Induction Year: 2012
A three-time All-American at Grambling after a prep All-America career at New Orleans’ Cohen High School, James played five seasons with the expansion New Orleans Jazz, who took him as their first-ever draft pick in the second round of the 1974 draft. He averaged 10.8 points and 4.1 rebounds and had 370 assists in 356 NBA games. Nicknamed “A.J. From the Parking Lot” for his long-range jump shots, he also played five seasons in Italy and three in the Philippines. As a collegian, the 6-foot-8 James excelled for legendary Grambling coach Fred Hobdy. James was the SWAC Freshman of the Year in 1970-71, a three-time All-Southwestern Athletic Conference pick and the league’s MVP as a senior in 1973-74. He was a second-team small college All-American as a sophomore and junior and a first-teamer as a senior when he led the nation in scoring with a 32.1 average. For his college career, he averaged 22.2 points and 10.9 rebounds in 106 games, helping Grambling claim two SWAC titles and one NAIA District Championship. He coached at Jarvis Christian College and was an assistant women’s coach and head men’s coach at his alma mater. While he was a women’s assistant, Grambling won two regular-season SWAC titles and one tournament title. Currently an assistant professor of kinesiology and interim athletics director at Grambling, James is already a member of the Grambling, SWAC and Louisiana Association of Basketball Coaches halls of fame. Born 10-5-1952 in New Orleans.
By Scott Ferrell
Aaron James’ athletic career spans a wide spectrum — basketball player, coach and, eventually, college athletic administrator.
All along the way, though, James spent his career in the state he grew up in — Louisiana.
So it’s only fitting that James will be enshrined as one of the state’s sports greats when the 2012 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class is inducted.
“I was fortunate and blessed,’’ James says. “Even if you go as far back as sandlot basketball in the park, junior high, high school, college and professional and even working in coaching, all in the state of Louisiana.”
James was born in New Orleans and grew up in the city playing sports. But his dreams never included getting paid to play.
“Even at a young age, we played basketball for something to do as recreation to keep you out of trouble,’’ he says. “I think kids today play basketball because their parents put them in because they think they’re going to have a shot at the NBA.’’
Ironically, James eventually got his shot at the NBA, but not because it was his focus as a child.
He played sports oblivious to the possible ramifications of his ability.
“Coming up the way I came up, it was far-fetched from even knowing someone who played in the NBA or the NFL. I don’t think we had that insight at that time.
“Also, you didn’t get the games on television like you do today. We might have got a game on Sunday and it was always Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Boston. You didn’t have this many teams. Now you can get a game every night. It wasn’t in our mind that it was a realistic dream to play in the NBA.”
Even when he played at Cohen High School, James’ aspirations were modest.
But that was about to change.
At 6-foot-8 and with a smooth shot, he began drawing the attention of college basketball recruiters.
“I could have gone (to college) anywhere that I wanted to go,’’ James recalls. “LSU, Collis Temple and I were the first two blacks that they recruited. I had a scholarship offer from anywhere.
“But there was a gentleman in New Orleans, his name was Vic Vavasseuer and he coached at Landry High School and I went to Cohen High School. He had a relationship with (late GSU coach) Fred Hobdy and he had a gentleman on the team named Charlie Anderson, who was a great player. He recruited me for Grambling. I came up here and visited and they had such great talent and they had a winning tradition. I thought I could play, but that Charlie Anderson could play.”
There was one other selling point for Grambling. Hobdy met with James’ parents and told them if James came to Grambling he would graduate on time and go to church every Sunday.
“They said, ‘Shoot, you can’t get a better deal than that,’ ” James recalls.
James signed with Grambling — and graduated while he went to church every Sunday.
And when he graduated, he had some special guests in attendance.
“My mother would come see me play basketball and when I was with the (New Orleans) Jazz, my mother would make 41 games a year. My father has never seen me play a game. He listened to it on the radio. But he told me if I would go to Grambling and I graduate, he’d be at graduation. He was at my graduation, but he’s never been to a basketball game.”
It was at Grambling that James finally realized professional basketball could be in his future.
“Honestly, I started realizing during my junior year in college that I was pretty good at this and I might get a chance at professional basketball.”
He got that shot at the NBA in 1974 when the New Orleans Jazz used their first draft pick — a second-round selection — to choose James.
“I was excited about being in New Orleans. I’ve learned there are other places in the world besides New Orleans. But one thing about a young New Orleans person, they like New Orleans,” James says. “It was exciting for me. It was probably the best place for me to go at that time because I was at home. It would take time for me to mature. Sometimes you go places they don’t have patience for you.”
He was the only rookie on an expansion team full of castoffs and a star — Pete Maravich.
And for a rookie, what an experience it was for James.
“Playing with Pete Maravich was a terrific experience. He’s probably one of the best players of all time,’’ James says. “I had a great time playing with him. I could score the basketball. One thing about Peter, if you could run and shoot, he’ll throw you the ball. He wanted that assist. I think we had that kind of relationship.”
James averaged 11.7 points per game as a rookie and 9 points per game his second year. He followed up with seasons of 10.9, 12.2 and 10 points per game with the Jazz.
He never played on a playoff team with the Jazz, but he was part of an exciting time in the city as the Jazz drew large crowds to the Superdome.
“He was always, always prepared when he came off the bench,’’ former Jazz executive vice president Barry Mendelson recalls. “Some players aren’t, he was. He was a good bench player even though he started some. A good bench player is always ready when he is called to go into the game.”
James was ahead of his time as an outside shooting small forward.
He was a 48 percent field goal shooter and a 76 percent free throw shooter for his NBA career.
“His game was as a scoring small forward and he worked hard on defense,’’ Mendelson says. “He would have had a much bigger career if he had a 3-point line.”
After his time in the NBA, he played for a season in Italy and three more years in the Philippines.
His playing days ended, but he wasn’t out of basketball long. An NBA alumni event made him appreciate what he had previously had.
“I realized what I missed wasn’t the basketball, but I missed being with the fellas in the locker room and just being on the bus. The camaraderie with the team I missed more than playing. With the coaching aspect, a lot of times when you’re a fairly good player, sometimes you’re difficult on your players because you expect them to do things right and sometimes you didn’t do them right. And that’s the biggest adjustment.”
He coached at Grambling State from 1989 until 1995.
The wins were hard to come by at Grambling as he posted a 52-114 career mark with the Tigers. His best team — in 1993-94 — was 13-14.
“I would have loved to have had more wins than losses but the young men that I coached, maybe 90 to 95 percent graduated. This day alone, I have three or four young men who are principals in the state,” James says.
“A young man two or three years ago, emailed me to say he had his doctorate degree and he owns a charter school in Arizona. Those are the type of things that are very touching. And coming from the Eddie Robinson and Fred Hobdy era, they always told us they wanted us to be a productive citizen in America. Those are the type of things that I tried to carry on.”
After his time in coaching, he served as an administrator in the Grambling athletic department, once serving as interim athletic director.
His contributions as a player, coach and administrator land him in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
“I thought it could happen,” James says. “(Ruston Daily Leader sports editor) Buddy Davis used to always tell me, ‘Aaron, you’re going to get in the sports Hall of Fame, but you might be dead.’
“It was just terrific when I heard that news. And you know, I put it in Buddy’s face and said, ‘You know, I’m still living, Buddy.’ ”
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