There were moments when Kanu Aja thought about giving up basketball. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound power forward attended four high schools — two of which closed — in five years, in addition to battling injury and weight issues.
The adversity didn’t end there. Aja, who “moved around a lot” in Baltimore and Howard counties, had minimal college interest and ended up across the country at a junior college that doesn’t give out scholarships.
“JUCO basketball is nuts,” said Justin Labagh, Aja’s coach at the City College of San Francisco. “I have crazier stories, but I don’t know if it’s as big of a success story [as Aja] considering where this guy came from. He had basically nothing and came out here. He still works. Works nights. He’s been working to sustain his living. He’s not on scholarship. It’s kind of nuts. This guy’s just resilient.”
The resiliency of Aja, 21, paid off this week when he signed a letter of intent to play basketball at East Carolina. He also considered offers from Hofstra, Marshall, Seton Hall and several others.
“It feels like a big relief,” Aja said. “I went through a lot to go through this process to find a school that really liked me, liked my game. Now I’ll try to finish up [in San Francisco] and contribute to the program down there at ECU.”
Aja’s path to college basketball began in Southwest Baltimore, where he attended Mount St. Joseph as a freshman. He spent the next two years at Towson Catholic, where he suffered an injury and reclassified as a sophomore.
When the Archdiocese of Baltimore closed Towson Catholic, Aja transferred “last minute” to Cardinal Gibbons, where he had a forgettable junior season. Aja was displaced again when Gibbons closed at the end of the school year.
“It was really a learning process, just switching schools,” said Aja, who graduated from Princeton Day Academy in 2011. “It was kind of hard to learn. I just had to basically get better on my own, use the experience to really concentrate on getting my game better.”
Attending four high schools in five years wasn’t ideal for Aja’s academic profile, but landing at Princeton Day Academy in Beltsville did provide him with a quality basketball experience. He played major minutes for the Storm and was able to put together a highlight tape to shop to junior-college coaches.
“I want to say he sent an email to every single school in the country,” Labagh said. “He bounced around to all these different schools … [and] none of the national JUCOs could give him a scholarship. I got to know him over the phone.”
Labagh was impressed by Aja’s size, and Aja felt comfortable with the coach and liked the idea of living in California. But with no scholarship money from CCSF, Aja faced significant financial challenges. He got some financial aid from the school, but to pay his rent, Aja worked as a server for a catering company and as a security guard at several San Francisco clubs.
“I needed to make sure my mom didn’t have to worry about me and send me money,” Aja said. “I tried to just focus on school and basketball and getting a job. I tried to balance all that together. It helped me out a lot, disciplined me a lot. It was tough, but I got used to it. I managed my money right.”
Aja, who still works in security, redshirted his freshman season, shed massive amounts of weight and got his academics in order. As a redshirt freshman, he was a valuable reserve on a CCSF team that finished 31-1. After the season, he earned an invite to a Top 100 JUCO camp, where he impressed college coaches and landed several D-I offers.
“Everybody recruiting him was recruiting him for the same thing,” Labagh said. “This guy is a pitbull, the workhorse on the floor. He loves contact, he hustles. He’s got a high-major motor. His skillset is still in the lower levels, but his motor is high level. His body is high level. He can be a third post on most teams in the country. Maybe not in the Top 25, but on most teams, he can go in there and be a third post. Get in there, bang, run the floor, bang. He’s the guy that goes in and gives our guys a gut check."
Aja said he didn’t necessarily plan on coming back east for college, but he built great relationships with the East Carolina coaches and players during his official visit. After bouncing around so much in high school and working so hard on and off the court over the past three years, Aja is especially thankful for this opportunity.
“It definitely made me more hungry, all the stuff I’ve been through,” Aja said. “I just value things a lot. I had to grow up fast, being out here by myself at 18. I just thank God I made it through. I had to get a work ethic to make it to DI and get a free education so I can continue to play basketball.”
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