In the midst of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, on a day when La Salle, Temple and Villanova were in action and Florida Gulf Coast was storming its way into the national basketball consciousness by shocking second-seeded Georgetown at Wells Fargo Center, the announcement that center C.J. Aiken was leaving Saint Joseph’s to pursue a professional career was barely a blip on the radar.
But not for me.
Any story involving Aiken catches my attention. Why? Because I wrote the first story about Aiken. The article appeared on March 13, 1998. Aiken was 7 years old.
I have written thousands of articles in my career. I probably remember more of them than you’d imagine. But few have touched my heart like the story of C.J. Aiken.
When I first wrote about C.J., he wasn’t a basketball star. He was a 7-year-old boy recovering from treatment of a cancerous tumor on his intestine. He had a breathing tube in his nose and his hair was gone due to radiation treatments.
The story was focused on the fundraising efforts of Hatboro-Horsham High School’s basketball team, which had raised $1,200 for C.J. and his family. The first items purchased with the money were a Sony Playstation and a couple of video games. The rest of the money helped Gloria Aiken, C.J.’s mother, buy groceries and pay bills.
Although the story was ostensibly about the Hatters’ altruistic nature, the images of C.J. playing video games, beautifully captured by photographer Nanette Kardaszeski, made C.J. the star of the story. One photo of C.J.’s expression while playing a video game made an indelible impression in my memory bank.
It was nearly 12 years later when I was reading a list of which colleges local high school stars had committed to for the following school year. I finished the list. Then went back and read it again.
One name stood out: C.J. Aiken. Why do I recognize this name?
For approximately 48 hours, C.J. Aiken’s name floated in and out of my head. I knew the name was familiar, but all my neurons and synapses and lots of other brain-function stuff I don’t fully understand failed to make the connection.
Then, out of the blue, it hit me. “It” was the image of Aiken’s reaction while playing a video game. I quickly searched my personal archives – the story was written before everything was put on the Internet – and found the story. C.J. Aiken was the little boy recovering from cancer (Burkitt’s lymphoma) in the story I had written nearly a dozen years earlier. He had grown into the center for a Plymouth-Whitemarsh team expected to contend for the state championship (which it won, with Aiken being named PIAA Class AAAA Player of the Year).
I contacted Jeff Beideman, my editor at The Intelligencer, where I hadn’t worked in more than a decade, and told him about the connection. Once he gave me the green light, I tracked down Gloria Aiken (they had moved to Conshohocken). I went to their home, bringing copies of the 12-year-old article with me, and spoke with C.J. and his family about a time he didn’t really remember much about – and a time they will never forget.
Elements of my second story on Aiken, which appeared in The Intelligencer on March 15, 2010, have been told and retold on television and in print throughout Aiken’s Saint Joseph’s career. The Aiken story, with the headline “Survivor,” is a featured story in the official NCAA Tournament program, which was being sold at Wells Fargo Center on the same day the announcement was made that Aiken was going to leave Saint Joseph’s and turn professional.
The official release from Saint Joseph’s last Friday consists of two paragraphs. The first says “Junior forward C.J. Aiken has decided to leave Saint Joseph’s to pursue a professional basketball career.” The second paragraph is a quote from Hawks head coach Phil Martelli, saying, “After lengthy meetings with C.J. Aiken and his family, C.J. has decided to pursue a career in professional basketball. There will always be a place in my heart for C.J. I wish him well in all his future endeavors.”
If we read between the lines, “lengthy meetings” means this wasn’t a quick decision. My intuition also tells me that one faction, likely Martelli, thought that the still-thin Aiken would be better prepared for the NBA if he returned to Saint Joseph’s for his senior season. Right now, only Aiken’s shot-blocking skills would approach an NBA level.
But the section of Martelli’s short statement that caught my eye was “There will always be a place in my heart for C.J.”
I don’t know C.J. Aiken nearly as well as Martelli. In fact, I won’t pretend that I really know him at all.
But, as the writer who first brought his story to the public, I feel a connection with Aiken. There will always be a place in my heart for C.J. as well.
While my head tells me he’d be better off spending another year at Saint Joseph’s, my heart is hoping that this next chapter of the C.J. Aiken story will also have a happy ending.