One might wonder why retired NBA player Jerome (Junkyard Dog) Williams would jump at the opportunity to work as a modestly paid high-school basketball coach.
The veteran of nine NBA seasons returned to Air Canada Centre Sunday, where he was a fan favourite as a Toronto Raptor from 2001 to 2003. He is now the first-year head coach of Findlay Prep, one of the best high-school basketball teams in the United States, one that routinely attracts top Canadian players and helps them land scholarships to U.S. colleges. He was in town for the inaugural JYD Classic, an exhibition game he initiated between his Las Vegas high-school team and one of Toronto's finest, Bill Crothers Secondary.
The game, which finished 55-51 for Findlay – closer than anyone imagined – combined many of Williams's passions: developing talent, building a team just as an NBA general manager might and rebuffing allegations that top athletes don't earn their grades. He's also passionate about helping to grow basketball in Canada, and the JYD Classic is an event he plans to run every year.
Some 1,000 fans showed up for a 10 a.m. meeting on NBA hardwood between two squads jam-packed with teenaged talent. Both schools are very non-traditional: both centred on helping elite athletes pursue their sport beyond the high-school level. Both teams barnstorm around North America, playing ambitious schedules full of the finest competition.
Findlay Prep often appears on ESPN and has had five players drafted to the NBA in seven years, including first-rounders Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson, both Canadian. This year's team has a 30-4 record and boasts three more stars it landed from the Toronto area: Dillon Brooks, O'Shae Brissett and Justin Jackson.
"I'm proud to be playing a part in helping Canadian basketball players thrive, it's a responsibility I take very seriously," Williams said. "From Cory Joseph to Tristan Thompson to Myck Kabongo to Anthony Bennett, those Canadians paved the way for the basketball success we've had at Findlay Prep. We haven't forgotten that we won on the backs of those Canadians, and we wouldn't be where we are without them, so we want to come back to show our thanks and respect and keep building Canadian basketball."
Findlay Prep's 12 basketball players are their school's only high school students, a setup that often draws criticism. The teammates live together in a private residence and their studies are affiliated with Henderson International School, an elementary school. While some question the validity of their education, Williams stresses they are "fully academic" and his players don't fail to qualify to play in college.
"We take pride in our education, I stand behind that," said Williams, in a postgame gathering with media members, where he looks remarkably comfortable behind a microphone. "We've achieved the highest GPA in team history – 3.3. And, no, that doesn't include gym."
While on opposite sides of the border, the teams hear similar criticisms. Many often charge that such an emphasis on sports in a high-school setting tips the scales of academics and athletics in a dangerous direction.
Crothers head coach Charles Hantoumakos said his players were neither happy just to be in the game nor delighted by the four-point outcome against a powerhouse U.S. team. They were genuinely crushed that they didn't beat Findlay Prep. Hantoumakos believes in the not-so-distant future, the trend could turn – top Canadian high-school talent can stay north of the border and play for schools such as Crothers rather than feel the only way to get noticed is to move to a U.S. prep school.
"I do feel that way, I wouldn't have started this program if I didn't," Hantoumakos said. "When JYD reached out, we jumped at the opportunity to have them visit. Playing top teams like Findlay Prep is imperative for our program. A lot of people were in the ears of my guys, saying Findlay Prep would kill us, but my guys aren't intimidated. Showcases like this, organized by JYD, show what Canadian teams can do, too."
Ever the NBA professional, Williams patrols the sideline wearing a dark suit and polished black dress shoes. He's 40 now, but the 6-foot-9 once-unyielding rebounder is still trim and youthful, and he stands eye-to-eye with the towering, chiselled teenage phenoms under his tutelage. He maintains the gregarious manner that endeared him to fans wherever he played, from Detroit to Toronto, Chicago to New York.
"It's not like it's a triple-figure job," laughed Williams, who was a volunteer assistant coach at Findlay Prep for five years before being offered the head coach's gig, which reportedly pays $60,000. "I do it for the love of it."
Williams, who had his first ties to Henderson International School because his own children attended there, has started teaching a "Global Citizenship" class centred on the business of the NBA, teaching his players about the business of the league and the marketing of pro athletes.
"JYD has been a great mentor to me," said Jackson, Findlay's 17-year-old Mississauga player, who is being pursued by the likes of schools such as Florida, Arizona, Illinois and UNLV. "At Findlay Prep, we're showing that Canadian players have heart, and we're not soft."
Williams has his players mirroring things the NBA Cares program does – reading to school kids and doing various charity work. He blushes when asked if he aims to work in the NBA some day, if he's using this time to build skills to run a pro franchise.
"Wherever the Lord puts me," Williams said. "Right now, I just want to give these kids a foundation."