AJ John speaks softly, leans back in his chair and smiles, as if he doesn’t believe this is really happening, either. He is the starting power forward on a UC Davis men’s basketball team that plays UC Riverside Thursday in the opener in the Big West Conference tournament, and somewhat improbably, has a legitimate chance at capturing the event and earning another automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But don’t pinch him yet. It gets better. John not only stands on two feet these days, he walks without a limp.
A year ago? After a setback from reconstructive knee surgery, he doubted that was even possible. Multiple doctors said he would never play basketball again, and if he was fortunate, might be able to live a reasonably active life.
“It was terrifying,” said John, whose birth name is Avelon, “but it has really helped me keep things in perspective.”
The Aggies have had a lot to absorb in recent weeks. Chima Moneke, last season’s conference Player of the Year and the most accomplished player in program history, was suspended indefinitely Feb. 3 for violating team conduct rules at a Southern California hotel. The university refuses to divulge details and the matter is under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Without Moneke’s muscular interior presence, and with eight games remaining in the regular season, coach Jim Les thrust John into the starting lineup and adopted a faster, more freeflowing style that better utilizes the 6-foot-9 junior’s length, mobility and 3-point shooting. The change also has given point guard TJ Shorts II – recently named Big West Player of the Year – more freedom.
Once the immediate shock of Moneke’s absence wore off, the Aggies went on a wild and wonderful roll that no one would have predicted. They won six of eight games, twice prevailed on last-second field goals by Shorts, and three times needed double or triple overtime for the victory.
In Saturday’s double-overtime win over UC Irvine for the regular-season conference championship, John converted six 3-pointers, including a crucial trey in the final 30 seconds of regulation.
“I haven’t wanted this for anyone more than I wanted this for AJ,” said Les. “For him to make it back, from the physical grind, the mental grind, that’s just a testament to him and his family, and now he’s doing everything we knew all along that he could.”
Though John spent his first two years at Pepperdine, the Aggies recruited him hard out of Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa. A big fan of ocean views – his father, Avelon Sr., is a native of Grenada – he was lured south by the beach surroundings and assurances that he would be utilized as a stretch four. Instead, he played primarily in the post, and by his own account, was largely ineffective.
When the Waves declined to renew his scholarship, John contacted assistant Kevin Nosek and asked if the Aggies were still interested. They were. Yet in another unfortunate turn of events, he collided with another player in the San Francisco pro-am, seriously wrenching his left knee.
John thought that was it. Surgery and a grueling rehabilitation. No scholarship, no basketball, no school. “My son was so scared,” said Avelon Sr. “He called me up and he was crying. We thought there was no way coach (Les) would still want him. When he said he did, we could not have been more grateful.”
Between the surgery that June to repair two major knee ligaments, a meniscus tear and a fractured femur and a setback last March that required a followup procedure, John spent a combined three months on crutches and an untold number of hours pondering his trying circumstances.
His father questioned his discipline during the rehab process. Was he right? His siblings and friends suspected he would never see a basketball court again. Were they right? And when things finally turned around, when he was finally practicing and preparing for the 2017-18 season, he was jarred again: Avelon Sr., had to be evacuated from the fires that destroyed an estimated 8,400 homes and buildings near Santa Rosa.
“I got a phone call that first morning from our basketball operations person, and she said, ‘Have you talked to your father?’ ” John related. “I said, ‘Why?’ Fortunately he was OK, and our home was safe. But one of my best friends, whose parents are divorced, lost both of his homes. I went up there to check everything out, and it so sad because so many people I know lost everything.”
Upon returning to Davis, John further channeled his emotions into his books and basketball, and emerged as a major contributor as sixth man. But he has been even more impressive as a starter. In the eight games since Moneke’s suspension, he is averaging 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds, leads the team in 3-point attempts (38) and makes (18), and at 47.4 percent, trails only Michael Onyebalu (51.9) in percentage beyond the arc.
“That first game at Long Beach State after Chima, I was (emotionally) down, and I was terrible,” John continued. “I fouled out, had two points. TJ saved my butt, because if we had lost that game, I would have blamed myself. After that I was able to regain my focus and started playing the way I should be playing.”
A year ago, John missed out on the Big Dance. But now that he can play, can walk without a limp, he believes anything is possible.