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From Camden to Cabrini

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Aaron Walton-Moss’ 4-year-old daughter insists that she wants to play basketball, just like her daddy. Aryiaina loves the sport (or so she says), and she can’t get enough time in the gym. In fact, the Cabrini College cheerleaders are some of the few people at the school Aryiaina will talk to. And that leads Walton-Moss to wonder whether or not her desire to play is real. “I think she just wants to hang out with the cheerleaders,” he says, laughing. “If you give her pom-poms, she’ll smile and be your friend.”

Walton-Moss might have a little trouble getting his Cavaliers teammates to relate to his unique situation. While they’re worrying about practice, homework and weekend plans, he’s concerned about Aryiaina’s social outlets and athletic future. He has plenty of help at home. His daughter’s mother, Victoria, and two grandmothers are all on the job. “I take my hat off to them,” he says. “They want me to get through school.” 

That’s good, because Walton-Moss has a lot of work left to do on the court. In the college basketball world, Walton-Moss is a rarity. Then again, given how he made it to Cabrini, his would be an interesting story whether he was a father or not. 

His trip from gritty Camden, N.J., to Radnor was a circuitous one, to be sure. It was a halting journey, and each stop had the potential to be his last. But Walton-Moss persevered, and he enters the 2014-15 season as the reigning Division III Player of the Year. He hopes to lead the Cavs deep into the postseason and has a strong chance of playing basketball professionally next year. “His first step with the ball is incredible,” says Cabrini head coach Tim McDonald. “He’s very physical, because he played football his entire life. His biggest attribute on the court is his basketball IQ. He sees things on the court before they happen, and he makes everyone around him a better player.”

Last year, Walton-Moss averaged 25 points per game, 11 rebounds and six assists in helping Cabrini to its fifth straight Colonial States Athletic Conference championship and the second round of the Division III tournament. It may be tough for the first-team all-American to improve on those numbers this year, since he’ll receive intense scrutiny from opposing defenses. But he’ll still be one of the nation’s best, even if rivals devote four players to stopping him. “He’s just a better athlete than most everybody he’s playing against,” says Marcus Kahn, who coached at Cabrini for six seasons before leaving last spring to take over the program at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “He’s so strong. And the best part about him is his attitude. He knows he’s the best player on the court.”

That isn’t arrogance. Had Walton-Moss been more attentive to his schoolwork at Camden High School, he’d be playing Division I ball right now. Temple, La Salle and the University of Texas at El Paso were all interested in him, but poor grades set him on a path that ultimately ended at Cabrini. He spent a half-year at a prep school in New Jersey, hung out in Texas at a junior college for a while, and worked at Walmart. “I was trying to stay out of trouble,” he says.

In the summer of 2011, during the NBA lockout, the Sacramento Kings’ Jason Thompson, a Mount Laurel, N.J., native, was looking for a place to stay in shape. He landed at Cabrini, where Walton-Moss was among the people he chose to play ball with—thanks to a 52-point eruption by Walton-Moss in a pro-am game staged at Rutgers University-Camden a few weeks earlier. Kahn was watching the players work out, and he noticed Walton-Moss. He asked about him and was told he should recruit him. “I said, ‘He’s Division III? No way,’” Kahn says. “But I was told he just needed a home.”

Kahn spoke to Walton-Moss, who’d tired of retail and hanging around the house, no matter how happy he was to be a father. The coach made an offer, and he headed for Radnor. Because it took awhile to get his application together and make sure he had everything he needed to start classes, Walton-Moss didn’t show up at Cabrini until the second semester of the 2011-12 school year. But that didn’t stop him from making an immediate impact on the court. The Cavs reached the national championship game, losing to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Walton-Moss was voted Rookie of the Year by www.d3hoops.com. 

His on-court success was immediate, but Walton-Moss struggled with his new suburban home. After spending his entire life in the city, the Main Line was a huge change. “Nothing is close by,” he says. “It’s all spaced out. In the city, you have a store on the corner. Here, you have to go a couple blocks.”

Walton-Moss also had trouble acclimating to the academics. Because he started playing basketball the minute he stepped onto campus, and the Cavaliers spent a lot of time away from campus during their title-game run, his grades sagged, and he became ineligible for the first half of the 2012-13 season. “One of his biggest problems was knowing how to go about asking for help and finding it,” McDonald says. “I would ask him how things were going, and he’d say, ‘Good.’ Everything was good until the grades came out.”

Walton-Moss was voted third-team all-American as a sophomore. Opponents struggled with his straight-ahead style, which has origins in his love of football. “If you’d asked me when I was 16 what I thought I would be doing, I would’ve said I’d be playing quarterback for Virginia Tech,” says Walton-Moss. 

During his freshman and sophomore years at Camden High, he played middle linebacker and delighted in the contact. But basketball began to grab more of his attention. By the time he was a senior, he’d left the gridiron for good. 

Cabrini, for one, is happy he did. The Cavaliers didn’t advance too far in last year’s tournament, but Walton-Moss established himself as the nation’s best. This year, he’ll combine with former Camden teammate Vinny Walls for a potent attack. McDonald may stress defense a little more than his predecessor did, but with talent like Walton-Moss and Walls, it would be silly not to turn them loose. Walton-Moss has worked hard to be a more diverse offensive threat. 

“He’s a way better three-point shooter than he was,” says McDonald. “If he catches the ball beyond the three-point line, and they’re not guarding him, he’ll make it.”

While Cabrini seeks bigger postseason success, Walton-Moss is getting more comfortable with his environs. Though he could’ve transferred to a bigger school, he felt an obligation to stay with the Cavaliers. “They took a chance on me,” he says.    

“He’s a laid-back guy. He’s a comedian and likes to joke around,” says Walls, a 6-foot-1 junior guard whose father, Kevin, once scored 81 in a game while at Camden. “He takes care of his daughter and is always on the phone with her.”

The Cavaliers began the season ranked 20th in the nation, and they must integrate a variety of new faces into their lineup. Walton-Moss has no such adjustment to make. Now more capable of damaging defenses with his complete offensive game, he aims to end a four-year college career that seemed almost impossible when he left Camden. “Talent speaks for itself,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you are or on what level you play. If you’re good, they’ll find you.”

Just like Cabrini found Walton-Moss. And Aryiaina. 

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