J.J. Avila's basketball journey includes tales of military service, chain saws, pickup basketball brawls on the Tex-Mex border and an unlikely recruitment and rebirth at Colorado State.
He's been critical to CSU's school-record 8-0 start, contributing 14.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.4 APG and 1.4 SPG for the undefeated Rams.
On Sunday, Avila's crafty game -- he's a 6-foot-7, 246-pound forward with moves off the dribble and an arsenal in the paint -- helped Colorado State hold Northern Colorado to just 58 points, after the Bears entered the matchup averaging 81.8 points (16th in the nation).
Colorado State would rather not dwell on its strong start, though. The Rams could soar as a sleeper in the murky Mountain West, a conference that warranted more scrutiny after title favorite San Diego State recorded just 36 points in a Sunday loss to Washington. But Larry Eustachy wants to protect his crew against overconfidence.
"It just takes one bad loss and your RPI takes a hit," he told ESPN.com. "They're aware. We talk about it."
A team that finished tied for eighth in league play a year ago has blossomed in part because Avila, a third-team all-MWC performer last season, remade his body in the offseason. So now he's in better shape and capable of increased minutes. He's also a more effective shooter.
For the native of McAllen, Texas, this season has been validation for a 1,200-mile trip that offered few promises.
"That first summer, I came in overweight," said Avila, who joined the program before the 2013-14 season. "I lost 20 pounds that first summer just to show them that you didn't make a mistake; I'm gonna be the player you wanted me to be when you were recruiting me."
That trip to Fort Collins, Colorado, commenced with a chain saw.
Avila, the 2011 freshman of the year in the Patriot League, was a standout for Navy from 2010 to 2012. He enjoyed the experience, but he also worried about the next steps in his career. How would he pursue his basketball dreams through the military? Although David Robinson and others had done it before him, Avila believed a new school could enhance his athletic future. So he left.
"I did better in college than I thought I would," he said. "I just wanted to see what I could do with [basketball] after college instead of being in the military afterward."
Academic issues canceled his plans to transfer to Richmond after two seasons with Navy, so he moved back to McAllen and spent more than a year away from college basketball.
He was not idle.
Sweet mesquite wood chips that Avila once delivered to local restaurants in the back of his father's pickup each day burned in grills and fire pits throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Avila would chop the limbs off fallen trees with a chain saw, split the logs, load the truck and search for buyers.
On a good day, Avila and his father would bank $200 for a full bed of wood. Avila would give his father a cut, then he'd gas up his car and drive four hours to spoil a former girlfriend in San Marcos or visit his brother in San Antonio.
"I had to have a reason just to leave home for some weekend, clear my mind a little bit," he said. "It was tough."
On bad days, they wouldn't find anyone who wanted the wood so it would stack up in his father's backyard until a local restaurant or someone with a fire pit called. Those days were reminders that he had to keep training so he could find a new school and avoid a life that consisted of chopping wood in the Texas heat.
"Some days we'd work eight hours from the morning," Avila said. "We would try to go when it was cool to go cut the trees and come back. It was hot as hell in the afternoon in the backyard splitting them. I would go to training sometimes just tired as hell and go to [rec league] games that night just dog tired."
Between chopping wood and other odd jobs, Avila made time to train four to five times a week. He attended South Texas College, a junior college in McAllen, but the school lacked a basketball program so Avila sought competition in local rec leagues. He didn't find much, but he did encounter a bunch of tough guys who wanted to prove a point against a Division I talent.
That's why he always brought Bert with him. Avila got fouled hard and often. Fights ensued. But Avila realized that he couldn't react with violence because he didn't want to ruin his career.
Bert, his best friend and a former collegiate offensive lineman whose full name is Alberto Lozano, did not have the same reservations or concerns.
"He always had my back in that," Avila said. "I would be doing my thing. If someone would try and come hit me, Bert would come and hit them so I didn't have to get in trouble. A lot of times they would know who I am and they would try and do some stuff to try to get me to do something stupid. ... I always had to keep a level head."
As he tried to stay fit, Avila heard from multiple schools. He considered Tulane, but a trip to Fort Collins changed his perspective and his life. There, Avila bonded with the CSU staff and chose to spend the next two seasons with Colorado State. Now, he's a key element of the program's early rise in 2014-15.
His numbers are either up (field goal percentage, rebounding, steals) or comparable to last season's. And his teammates enjoy his leadership and attitude.
"He has a motor that never stops, so it's always going," Colorado State guard Daniel Bejarano said.
Eustachy has been a Division I head coach for nearly 25 years. He's watched a lot of players mature for a multitude of programs. Avila, he said, stands out.
"I don't know if I've had a player grow more," he said.
Avila once wondered if he'd ever get another chance as he hacked wood in that dry, Texas heat. He wondered if someone would rescue him from those potshots in random rec leagues. He wondered if he'd made the right call to leave the Navy and push for something different.
But now he's certain that he did, and he cherishes the ride and the situation it led him to.
"I'd rather play ball," Avila said, "than split logs."