Basketball Player, 1966-79
To many who remember the infant days of the New Orleans Jazz, he was fondly known as “A.J. From the Parking Lot.”
From the rough streets of New Orleans’ 11th Ward, Aaron James began a basketball career at the Dryades Street YMCA that took him to All-American honors at Grambling State University, then onto the professional ranks and into three halls of fame. He learned the game by playing against some of the most skilled African-American athletes in the city, including former professional Bruce Seals and James “Shirt” Williams of Booker T. Washington, Bobby Bissant of Xavier Prep and Clark’s Rodney Tureaud.
“I developed quickly by playing against the top players in the state,” James said. “At that time, we didn’t play against the white teams from the LHSAA, but we scrimmaged and beat De La Salle as well as Newman three or four times a year.”
At Cohen, James led the state in scoring with a 30-point average, at Grambling he led the nation in scoring during the 1973-74 season with 32.1 points per game. He scored 2,251 career points and became a three-time All-SWAC selection.
The professional world became familiar with the tall, skinny kid in 1974 when the fledgling New Orleans Jazz drafted James in the second round of the draft, giving him the chance to play with fellow Louisiana legend Pete Maravich.
“All indications were that the (New York) Knicks were going to draft me,” he said. “I knew that they and Chicago was interested, but, as it turned out, it couldn’t get any better. I wasn’t even aware that (the Jazz) were interested.”
The team’s first coach, Scotty Robertson, who was lured away from his college coaching post at Louisiana Tech, had tried to recruit James at the Ruston university. But he chose Grambling because its head coach, Fred Hobdy, promised James, “You will graduate on time and you will go to church.” Robertson wasn’t about to let the rookie get away a second time and convinced the Jazz management to choose him.
James gave the NBA five productive years as the Jazz’ second most popular player to Maravich then retired in 1979 when the franchise moved to Utah after 356 games in which he averaged 10.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. After playing professionally overseas, he returned to Grambling and earned his master’s degree. He eventually became Grambling’s head basketball coach, assistant women’s coach and assistant athletic director. Today he serves as Grambling’s Associate Athletic Director.
Still, at age 59, James cannot shake the moniker Jazz broadcaster “Hot Rod” Hundley gave him 38 years ago. “I’ll go some place and someone will recognize me and say, ‘There’s A.J. from the Parking Lot.'”
The name was a product of his propensity to shoot from well behind the foul line before the NBA adopted the three-point line. Had there been one present during his seasons, James would likely have had a much higher scoring average.
Story by Ron Brocato of the Greater New Orleans Sports Selection Committee, July, 2012.