Job Corps basketball a motivational tool
By Jan Larsen For Sun-Times Media January 24, 2011 7:52PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
JOLIET — Joliet Job Corps Jaguars Coach Terald Blakey realized a dream when his basketball team recently played at Conseco Field House in Indianapolis through its “Court of Dreams” program.
But the dream wasn’t strictly for him — it was also for the 12 young men on his team who were understandably excited about playing in an NBA arena, and for the 80 students and staff who accompanied them. And the dream wasn’t dimmed by an 8-point loss to the Atterbury Job Corps Eagles because as Blakey pointed out, “We’ll get a second chance to play Atterbury when we invite them to our gym here.”
Basketball at Job Corps is a different animal than what you see in high school. Team dynamics are especially challenging at a school where new students start each week — and others graduate each week. “It’s difficult to keep the energy with the new players creating new dynamics,” Blakey said.
Students ages 16-24 come to the federally funded Job Corps to finish their high school education and learn a trade. Eighty percent are from the Chicago area and numbers are split evenly between young men and women.
Job Corps students play students from other Job Corps in Region 5. The region spreads across six states. When you’re playing in Detroit or St. Louis, there’s a long drive to get there and that can harm energy levels. But it also can be a plus — “We expose our young people to places they’ve never seen,” Blakey said.
Also, it’s the only sport played beyond the intramural level at Joliet Job Corps. “Basketball is very big on our campus,” said Center Director Redford Salmon. “Staff plays students at least once a week.” There is, of course, a lot of trash talking on both sides, but it’s a big part of Joliet staff’s 3M’s — model, mentor, monitor.
Joliet is different than other Job Corps because it demands its basketball players maintain a 3.5 (out of 5) score each week. That’s not a grade-point average, it’s based on behavior and accountability.
Blakey and his supervisors view basketball as a motivational tool. Behave, and you are on the next road trip. Behave long enough, and before you know it you’ve successfully completed the program, which usually takes a year. “So it’s leverage, besides an outlet,” he said.
It’s also a way to “involve students in activities they might have missed in high school. The majority never played high school ball,” Blakey said.
For others, like power forward Greg Bobo, who joined the team three weeks ago, it’s a second chance.
“I played basketball through my junior year in high school,” said the 19-year-old from Chicago. Basketball is akin to deep breathing for this young man.
“When I play basketball, it takes my mind off of everything else. If I’m stressed out about something, I go play ball,” he said.
Bobo is one of the team’s leading rebounders, and it hurt Joliet’s game when he fouled out at the beginning of the fourth quarter of the Jan. 14 game against Atterbury.
It also hurt that another key Joliet player was suspended one day before the trip to Indianapolis. “But he broke the rules,” Blakey said. “Yes, that had a giant impact on how we played in Indianapolis. But learning to live by the rules is one of the most important things we teach here.”
For Blakey, it’s not about how good a new student might be. It’s how coachable he is. Students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are deemed “at-risk.” Molding a student’s behavior is just as essential as improving his test scores at Job Corps.
Blakey, of Merrillville, Ind., comes from a background similar to his team. He was an outstanding shooting guard in high school in Gary, Ind., but dropped out his sophomore year. He got his GED at age 23, went to college at age 36 and is finishing his second master’s degree. While most Job Corps basketball coaches work in the Rec Department, he is Joliet’s alcohol, drug and tobacco counselor, besides teaching anger management.
He has always kept basketball in his life, mostly in his long career in drug and mental rehab units as coach of employee teams. “We won three city championships,” he said. But his first season at Joliet so far — a 2-4 record — may seem disappointing. But he’s not discouraged.
“When we play to the best of our ability, we are tough to beat,” he said. “We beat Cleveland, which has the second-best record in our region, and Detroit, both of which squashed Atterbury. Our errors are correctible.”
Regional competition will be March 26-27 in Joliet. The carrot of traveling to Miami is dangling before the Joliet team, if it can qualify.
Blakey is also trying to arrange a game at the United Center in Chicago. “You achieve one dream, you reach for another,” is how he puts it.