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July 19, 2011A.J. Moye is in full effect.
Watching fellow former Indiana players Rod Wilmont and Marshall Strickland run the court during the Indy Pro Am at IUPUI on a recent evening, Moye looks and sounds at home. Smiling. Laughing. He appears every bit the effervescent personality from Indiana's 2002 Final Four team.
A little bit later, he's holding back tears.
The stroke he suffered eight months ago during practice with his team in Germany has ended his playing career. The loss, however, isn't simply about an athlete not being able to play the game he loves, it's about so much more. For Moye, basketball was the escape from the ugliness of his childhood. It was what brought peace to a turbulent life. Practices, games, sometimes just holding the ball as he slept knowing there was a game the next day.
Dealing with the stroke isn't about not playing anymore, it's about dealing with a place that is gone forever, the place he first felt safe from the world around him.
"I never told a whole lot of people this, but my mom has three baby daddies. My dad has something like four baby mommas. There's a whole lot I never said about myself," Moye said. "For me, basketball is always where I found home. The place I found peace was on the basketball court.
"It was something I could do by myself. I was tired of moving, tired of getting picked on, tired of all that. So I kept playing ball. I always felt like everything in life would be OK because I got a basketball game tomorrow. No matter what happened, I can go play ball."
Moye, perhaps best known for his block of Carlos Boozer during IU's upset of top-seeded Duke in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, is mainly physically recovered from the stroke suffered when a teammate's elbow caught him in the temple during practice. He says the left side of his body is fine and his right side is about 90 percent. Until recently deciding to let his body rest, he was working out multiple times a day and his muscled physique gives no hints of the incident that put him in a coma for nearly two days.
"I'm still me. I can still make a great move, but the right side of my body doesn't feel like me," Moye said. "And honestly, man, nothing's worth dying for. But to me, it almost was worth dying for. I had to look up and say, 'Am I going to die trying to play basketball?' The answer's no. Now it's about finding myself, finding what I could be comfortable doing for the rest of my life. The end of the road happened five or six years earlier than I'd have liked."
To understand basketball's place in Moye's life means going back to Atlanta, Ga., even before Moye was a standout at Westlake High School.
With his mom dealing with her own struggles, he was often left to fend for himself. He was maybe six or seven years old when he would watch his brother Rod Brown, then 14, paying the bills, buying groceries. "He's my hero," Moye said.
From his neighborhood in Atlanta, he had three friends end up in jail and two others dead by the time he graduated from high school. His first tattoo - "Trap" on his right arm - is for Travis Davenport, one of his friends who died in high school.
He remembers many nights sleeping on the floor in the gym. "Just like this," he said, leaning back, holding a ball to his chest, his arms around it. "Just like this."
"From about six to 14, my life was hell," Moye said. "It was hard. My little girl, I don't let her do anything. I'm always watching over her because the most important commodity a child has is their innocence, so you really have to protect that. When a child grows up with their innocence, they really believe they can be anything. I never really was a child. I think that's why I loved ball.
"I never had fun playing basketball. I'd smile on the court but it wasn't about fun. To be able to dominate and compete and win, that was something within me that basically showed I had this sheer will and I could overcome anything. To me, that was my way of showing life, hey, I'm still here."
As Moye became a star high school player, he was highly recruited. Then Indiana coach Bob Knight was one of those pursuing him.
"I love coach Knight to this day. He's why I went to IU," Moye said. "Bob Huggins told me, 'You don't have to go to class.' Henry Bibby told me, 'You don't have to go to class.' Coach Knight was like, 'Hey, you've got to go to class. You've got to work hard.'
"What really got me was, my best friend died and all these coaches just kept calling, just wanting to talk about basketball. When coach Knight called, we just talked about life, things you go through, things that make you tough. I always remember him for that, and I'll always thank him for that."
Until the stroke, Moye was having a strong career overseas. He was named to the all-German League team and had been named the Player of the year in the Finnish League. He was one of the top scorers and rebounders in the FIBA Eurocup in 2006.
During a practice for the Frankfort Skyliners, Moye was hit in the temple. He was out cold for nearly 20 minutes. He thought he'd been out for 20 seconds. When he came to, he tried to play. He went home later that day, took a nap and recalls having a dream about the incident. When he woke up, he said it took him 23 minutes to get 20 feet across his apartment.
The next day, the Skyliners had a game. Moye dressed and went to the game. He was scheduled to play former IU standout Marco Killingsworth.
"I was trying to dribble. I thought maybe I just can't wake up or something. I was telling guys on my team I was feeling this way and they were like, 'Oh, he's drunk or something,' even though I'm never drunk but I'm always a character," Moye said. "I saw Marco and told him, 'Man, it feels like I'm dying or something, something's really wrong. Then the ambulance came. That was Tuesday. I woke up on Thursday."
His mom, step-dad, daughter and fianc?ame while he was in the hospital, although his fianc?ater broke up with him. He was inundated with emails of support, thousands, he said, coming from Indiana fans.
"I never knew how much people appreciated how I played," he said. "I know it's because I played at Indiana. The thing about me is, I'm just a normal guy. It was unbelievable. I want to thank all the Indiana fans, all the Indiana people. They're just great people."
Moye is figuring out what's next. He's been working on a possible music career for a couple years. He recently passed the FIBA coaching certification program so he can coach in any FIBA-sanctioned league.
Spending some time back in Indiana this summer, he feels at home around long-time friends like Aaron Smith, also his agent, Marshall Strickland and others. He and Jeff Newton remain tight.
To this day, people mention his block of Boozer, a one-handed rip away from a 6-9 center by a 6-2 guard.
"That's my most treasured basketball moment," Moye said. "That was us saying, 'You guys might be NBA this and you might be all that, but we're a bunch of little scrappy guys and we're about to kick your butt tonight.' He thought he was going to slam that thing down. I went up there with one hand and it was, 'Un-uh.'
"That whole run, we just had a great time playing basketball. I've never been happier in my life."
Moye pauses and squeezes the ball in his hands.
"I don't really get life," he said. "I know it's something I'm supposed to get. I think I'm going to get it now."