Most of Kim Aiken Jr.’s disposable hours were spent in various gymnasiums around Redlands, California, sharpening a craft that ultimately paid for his college education.
Basketball was the mustachioed teenager’s primary focus, but far from his only interest.
Aiken grew up fascinated with local politics and community leadership, volunteering himself for thankless work to get closer to the 2016 polity.
The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Redlands East Valley senior stood inside a local polling station during the election, handing out pamphlets to voters.
Three years later, the burgeoning Eastern Washington forward hopes that experience was the start of his career in California politics.
“I’d like to one day move back and eventually be the mayor of Redlands,” Aiken said. “And work my way to the U.S. Senate.
“There’s obviously things going on abroad that are important, but I’d like to try and make our country better at the state and local level.”
Until then, Aiken will have to settle for being a key cog for EWU (4-2) team that is widely expected to win a Big Sky Conference crown and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
Aiken, who has four double-doubles in six games, leads the Eagles in rebounding (10.8 per game), steals (2.0) and blocked shots (1.3), and is second in scoring (14.8).
The fourth-ranked defensive rebounder in the country – at nine per game – is a versatile commodity for the Eagles, hitting long-range jumpers, scoring inside and often playing above the rim with a series of dunks and crowd-pleasing blocks.
Third-year EWU head coach Shantay Legans trusts Aiken to do just about everything the right way, he said, from the hardwood to the classroom, where he has a 3.3 grade-point average.
He’s also a member of the school’s Student Advisory Committee.
“I can honestly see him being the president of EWU one day,” Legans said. “There’s a reason he’s one of the youngest captains we’ve ever had, and a lot of it has to do with his work ethic and how he carried himself.”
Aiken’s father, Kim Aiken Sr., 58, hears similar things.
“I’ll run into folks at the YMCA who ask about Kim and how he’s doing,” Aiken said. “They say, ‘He should run for City Council one day,’ because he’s that type of individual.”
Shaking hands and addressing his elders as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” have helped shape that perception.
Walking around campus, Aiken’s wireless headphones are often tuned to Christian personalities, including prominent pastors T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen.
Aiken touches his Fellowship of Christian Athletes book as a pregame ritual of sorts, a reminder that faith has helped present his opportunities.
An unbreakable bond with his father – even through obstacles and uncertainty – has also helped shape the character of one EWU’s most amiable student-athletes.
Making the best of it
Aiken’s earliest memories of north Long Beach, California, are fuzzy, but his father, now a retired City of Long Beach employee, remembers their situation vividly.
In an area rife with crime and violence, his young son noticed.
“He said he didn’t want to live in area full of graffiti and stuff on the walls. No negativity.” Aiken said. “That pushed me to make a change.”
After a split in the family, Aiken – who would later have sole custody of his son, he said – packed up his car, his son and left town.
But they didn’t have a permanent residence.
For an extended period, the Aikens would stay at one friend’s house before moving on to an another’s, a trend that continued until Aiken was in the back seat of a car in the middle of night, wondering where he and his father were headed next.
They pulled into an apartment complex in Redlands that neighbored the University of Redlands, a private school.
The crime rate was low, the schools were better and Aiken would be surrounded with positive influences, from teachers to coaches.
“He put us in a better area,” Aiken said of his father. “And we stayed there.”
During his employment with City of Long Beach’s health department, Aiken conducted outreach with a program dubbed The Role of Men, which encouraged fathers to have a positive role and presence with their children.
He took those lessons to heart.
The father and son were close, and remain that way. Aiken said he wears a mustache because he father did.
“People give me a hard time for keeping it,” Aiken said, pointing out that teammates have said it makes him look like celebrity Steve Harvey. “But I like it. I’ve been growing this since seventh grade. My dad had one.”
Basketball brought them closer.
Aiken was present during his son’s ascent as one of San Bernardino County’s top high school players, often sitting in the crowd with a notebook in hand.
Aiken isn’t much into technology, rarely using a cellphone or a computer. When he watches his son, it’s often live when EWU is playing in the area, a rare trip to Washington, or an over-the-phone, play-by-play report from a friend.
“I just tried to guide him in the right direction and encourage him,” Aiken said in in a phone interview made on a pay phone. “He dragged me out of bed in the morning, and I’d take him to the gym.
“We’ve been through a lot together. During the tough times, my son is the one who saved me.”
Aiken has been hearing more and more about his son’s accolades. He isn’t surprised.
From the time in grade school when Aiken grabbed the microphone at a school function and started an impromptu group sing of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” Aiken said his was son was destined for a good life.
“He’s something special,” he said. “Watching him grow up has absolutely been a phenomenon. I prayed for this a long time ago.”
Hard work pays off
An hour had passed since the final buzzer of a recent Eastern Washington home game, but Aiken was still in full uniform at an empty Reese Court.
He fired dozens of jump shots as janitors cleaned the arena and reporters filed their game stories, something he’d done after almost every home game the past two seasons.
This doesn’t surprise his AAU coach, Keith Howard.
Howard, who coaches for the Inland Empire Basketball Program, which has helped send dozens of players to Division I schools, has grown to expect such behavior.
“One of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached,” Howard said of Aiken. “He’s always conducted himself with a level of maturity. He’s a very serious person, but I’ve also seen the emotional side of him.”
This past summer, Aiken was back in California playing with a number of his former AAU teammates who litter Division I rosters. Howard was present for those workouts.
He’s noticed a change in Aiken’s body after he dropped 20 pounds, cutting out most of the sugar in his diet, leading to a body fat percentage of around 7%.
His outside shooting has also improved, Howard said, and the coach is seeing Aiken’s growth before his eyes on a series of online streams of his games.
“He had a knowledge of what he wanted to become, always worked toward that,” Howard said.
Legans, who also grew up in California and played at California and Fresno State, put Aiken among the hardest-working talents with whom he’s coached or played.
“He gets up at 6 a.m. and shoots every single day,” Legans said. “And he shoots after our games. He keeps doing it over and over again. You can’t beat work ethic like that.”
Aiken has the same approach with his studies.
Legans puts his players in a mandatory study hall, but anyone who consistently posts a 3.0 GPA or higher can skip it.
Aiken doesn’t have be in study hall – but he goes anyway.
“If there’s a class he’s struggling in, he’ll find a way to get better in that class,” Legans said.
Coaches, teachers, students and teammates notice.
“In all my years of coaching, he was the only kid on national signing day where I saw administrators, students, counselors – you name it – at the signing supporting him,” Howard said. “Everywhere he goes, he is liked.”
Finding his role
When Aiken arrived at EWU in the summer of 2017, he opted to redshirt for his first season.
Physically, he wasn’t ready, Legans said, and the Eagles were already loaded with upperclassman talent at his position.
He was thrown into the fire his redshirt freshman season, though, earning his first career starts at NCAA powers Syracuse and Oregon for the injury-riddled Eagles, who lost by an average of more than 30 points in those contests.
His minutes over the next 10 games decreased as Legans toyed with his roster, trying to find the right mix of players before Big Sky Conference play.
“When he wasn’t playing much, he’d text me about it,” Howard said. “I told him to listen to what the coaches are telling you, find out what they want, and he did that.”
Aiken soon flourished, averaging 8.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in conference play, saving his best for a key final stretch.
His winning 3-pointer against Portland State helped keep the Eagles in contention for a first-round Big Sky Tournament bye and made ESPN’s Top 10 plays.
In a regular-season-finale win at Weber State, Aiken had 20 points and eight rebounds, momentum he kept throughout Big Sky Tournament play when EWU advanced to face Montana in the title game.
His putback dunk over a Montana defender is still talked about among EWU circles.
“He’s had a lot of big moments,” Legans said. “And he’ll have more.”
Aiken, who was named to the All-Big Sky Tournament team, believes he’s a better shooter than he was a year ago.
“That’s what’s going to help my team win games,” he said. “And with rebounding, it can help give my team more chances.”
He said having a coach like Legans has helped tap into his potential, pointing to his up-tempo, wide-open style.
“He makes the game fun,” Aiken said. “He’s letting the players play, and I like that about him.”
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