C.J. Riley: A Leader’s Leader on The Court

Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.

By David Cordova

This season, the PSAL Bronx “AA” Division was as tough and scrappy as ever. Games were competitive and the play between guards were top-notch. Whenever you step on the floor, time is of the essence and no mistakes are allowed.

In the case of C.J. Riley, he had youth and time on his side. The 6-foot point guard had plenty of lessons to learn this past season at Wings Academy, but he always took the time to learn from them. But time, growth and development will be what he needs to get where he wants to go. 

“Just to know that, with a basketball, with the sport that I love, I can take my family anywhere I want to take them,” said Riley, “Not like out of poverty, but we’d be more financially stable than we already are.”

Riley looks at the opposing bench during Wings’ rivalry game against Eagle Academy in December. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

Riley, a native of the Marble Hill section of The Bronx, learned the game from his father, Chris Riley, Sr., from a young age and has been playing it ever since.

When asked about his area and its basketball culture, he replied, “I was born over there, it’s not too many basketball players over there, usually the basketball players are across the bridge, in Dyckman. One of my best friends, my childhood friend, R.J. Greene, me and him, usually, we’re in the gym, we’ll go to the park and shoot around sometimes, but I never really went outside, I never really, hung over there like that, I just remember, [with] basketball, everywhere I went was always so big, because I always enforced it on my peers, I never wanted to be the one that followed anyone else, so I enforced basketball a lot with anybody I really hung with.”

Riley is also the nephew of Jarrett Lockhart, who played college basketball at the University of Pittsburgh from 1996 to 2000 and was a star at Mount St. Michael Academy in The Bronx in the mid-1990’s.

Riley makes a move against Marist back in January. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

When asked about tips that he gets from his uncle, he replied, “Just, stay on the right path, don’t go off of what you want to do. If you want to play basketball, stick to basketball, don’t try to do what everybody else is doing because they’re doing it and you think it’s cool. Also, just work on my game every single day, ‘cause it’s quarantine, and in other states like Florida, they let basketball be like, an essential job. People are working out there right now. I’m in the house because we don’t got gyms open yet, so if I’m not working there might be somebody out there working. If I’ve got the chance to work out, and I can work out, I take advantage of it all the time, because I see where he went with it. Also, my uncle, Kareem Reid, I see where he went with basketball, so it’s like they’re major names in New York City and they’re New York City legends.”

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Riley would be playing on the Under Armour circuit with New Heights, a program based out of Harlem that specializes in academics and basketball. “With New Heights, actually, that was my first AAU team ever. I couldn’t go left, I couldn’t do a lot of things, there was a lot of flaws in my game, but even though they were a top New York team, they didn’t like, let my flaws, mess up what they wanted to do with me, so they worked with me, they made me better. But at the end of the day, New Heights was always my home. One thing New Heights always did for me too, I feel like it’s the best program, because they don’t supply you with [just] straight gym, and the alums who are very good and stuff like that, they supply you with academics. You need help, you could always call Coach Adam Berkowitz, Coach [Joel] Shapiro, [Like], ‘Hey, coach, can you get me an academic person to help me, a tutor, or something like that?’ And they’ll help you automatically, it’s no second thoughts, like you get the help automatically, if you really need it, so I also look at it from an academic standpoint, I don’t just see what they offer basketball-wise.”

On the strengths and weaknesses in his game, he replied, “I feel like one of my strengths is, I could see the floor very good, but at times, it’s just if I go out, and I’m playing, it’s also a confidence thing with me still, if I’m shooting and I’m missing, I want to keep shooting, I feel like, if I’m missing, I can do something else in the game to help my team other than score. And that’s what a lot of players like me know how to do, but that’s what I just started learning this year, because there was times this year with Wings that I had like shooting nights, but it was different ways in the game that I could’ve impacted the game to win certain games, and I didn’t do that, so that’s why we took some losses. But another good thing about my game would probably be that I’m very aggressive, I’m slowly becoming a dog, as in I like playing defense now, way more, defense like, it’s fun to me, just to know that I can sit down and guard 94 feet, and guard somebody. That’s definitely what I like now, I like just going at it. I don’t like just playing against these teams that like, ‘Wings, oh, we play against this team, we’re going to beat them,’ [People] know that Wings is different, especially the name that we hold, with the names on our jerseys, people know who we are in New York, and they’re coming at our necks every single game.”

Riley guards the opposition during a game against Marist in January. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

As a freshman, Riley first started out at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, and was one of the key figures on a freshman team that finished undefeated at 25-0 and won the CHSAA Freshman “AA” city championship.

When asked about that season, he replied, “That season was fun, I feel like with that team, the reason we got so far, was because, once again, everything comes before basketball, like the chemistry has to come before basketball before you get chemistry on the court, and that’s how we were off the court. Everybody on the team just had great chemistry off the court, we would play fight, nothing ever got serious or out of hand, practice we would always laugh and have fun, but we would always laugh, we would have fun, but we knew when to get serious when we needed to be, and it led us to an undefeated season. A lot of times, we won games that we were down by a lot. I remember we were down to St. Ray’s by about 18 points in like the third quarter, we came back and won the fourth quarter, because just that chemistry we had, we never let nothing bring us down. And as a leader, I always said, ‘It’s basketball, if you’re mad playing basketball, or you’re sad playing basketball, nah, have fun,’ [if] you’re down 18, have fun getting the lead back, smile, you hit a three, if you need a little celebration for a second, yeah, but make sure you’re in that man’s face when he’s got the ball in his hands, but it’s really chemistry on the court that really made it like that.”

This past season, he decided to make the move to Wings Academy for his sophomore season. When asked about the transition from the CHSAA to the PSAL, he replied, “Well, going from Catholic school to public school, I don’t really speak about it too much, because it was freshman compared to varsity, but [the] only thing I could definitely say, is the physical game, the physical part of the game is very different. The players in the [PSAL] will tap you and get in your head and stuff like that, but Catholic school, not really, they didn’t really try to get in your head, they just played regular basketball. Also, with public school, you have to have a little more sets, not really more run and gun game, [they] got to have a little more sets to run, and [in] transition, you have to have a transition play to run, because everybody plays defense. In Catholic school, you might, you can run-and-gun, come off a screen, and get a fast break, it’s different, but both leagues are very challenging.”

Riley shows off his handle against Eagle Academy in January. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

During the season, which was his first season on the varsity level, he averaged 7.8 points and 3.8 assists per game and led Wings to the PSAL Bronx Borough championship and the second round of the PSAL playoffs, where they lost to Brooklyn Collegiate.

On the season that passed, he replied, “Just transitioning from, not even Catholic to public school, [but] transitioning from getting used to the system, because, once again, like I said, it was mostly run & gun at Hayes. When I got to Wings, I found out [that] sometimes you have to slow down the game and pace the game, because everything can’t be one motion or one speed, you have to be very deceptive with everything, you have to slow down on certain plays, run a play. So I feel like I started off very slow, but I started picking it up when I got used to it. Coach Billy [Turnage] would have me in the gym, we worked out every single day after school, it was barely days off, so we’d be in the gym every day and we’ll just work, everybody would work, work, work and that just got me better. When it hit playoff time, I feel like my game just improved way more, I had way more confidence, I feel like we had a couple of [big] wins during the season, and also when we lost to Brooklyn Collegiate in the playoffs, I feel like we had those W’s, but we can’t take nothing back, we just got to see how it goes this year.”

Being that he’s a gym rat, COVID-19 has been tough for Riley, just like it has for many youths around the country, being that gyms are shut down and the rims have been taken down from the asphalt in many parks.

Riley shoots a floater over the Eagle Academy defense. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

When asked about how the pandemic has affected him, he replied, “It’s been tough, I went the first two or three weeks not working out at all, but my coach from middle school, he actually found a gym where I could work out at and I started working out in there. My body would be sore every day, but I’d be like, ‘Hey, coach, I need a day off, ‘cause my body’s too sore,’ And he’s like, ‘You don’t need a day off, you want it. Come back to the gym, you don’t have to shoot the ball, but run, do something, keep your body in motion so you could get used to it,’ and I was like, “Alright, no problem, and that’s what I continued to do. It started off very bad for me, I was going to sleep late, trying to play video games, still doing my homework, getting it done, staying on top of my grades, but it was just like, basketball-wise, I wasn’t doing nothing. Probably push-ups or sit-ups, but now I’ll actually be in the gym every single day.”

At this moment in time, many high-schoolers would be on the AAU circuit and possibly on their third session getting ready to qualify for either the Peach Jam, the UAA Finals or the Adidas 3SSB Tournament in July. But because COVID-19 is still out there, chances for these players to receive exposure have come to a screeching halt.

When asked about not having AAU, Riley replied, “Not a having AAU has held me back a little bit, because I felt this AAU season would be the AAU season that I would get offers, being that I have way more confidence in my game, I felt like I fixed a couple of flaws that I had in my game, but at the same time, the offers will come. I’m not rushing nothing, I feel like my [junior] year this year is going to be a very big year for me, but only my game could show that, but other than that I feel like AAU could’ve been very fun, I would’ve bonded with more teammates, I just like to be around my teammates, to be honest. Playing with New Heights, we’re a family, we’re not just a team. All [throughout the high school] season we speak, we still have Zoom calls to this day without AAU, we work out on Zoom, we go through meditation, life skills, different things, so it’s a family, I like being around them a lot.”

Now that he is done with his sophomore year, he is ready to get to work and improve for the upcoming season next winter. As he continues to increase his level of play whenever he is able to get in the gym, the offers will come and opportunities will be greater.

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