up and down the court. I hated playing in the summer when it was hot. I'd tell my mom my head hurt, my stomach hurt, whatever I could think of so she wouldn't make me go. She always made me go.''

Gloria didn't have any grand plans or dreams of a college scholarship. She just wanted C.J. out of the house and out of her hair.

The more he whined, the more she dug in her heels and shoved him out the door to the basketball court.

Turns out C.J. wasn't lazy.

He wasn't comfortable.

There is a tendency with tall kids to assume that they not only will be good at basketball, but that they have the innate talents to play the game.

C.J. had neither knowledge nor talent.

"I didn't want people to think I was a waste of height,'' he said. "But I had no clue what I was doing.''

With time and Gloria's help -- she put a hoop in the backyard for her son to practice away from the attention of others -- C.J. eventually found both his rhythm and his skill.

By the time he graduated from Plymouth-Whitemarsh, C.J. had led his team to a 30-2 record and a state title, and earned Pennsylvania player of the year honors and a scholarship to St. Joe's.

"He's never thanked me, come to think of it,'' Gloria said. "He probably should.''


Most mornings, C.J. Aiken wakes up and heads to McDonald's. He'll grab breakfast there, plus cereal, a banana and a bagel topped with peanut butter back on campus.

For lunch, he typically crosses 54th Street for a visit to Larry's for a Philly cheesesteak, and before dinner, he'll make himself a midday peanut butter and jelly sandwich snack.

It is caloric mayhem, a junk food lover's fantasy diet and a testimony to the benefits of good metabolism.

Because despite all that food, C.J.'s fairly meatless 6-9 frame has packed on just five pounds since last season. He resembles an elongated toothpick, stretched too far one way and not at all the other.

And so he gamely visits McDonald's five times a week and stoically drinks the protein shakes his nutritionist proffers. "They're awful,'' he said. "I hold my nose while I drink them.''

But weight gain is just a small part in C.J.'s player development. He is uniquely gifted and filled with potential, but scratching the surface of his ability.

"Does he have a drop step? No,'' Martelli said. "But he can hit jumpers and play defense and block shots and dunk. He's only starting to get better.''

What he has -- great length and ridiculous timing -- he uses well. He is that rare shot-blocker who can reject a shot even if he jumps after the ball has left the shooter's hands. He can jump so quickly, he often throws down a dunk in a blink of an eye.

Against the Wildcats, Langston Galloway hurled a pass from half court, seemingly to no one. And suddenly there was C.J., skying from the baseline to catch it with his fingertips and throw it down with ease.

Yet at a time when every little kid wants to learn how to dunk, it is the blocks that get C.J. going. Since high school, he has worked to perfect them, resisting the temptation for the oh-my-goodness six rows into the stands version for a block that stays in bounds.

"Otherwise, all you're doing is giving the other team the ball back,'' he said simply.

That, his coach said, is vintage C.J.

He could be the most polite shot-blocker in the history of the game. He doesn't preen after he rejects a shot or stare down an opponent. He just sort of moseys down the court, blithely aware of the mayhem he has created.

And mayhem he does create.

Villanova attempted 27 3-pointers against the Hawks, chucking up one long ball after the other despite making just five. It has been a pattern against St. Joe's this year -- teams are taking an average of 21 3s against the Hawks, connecting on seven.

Why?

"Sometimes I'll watch as a casual observer during a game and one of two things usually happens,'' Martelli said. "Either an opponent will go into the lane, determined to do something just to prove they can, or you see them sort of get wide-eyed and turn around. It's amazing what C.J.'s presence does.''


C.J. had all of that a year ago -- the timing, the quick leap, the presence -- but none of it seemed to matter, not for him or for the Hawks, who tumbled to another miserable finish.

Most nights, he'd leave campus as soon as he could, making the quick 15-minute ride home. There, he'd bask in the security of what he knew -- a family that teased him but knew him, a neighborhood that was familiar, attention that wasn't predicated on his basketball ability.

"I was worried about him, really worried,'' Martelli said. "He didn't have that connection to campus. He wasn't engaged at all.''

The Hawks showed a little spark in late March -- they pulled off three upsets in the Atlantic 10 tournament to stunningly make the conference tourney semifinals -- and somewhere in that time, C.J. and his teammates found each other.

Over the summer, he stuck around more, and by the start of the fall semester, his almost daily home visits slowed to a trickle of maybe two a week.

"I think it just took time,'' C.J. said, noting that the St. Joe's roster a year ago was made up of five freshmen. "We didn't know each other very well. Now we're more together as a team. We do more things together and people really like each other.''

So much so that the ribbing C.J. usually only welcomed at home, he now embraces at practice.

Assistant coach Dave Duda has taken to calling C.J. "Charles," and his teammates have taken it a step further, going with "Chuck."

"No one has ever called him anything but C.J.,'' Martelli said. "So at first I was like, 'Ooh, I don't know. How's he going to like that?' A year ago, he might have withdrawn even more. Now he answers to it.''

That's because while C.J. Aiken's house is 10 miles away, he's found all the comforts of home at St. Joe's.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.