GLORIA AIKEN figured her 7-year-old son's stomach was bothering him because he was upset over a recent change in schools. The pain persisted. She took him to a doctor who agreed it was just a stomachache. When her son didn't want to play his video games or watch television, Gloria knew it was something more serious. She took him to see a pediatrician, who ordered some blood work.
Seven-year-old C.J. Aiken had cancer, specifically Burkitt's lymphoma. He needed surgery to remove part of his intestines that were cancerous. He underwent radiation and chemotherapy. His hair fell out. Already the tallest kid in his class, he went back to school without any hair and with a feeding tube down his nose.
All this for a shy kid who really didn't want attention, who was most comfortable being at home with his family.
During his time at Children's Hospital, he was surrounded by his family, which includes four sisters and two brothers. His oldest sister missed 17 days of school to be with C.J.
"He was in a lot of pain," Gloria said. "That was hard for everybody."
C.J. went back for 5 years to get checked. There has been no recurrence.
"I just remember missing school a lot, being home a lot," C.J. said. "I just kept throwing up. My mom took me to the hospital and that's when I found out. After the surgery, I've been good ever since."
A few years after the cancer scare, Gloria decided her son needed to get off the couch. A family friend suggested basketball because C.J. was so much taller than his peers.
"Because he was taller, everybody assumed he could play really well, but he couldn't," Gloria said. "He was very slow. The team would be down at one end of the court and C.J. would just be making it down there to join his teammates. He hated it."
His mother insisted he not give it up.
"I told him, 'You're going to play,' " she remembered.
Fast forward a decade and 6-9 Saint Joseph's sophomore Charles Justin Aiken is the nation's leading shot blocker. Aiken, who turned 21 on Sept. 27 (he stayed back a year in school while recovering from the cancer), has 155 blocked shots in just 43 college games. He also is averaging 11.3 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
He is one of those quick dunkers who finish plays before most opponents realize the plays have started. There is no alley-oop pass too high. He can make shots out to the three-point line. He is far from a finished product, but even farther from that 10-year-old learning and not really liking the game.
"I was just taller than everybody," C.J. said. "I was at home doing nothing just annoying [my mother] pretty much . . . She made me join a league . . . I hated it. I was uncoordinated. I was tired just running up the court one time."
Eventually, the game grew on him. And he kept growing.
Aiken loves movies. He remembers seeing the Will Smith classic "Independence Day" with his family in 1996. He loves "The Departed" with Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg. His favorite is the Will Ferrell Christmas movie "Elf."
A blocked shot or a good movie?
"I don't know," C.J. said. "That's tough."
St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli first saw C.J. at a team camp on Hawk Hill when Aiken was a freshman at La Salle High.
"I remember just being kind of enamored that the Catholic League was going to have a kid of that size," Martelli said.
And, along with assistant Dave Duda, Martelli started recruiting Aiken. They developed a relationship with C.J. and Gloria. That he was from Conshohocken, not far from the St. Joe's campus, was a positive. Martelli found out Aiken wasn't into the "national scene," that he was likely to stay local for college.
Calling Gloria "the rock," Martelli came to understand "the social awkwardness of being the biggest kid and being so quiet."
A lot of big teenagers just want to avoid being embarrassed.
"I promised his mom and I promised C.J. from the very beginning I would never embarrass him," Martelli said.
After 2 years at La Salle, Aiken transferred to Plymouth-Whitemarsh. P-W coach Jim Donofrio heard about Aiken because of the "rankings," but really knew nothing about him.
"I met for all of 10 seconds and saw this very tall, very thin, very quiet guy, and thought, 'That's one of the top 5 in the area, huh?' " Donofrio said.
The coach wasn't getting a confident player, someone who thought he was a star, an AAU summertime hoops junkie.
Aiken had been ranked and labeled, but his coach said they "didn't know him personally."
"He's ended up being the best story I think I've ever had," Donofrio said. "Academically, very few people understand the position he came in at."
Aiken doubled his grade-point average in 2 years "by listening to all the advice he got."
"You know how many kids you lecture that are stuck on a low GPA and that GPA never moves?" Donofrio said. "Where he was at academically when he came in as an 11th grader, that he's walking the halls of St. Joe's is the proudest thing in the world for me."
Donofrio calls Aiken a "crockpot player" because "he takes all the time he needs to take to cook. C.J's going to take every year of high school and college to develop and evolve and even when he makes money at the game someday, which he certainly can."
The first time Donofrio worked Aiken out, he remembers him doing a "little jab step move from the NBA three-point line and in one dribble, dunked lefthanded."
The coach said: "Yeah, like that" and shook his head.
Less than 2 years later, Aiken was the Pennsylvania AAAA player of the year. Plymouth-Whitemarsh (30-2) was the 2010 state champion. The signature play of the title game was Aiken taking a pass that looked like it might disappear into the stands of the Bryce Jordan Center and throwing it down for an impossible dunk.
Donofrio describes Aiken as the calmest person he knows.
"His blood pressure is officially 1 over 1," Donofrio said.
You have to show him the game. Then, he has to apply it. Then, he gets it.
When he showed up on campus last year, he only trusted Martelli, the coach he had known for so long. He did not know his teammates so he did not trust them. Now, he knows them and trusts them.
"This year, I don't see C.J often," Gloria said. "Last year, I saw him every day."
His coach is watching a college student become a man.
"It's really what this all should be about, that a kid has a chance to kind of grow up," Martelli said. "That's what he's done. His teammates deserve a lot of the credit. Last year, I'm not sure any of them understood or wanted to give him his space."
Why, they wanted to know, was he so quiet?
Last year, Aiken couldn't make eye contact with people on campus. This year, he can.
Donofrio sees the difference on the court. Took the P-W guards a while to realize that no lob is too high for Aiken. Same thing happened last season at St. Joe's.
"It's almost as if someone gives you a brand-new Ferrari and you just take it out and go through a school zone at 15 miles an hour," Donofrio said. "You really can throw the ball 12 1/2 feet in the air from 50 feet and he's like a vacuum cleaner."
His Hawks teammates are starting to understand whom they are playing with and what he can do.
"There are guys who see their sport in slow motion and that's C.J.," Donofrio said. "He never fouled out of a high school game. He may never foul out of a college game. His shot-blocking skill is a Bill Russell kind of talent. It's an unexplainable skill."
But there is more.
"He has to give himself permission to do something that is very hard for him," Donofrio said. "He has to give himself permission to get angry."
Right now, C.J Aiken is a very nice player who also happens to be a very nice person. Rewind 14 years and he was a sick child wondering why.
Providentially, there was a Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament back then at Hatboro-Horsham High that helped benefit Aiken during his struggle with cancer. There is no bigger supporter of Coaches vs. Cancer than Martelli.
Martelli wondered why nobody had ever mentioned that tournament to him during the recruiting. The answer was that is was private. The coach has asked the family if they would be willing to share. And they are.
"It's interesting to see [C.J's] engagement in community service because that's not something he's comfortable with, but it is something that he doesn't shy away from," Martelli said. "He knows that people helped him and now he's willing to help others."