1,598 miles, 26 hours of driving on I-14, and five state lines.
That’s what stands between Southern Utah University men’s basketball star John Knight III and visiting his 2-year-old son, Jakhi, in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
“Every time I see him, I just see me,” Knight said. “He’s the same way I was when I was little — goofy, already playing basketball. He’s got his goal: all he wants to do is dunk. The only word he wants to say is ‘ball.’ It brings joy to my heart seeing him grow up the same way I did and having fun.”
Knight, a senior guard whose penchant for high-flying dunks runs in the family, has helped lead SUU to its best start since the legendary 2000-01 season.
After SUU’s second win in a row over conference powerhouse the University of Montana on Dec. 5, Knight told reporters, “We just put the Big Sky on notice.” With more than half the season now in the books, Knight and his team have lived up to that statement.
Knight may be scoring less per game than he did in his first season at SUU after transferring from Utah State University, but his performance in that win over Montana is indicative of what has made SUU so successful this season.
He only finished with four points, but Knight’s effort in other aspects of the game proved crucial in the win. He pulled in six rebounds, racked up four assists and had a critical steal. It wasn’t the flashiest statline, but it was the one the team needed to win.
Knight’s unselfish play has helped put the program in its best position yet to follow up its lone appearance in the NCAA Tournament 20 years ago.
Jahki’s arrival two years ago changed Knight’s mentality forever, and that shift is manifesting itself in his play this season.
Knight admits that he “definitely had to grow up” after Jakhi was born when Knight was just 19 years old.
“[Jakhi] actually turned me into a hard worker,” Knight said. “Before him, I was living good. I didn’t have anyone who was depending on me. Now I have a son who depends on me, and I want him to have a better life than I have. Every time I’m in the gym, I’ve got to work hard because I’m thinking of him.”
Growing up in Jackson, Knight said his father, John Knight II, “was in and out of my life because he was in prison.” The responsibilities of both parents fell to his mother, Toshia Knight, who taught him to work hard from a young age.
When Knight wanted spending money, he had to earn it by doing chores around the house. Toshia never pressured him to work, but by the time he hit high school, Knight was tired of asking for money and started working a part-time job after practice.
In ninth grade, Knight’s father made him a promise that once he got out of prison, he was never going back. He’s lived up to that commitment, and Knight points to his presence as a key factor in reaching his goal of playing Division I basketball.
“Ever since then, we’ve just built a stronger bond,” Knight said of his relationship with his father. “It’s a blessing to have both of your parents in your life. Some people only have one. I just want to thank God because it’s a blessing to have to have two parents in your life.”
Knight wants to build a similar bond with Jakhi.
“Everything I’m doing is to make his life better,” Knight said. “That’s my motivation. It’s just him.”
Two Different Worlds
T-Bird shooting guard Aanen Moody’s upbringing was much different than Knight’s, but at SUU, they find themselves in similar situations.
Moody also had a son at 19 — Asher, who will turn 2 years old in April. Instead of growing up under the humid sun in Jackson, Moody was raised in the frigid winds of Dickinson, North Dakota.
His father, Dave Moody, won an NAIA national championship in 2000 as the head coach of the women’s volleyball team at Dickinson State University, and his mother, Kay Moody, was the lead assistant. Moody spent his childhood roaming the sidelines at practice with a basketball in hand until he was 10 years old when Dave retired in 2008.
“Sports were ingrained into who we were,” Moody said. “My first word was ‘ball,’ and my son’s was, too, ironically. I think that’s kind of genetic. My parents always valued sports over everything else but God, family and school.”
His older brother, Nate, and his sister, Ali, both played at North Dakota State University — Nate, a receiver on the football team and Ali, a setter for the volleyball team.
In the Moody household, the word “bored” was forbidden. If Moody admitted that he was bored, his mom would put him to work, even if that meant mowing a lawn that had just been trimmed the day before.
Moody originally committed to North Dakota University out of high school, but after having Asher and suffering a season-ending upper-body injury his sophomore year, he decided to transfer.
As he surveyed his options, Moody met SUU head coach Todd Simon and his four children. He wanted to play for “a family man” and was impressed by the way Simon showed his love for his own kids. Moody has since babysat for Simon and credits him for being “another great representation of how you should be as a father.”
But Simon’s example wasn’t the only thing Moody liked about SUU. He was introduced to Knight through a mutual friend that had played basketball at Dickinson State, and they built a relationship quickly after connecting over Facetime.
“For me, a big part of coming [to SUU] was knowing that I had somebody else that was in a similar situation to me,” Moody said of meeting Knight. “When I came, we really bonded off the court… We can relate to each other. If there’s anything that we’ve got to talk about, we can always go to each other, but somebody else on the team might not understand that.”
They spent the whole summer talking about their kids and were close long before Moody stepped foot in Cedar City. Now, in the throes of a season where the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented any trips back home, they’re bonding over how much they miss seeing their sons.
Knight said he hasn’t been able to celebrate Christmas or Jakhi’s birthday for the last two years because of the distance.
“On those days, I’m a little sad because you want to be there to see your kids grow up and open gifts like my parents did for me when I was a young child,” Knight said. “It’s difficult, but I get through it by focusing on basketball. Whenever I’m down about not seeing my son, I facetime him, talk to my mom, she always uplifts me, and I just go in the gym and clear my mind.”
Moody said that becoming a father changed his perspective on life, motivating him to prioritize family, academics and basketball and let everything else drift by the wayside.
“I tell people all the time, the best thing you can do is have kids because it changes you as a person…” Moody said. “When I’m feeling like I don’t want to work out, I think about my son…. That almost creates more of a bond between us. I’m doing this for him, and one day he’s going to know that.”
While he may not be able to see Asher much during the season because he lives seven hours away with his mom in Colorado, Moody facetimes him often and relishes the time they do get to spend together during the summer.
He says that since Asher was born, he occasionally catches himself doing something he shouldn’t and thinks, “Dang, as a son, would I want my dad doing this?” and tries to correct the behavior.
Jahki cheered his dad on from the stands during SUU’s 77-72 win over rivals Weber State on Jan. 23. Knight posted another selfless statline to help secure the victory: 38 minutes played, eight points, six rebounds, eight assists and two blocks.
“When you see your son in the stands, you just know you need to take it to another level,” Knight said. “You need to give him something to be happy about.”
Moody said that because he spends so much time away as a student-athlete, he sometimes worries that his son might forget who he is because Asher is so young.
“When you have a child, there’s a special connection there that you can’t even explain,” Moody said. “But every time we’re on Facetime or I see him, it’s like we never skipped a beat. When you have someone who calls you ‘Dad,’ it brings tears to your eyes. It’s a special moment and a special feeling.”
That special feeling has provided unique motivation for Knight and Moody — who have helped lead SUU to the brink of its best season in program history. That might not be the case without Jahki and Asher.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of John Knight III and Aanen Moody