Jack’s mentor instrumental in prospect’s developmentby Javier Morales on Jan. 27, 2010, under Sports
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Damian Leslie was in search of somebody else that fateful afternoon four years ago, but in reality, he found who he was looking for and more.
Leslie, in the middle of putting together a documentary about New York City area basketball players, was at Cambria Heights Park in Queens, N.Y., in search of a player who thankfully did not show up as far as Kadeem Jack is concerned. While waiting for the player, Leslie spotted Jack coming off the court.
“The thing that caught my eye the most,” Leslie told me Tuesday afternoon, “was his stature and baby face. He was pretty tall for a kid his age (14 at the time). I asked him what team he played for and where he was going to school. He told me he was there just basically having fun. I was amazed.”
Jack was new to the area, having moved from Trinidad and Tobago to Queens with his mother, Louisa Hall, who aspired for a medical career in New York. As a kid, Jack was only exposed to soccer, the most popular sport in his country. Leslie knew that Jack’s athleticism, lean build and long arms translated into potential success as a basketball player.
Leslie directed players he discovered previously to his good friend Maurice Hicks, who at the time was an assistant director of the New York Gauchos AAU team as well as head coach at Rice High School in Manhattan. Leslie, now Jack’s mentor, suggested to the youngster that he meet Hicks to refine his skills. Jack and his mother were receptive to that idea from the start.
Hicks later replaced Book Richardson as director of the New York Gauchos’ AAU program when Richardson was hired by Sean Miller at Xavier in 2007. Richardson came to Arizona with Miller in April. Leading up to the school year, Richardson learned more from Hicks and Leslie about Jack’s potential.
“I met Coach Richardson when he came down here earlier this year to see Kadeem,” Leslie said. “He’s a wonderful person. He gave us all the ins and outs about playing at the next level. Kadeem came away very impressed by Book.”
Jack, a 6-8, 200-pound post player, was a reserve for most of his freshman and sophomore seasons at Rice. He blossomed toward the end of last season. His progression as a player is ongoing with impressive results. His 24 points and 20 rebounds against Bishop Loughlin’s Jayvaughn Pinkston — rated by some as New York City’s best player this season — earlier this month indicates he’s on track to be one of the best Class of 2010 prospects. He entered the season without recognition from the national recruiting services.
Jack further made a name for himself last week against high-profile recrut Dwayne Polee of Los Angeles Westchester, scoring 31 points in Rice’s 62-44 win.
Just how far has Jack progressed from the time Leslie noticed him to now?
“Whew,” Leslie said with a laugh. “That’s an interesting question right there. He is rapid in his development because he’s a fast learner. He’d be the first to tell you he has a long way to go. But he has come so far.”
Jack’s official visit to Arizona this week, Wednesday through Friday, is the only one he will schedule until after his season with Rice is finished, according to Leslie. Other schools interested include UCLA, West Virginia, Miami, Villanova, Pitt, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia and Seton Hall. Leslie is uncertain whether Jack will take all of his allotted five visits. Given Jack’s rapid development, it appears more likely that he will be playing in Division I next season rather than trying to develop more in a prep school.
“The thing about Kadeem is he has great confidence in his ability,” Leslie said. “I showed him tapes of Elton Brand and Lamar Odom (both New York City products) when they were in high school to give him an idea of how far those guys have developed. Kadeem’s a quick learner. He realized right away that he can be as good as those guys as long as he worked hard.
“He knows that Brand and Odom are no different than him in terms of their size and determination. It was up to Kadeem to develop their kind of skills through working hard at it.”
Jack is so proud about how far he’s come that he has not placed limits on his potential.
“It’s interesting, I asked Kadeem recently about what his goals are in basketball now,” Leslie said. “He did not say he wants to be one of the best. He told me he wants to be in the Hall of Fame. Can you believe that? Who am I to say yay or nay to that. He truly believes that.
“The biggest thing with Kadeem is staying humble, and I don’t see him changing as far as that is concerned. He’s very loyal to his coach and his teammates. He’ll continue to work hard and learn fast to get to where he wants to go.”
Leslie helps feed Jack’s basketball IQ by giving him books about some of the game’s greats, including Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Connie Hawkins. His message: These Hall of Famers started playing the game some time in their career. At one point players like this were considered underdeveloped. Their determination was the difference.
Jack’s daily trek from his home in Queens to Manhattan to attend Rice shows his type of determination and loyalty to Hicks and that program. Jack must awake at 5 a.m. to get to Rice by 8 for his first class. His mother must drive him a half-hour to a catch an hour-long train ride into Manhattan. That’s about three hours of round-trip transportation every day to get to school and home.
Many kids his age would rather drive a car a short distance to school. They fret about walking a couple of blocks or taking a bus. His maturity is in direct relation to Leslie introducing him to organized basketball and all the trials and tribulations involved with that, especially in the highly competitive environment of New York City.
“I would not be where I’m at today if it weren’t for (Leslie),” Jack said to me recently. “He means a great deal to me as somebody who knows the game and knows what it takes to be good at it.”
That can be read as an understatement. Fortunately for Jack, Leslie showed up to the Cambria Heights Park that fateful day because of his love for youth basketball. To get an idea of Leslie’s work with emerging basketball talent in New York City, visit his My Space page.
Leslie deflects attention away from himself when his discovery of Jack is mentioned. Basketball is not his full-time job — he is a CMA (Certified Medical Assistant) taking classes to become an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) in the nursing field — but his devotion to the sport helped pave the way for Jack to flourish.
“It’s interesting, but I’d like to think Kadeem got to where he is today through his hard work,” Leslie said. “Knowing Kadeem he would be successful in anything given the way he approaches life in general.”
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