By Dedra Cordle
It is not often that school assemblies become ingrained in the mind, yet that is what happened to Tara Ysseldyke after she saw Jim ‘Basketball’ Jones.
It was more than five years ago when Ysseldyke, then an educator at the intermediate level, brought her class down to see him perform for the school. At the time, she had not heard of Jones but was intrigued when she saw the vast amount of basketballs in a variety of sizes scattered throughout the gymnasium.
Like many in the crowd, she believed they were in for a sports related presentation. She quickly learned that it was so much more.
From the moment he made his presence known, he was engaging with the students in a way she had never seen before. He would pick some out of the crowd, talk to them, compliment them and assist them as they learned how to spin basketballs from the tips of their fingers and the side of their mouths.
In between all of the action, he would remind them of their worth, and ask them to remind themselves of the worth of others. Then he would encourage them to never give up on themselves and to never give up on each other.
Having assumed that his presentation would just be an entertaining bag of basketball gags and tricks, she said she was blown away by his entire presentation and the way he made the kids – and adults – feel.
Earlier this year, Ysseldyke heard that her new school, Darby Woods Elementary, was looking to schedule character-based presentations to benefit the entire student body. She immediately thought of Jones.
“I like his message of perseverance and kindness and thought it connected to our character-based education,” she wrote in an email, “so I thought I would mention it to our principal and see if we had the funds (to bring him to the school).”
Much like Ysseldyke did after watching his first presentation, Brian Novar looked at Jones’s website and came away with the same impression she did.
“As a part of our professional development, it is our mission to create a community where people know that they matter, where we emphasize good character and kind traits,” said Novar. “When I saw what he was about, I knew he would fit nicely with our character building mission.”
Jones, who is known throughout the country for his talents with a basketball, said it is a personal goal to connect with people through his words rather than just the way he can spin and twirl and juggle basketballs with the various limbs on his body.
“Having them connect with what I am saying is a great feeling,” he said. “I want them to come away believing in themselves, feeling good about themselves and maybe, just maybe, come away wanting to learn how to spin a basketball on their finger.”
Jones said when he began presenting at schools more than two decades ago, he wasn’t always known as Mr. Motivation with a Basketball.
“I didn’t think anyone would be interested in anything I had to say,” he said.
It was a belief that had been entrenched in his mind since elementary school.
When Jones was a kindergartener, he had trouble understanding letters and words.
“They just didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever,” Jones said. “I tried with all of my might to make it make sense, but it wasn’t coming to me.”
After a series of tests, Jones was diagnosed with dyslexia and put into a special education program to build his skills at his learning level. As a student in the program, it made him an easy target.
“At first it wasn’t so bad but our school was set up in numerical order,” said Jones. “The first graders were at the front of the school, the third in the middle section and the fifth at the end. As I grew, and my classmates grew, they went further in the back and I stayed in the front.
“It wasn’t easy, listening to what they would say to me or about those in the special education program, but I tried not to let it get in my heart.”
He said he considers himself fortunate that he was placed into the special education program even though it made him an “easy person for others to pick on.”
“I think when you grow up with challenges, it makes you a little grittier and it gives you a stronger work ethic because things do not come easily to you,” he said.
Though he struggled at school, he persevered and went on to graduate with a degree in finance at Bowling Green State University and then a master’s at Ohio State University.
Jones said when he tells people that tidbit, they always wonder what he is doing travelling the country performing at schools while showcasing his skills with a basketball (or three or four and all of various sizes).
“It surprises them,” he said. “It surprises me too sometimes but I do not want to be doing anything else.”
He said what he loves about his work is that when he goes into a new school, he always learns a new story and makes a new connection.
For instance, when he performed at Darby Woods on Feb. 10, there was a student who was not paying attention to his performance. Though Jones said he wasn’t offended in the slightest, he could tell other kids were getting agitated by their actions. So he asked the child politely to sit, gave them a pencil, told them how awesome they are and then later had them come up to help him perform one of the more complex basketball skills acts.
“(This child) gave me the biggest smile and talked to me afterwards,” he said. “I was later told that it was something they rarely do.”
Jones said he knows all about not judging people by their appearance, or even judging them by a bad moment or day.
“We all have them and we all make mistakes,” he said. “No one is perfect and that is completely OK.
“You never know what someone is going through so that is why you always want to show kindness to them.”
He said that while he does not share most of his story with the kids –“too boring,” he joked – he does slip in lessons he has learned along the way while dazzling them with spinning basketballs that fly through the air.
“When I started doing this as my career, I knew I wasn’t going to change the world,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to change a part of their world by being kind and reminding them that they are enough.”