Utah Jazz: Team gives at-risk children 'once-in-a-lifetime' day
Ben Brewer, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Hours after their morning workout, Mo Williams and Derrick Favors returned to the Utah Jazz's practice facility to spend time with a group of kids.
What they did won't show up on a stats sheet. It won't help the Jazz have a better season.
Even better, however, their participation could help positively shape young lives.
As part of the NBA Cares social initiative, the Jazz organization hosted 38 at-risk children from the Glendale-based U.S. Dream Academy for a couple hours Wednesday afternoon.
Make that a couple of loud, fun-filled and educational hours.
From the moment an orange bus dropped off the exuberant 7-to-14-year-olds, Zions Bank Basketball Center was popping and hopping.
Giggles, groans and group cheers, depending on the activity, filled the facility during the special event for these vulnerable youth involved with an after-school program that helps those who've had a close family member incarcerated or who have learning challenges.
Having fun while learning a thing or two was the theme on this afternoon.
What started with a Silly String-and-confetti-streamers attack by the Jazz Bear also included inspirational speeches from coach Tyrone Corbin and general manager Dennis Lindsey; hands-on drills, stretching, dribbling, defense and shooting exercises with players and staff members; tours of the locker room and team theater; a Papa John's pizza party; and lots and lots of push-ups.
For Williams, this felt personal.
The Jazz point guard is a father of four children (soon to be five) and runs camps in Mississippi, which might explain why he was so patient in dribbling drills while helping kids keep their shoes tied, teaching them to use the proper hand ("Your other left," he joked on occasion) and yelling "Go! Go! Go!" even while the ball bounced awkwardly.
Williams loves helping kids have fun — "I'm watching you," he teasingly told the group's fastest push-up doer — but he's also a self-proclaimed "disciplinarian." He enjoys teaching kids how to focus, listen, understand and be disciplined at "as early an age as possible."
Making this extra personal, the 29-year-old has a close uncle and two cousins who've been in and out of trouble with the law for years.
"My Uncle Ben, he was given 27 years when I was 16 years old," Williams said. "He's been incarcerated since then — never got a chance to watch an NBA game of mine."
The cousins he used to have sleepovers with have been in and out of jail since they were young teenagers.
Williams knows how hard that is on families and kids. The returned Jazz player didn't hesitate to volunteer for this clinic. Anything to help.
"(I'm) letting them know that they still have an opportunity to be something in life," Williams explained. "Just because they have that (incarcerated relative) in their family — if it's a mother, father, uncle, cousin, whatever family member it is — it shouldn’t hold you back from your dream or what you want to do and what you want to become."
The 21-year-old Favors, who still seems like a mild-mannered kid off the court, hangs out with his younger brother, a little nephew and small cousins whenever he's in Atlanta. He gets a kick out of interacting with kids, so this was just another opportunity — like his week-long Junior Jazz tour this summer — to do just that.
"I know how to deal with (kids), how to treat them, how to act with them, how to have fun with them," said Favors, adding that he's particularly empathic with this at-risk group, having had a cousin who went to jail. "I've been through stuff like that when I was their age. I know what they're going through."
Favors might've made the kids do the most push-ups. At his station, they either had to make a free throw or drop and give him five. He ribbed one good-natured shooter whenever he missed, saying things like, "Push-ups again?"
When it was mentioned that Favors should've been forced to do five push-ups for each make, he laughed. "Yeah, but they didn't say nothing, so I let it slide."
Of course he did.
Before the kids took to the court to go through part of the Jazz's daily routine, Corbin and Lindsey gave quick pep talks — delayed for a moment until after Bear twirled Utah director of basketball operations Richard Smith on his shoulders, sat on a front-row giggler, pulled a jersey over a boy's head and used a static-electricity rub to give a girl a wild hairdo.
Corbin encouraged the young visitors to be responsible for their own lives despite difficult circumstances. The coach informed them that he came from a single-parent home after his parents divorced at age 5 and that he grew up in the projects of Columbia, S.C. He never guessed he'd become an NBA coach, but going to school helped him live his dream.
"With education," Corbin told them, "you can achieve anything."
Lindsey joked that the kids now know who to blame (him) if the Jazz don't do well this season. More importantly, the new Jazz GM suggested they follow their leaders, learn to say "No" when friends try to steer them the wrong direction and try to make a career out of "something you love (and) get good at."
Shortly after the solid life advice and a loud "JAZZ!!!" holler, the group took to the team's practice floor to do squats, lateral slides, clapping games (with gimme-five consequences) and have the time of their young lives.
Usually, the kids spend about three hours every afternoon at the academy, receiving academic and character-building support. Eight percent of them have or had an incarcerated parent or family member and 75 percent have below-grade-level learning abilities, so they are in need of all the mentoring they can get.
"They're amazing kids," said Utah's U.S. Dream Academy center director, Kristina Muck. "I could not ask for a better job than to come be with these guys."
They were touched by the local NBA team, too.
"It's really wonderful the Jazz is willing to do this and just take an interest in the community and the kids," education specialist Fred Manar said. "A lot of times these kids don't get out of Glendale that much."
Each participant received a practice jersey and gifts, including a Jazz visor and blanket, as souvenirs of this unforgettable trip.
A smiling Williams said he was happy to play a role in their "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
A smiling Favors was, too — even after getting booed for not doing a dunk on request. The 6-foot-10 big man jokingly faked an injury, then grinned while claiming he was wearing the wrong shoes and trying to be "extra cautious" with his new iPhone 5. (It's possible he was afraid of having to do push-ups had he missed the dunk.)
"It doesn't matter," Favors said, laughing when asked about getting booed. "All I got to do is go back around and crack some jokes with them. They'll forget about it."
The dunk maybe.
Certainly not the afternoon.
NOTE: The U.S. Dream Academy, part of the Dual Immersion Academy, is in need of volunteers. For information, go to usdreamacademy.org.
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