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Murray Journal

Hillcrest Junior High students learn from former players during NBA All-Star Weekend

Mar 30, 2023 04:07PM ● By Julie Slama

Former NBA player Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams with retired Harlem Globetrotter Charles “Choo” Smith advised Hillcrest Junior High students over All-Star Weekend to fully commit to their learning and listen to their “coaches” or teachers to turn “pro.” (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Hundreds of middle school and junior high school students from five school districts, including Murray School District, took part in a NBA All-Star Weekend skills and drills clinic held Feb. 17 at the Salt Palace, but about 30 Hillcrest Junior High students also got some firsthand coaching on their home floor.

“We want to be energetic, enthusiastic, excited and all those things, so we have a great day,” former NBA player Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams told the students who gathered in a circle around him. “We want you to have energy; if you have it, it will be contagious to everybody and that’s true whatever you do.”

After catching some quick-trick passes by Charles “Choo” Smith, Eric “Broadway” Jones joined the two former players to lead the students in high knee and leg exercises, lunges, shuffles and runs across the gym floor.

Then, they taught students an action, and another, and another. Put together, students learned a series of basketball moves. However, there was some pauses in the learning when they hit the floor to do pushups. 

“The way you can prevent doing any more pushups—unless you want to get strong—is to commit. We want you to fully commit because if you don’t commit, you can’t get the full experience in this today—and in everything you do,” Williams said.

They finished with shooting drills, where many students received compliments from the stars.

It was part of “Shooting for Peace,” a program designed to bring communities together, promote education through reading and encourage youth to engage in sports and activities. Williams, along with the two former Harlem Globetrotters, came to Hillcrest to share their stories and the importance of education.

“My hardest journey was deciding what to do after basketball, but I found this gives me a way to share my message and inspire students to learn and be smart with technology,” Williams said. “I listened to many of my coaches who were on the sidelines called teachers. They got me to the NBA. Without schoolwork without dedication in the classroom, I would have never made it. Because what I told myself when I was young was ‘I was going to be an NBA star’ and I flat out told everybody in class and in school, ‘I don’t need education. I’m going to the NBA.’” 

Williams figured he’d be picked up by college scouts. However, when he learned that to get a scholarship, he’d also need good grades, he buckled down to do his homework every night. When Williams didn’t earn a scholarship out of high school, he got a job to pay for Montgomery College, a two-year college and continued to play basketball. 

His dream was to play pro—like his all-time favorite player, Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Williams saw him play during spring break.

“He picked me out of a crowd of 5,000 kids at Daytona Beach to play me one-on-one. He told me I was going to make it to the NBA. He gave me inspiration; I took that away and I kept it deep inside,” Williams said. “That’s why I give those positive energy words because I want them to know I take notice like he did for me.”

He prayed, at 6-foot-2, he’d grow seven more inches—and by the end of summer, he had. 

While playing a game of pickup on an outdoor court, Georgetown University coach “John Thompson came up to me on the playground and asked me to play for the Hoyas with Allen Iverson,” Williams said. “Through that experience, I was drafted in the first round all because I decided to continue with school. I tell these students to focus on their education. Don’t lose sight of the moments because they have a lot of coaches they see every day—their teachers, counselors, mentors—that can get them to becoming pro.”

Two years later, Williams graduated on the dean’s list from Georgetown.

“I got my degree because I was going to class and I didn’t just go to class, I paid attention and I learned,” he said.

In 1996, the 6-foot-9 Williams was selected by Detroit and played for the Pistons for five years. He went on to play for the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks before retiring after nine seasons.

His favorite moment wasn’t when he first set on the floor in what would become 587 NBA games during his career, but when he came out of retirement.

“I came back in 2017 to play a little three-on-three. I say I got better with age, but it was my fondest moment because my son was there and he wasn’t born when I was playing in the NBA,” he said.

Now, he travels, shares the sport and digital education program throughout North America during All-Star Weekends. 

“I’ve been to over 20 All-Star Games. My favorite All-Star moment was when (Michael) Jordan hit the fadeaway make in (Washington) D.C. to win it,” he said.

Smith said his favorite parts of All-Star Weekend are the slam dunk contest and reuniting with other retired players.

“I just like to listen to the older guys who gave me everything, taught me and they paved the way for us. Now we’re here to pass it along,” he said. “A lot of women in the WNBA, too, are pillars of the game. They’ve given a lot to the game.”

Smith played overseas before joining the Globetrotters “as the 1990s and 2000s version” of Fred “Curly” Neal, who mentored him.

“He told me to embrace the moment and just give it your all every day—and to just have fun doing it,” he said.

Smith reminded the students the importance of leadership based on trust, being helpful and being selfless. He also said he learned many of life lessons from the game.

“Sometimes you’re not going to shoot all the time, you’re not going to score on the baskets. But when you add the opportunity to take a charge, or help a teammate, get some water, all of it is important,” he said. “It translates to life lessons—how to deal with adversity, how to lose graciously and learn from those losses and when you win, how to be humble and understand you’re only as good on that day.”

His best friend of 25 years, Jones, said their message is one of positivity, goal setting, discipline and teamwork.

“Those are the keys—and respect. Ask yourself, ‘What is the impression you’re giving me and how do you represent your school, your family, your belief system?’” said Jones, who started playing ball at age 5 as his dad was a high school coach. “I’m from the Bronx, New York. I had a really tough upbringing. I’m a basketball player. I’m a mentor. I’m a coach. I’m a leader in the community. I stand for everything that’s right and to live the right way. At some point in your life, you have to stand on who you are and understand what that means. “

For more than 10 years, the three basketball players have talked to students at assemblies, being advocates for change and establishing a good online presence. 

“Shooting for Peace partners with Microsoft’s NFT’s,” Williams said. “Technology has helped me—looking at my journey from middle school to high school, high school to college and college to the pros. We didn’t have any idea. We have name image and likeness. Technology has brought that to the forefront with social media and the power of the picture. With Microsoft’s NFT technology, these kids can create essentially a digital scrapbook of themselves, and they can protect their image and likeness; it’s their right. Instead of agreeing to other social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, who will own their image and likeness when they agree, this technology is something that can be used for their benefit if they choose to.”

At the assembly, he showed the students how to create their own NFTs and offered prizes to them.