ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
They might not see things in a crystal ball, but Jerry Jones and Gary Myers were visionaries for local basketball 25 years ago.
Jones, now head coach of men’s basketball and athletic director at Kansas Wesleyan University, was the boys’ high school coach at Hillsboro in 1979, while Myers was head coach for women’s basketball at Tabor College.
Together, they hatched the premise for the JAM basketball program that still thrives in Hillsboro to this day.
At the time, Jones said, it was customary for junior high basketball teams to have tryouts. Students who were deemed good enough made the team while those deemed not good enough were cut.
“There was a young man named Stan Frantz who was cut as a sixth-grader and again as a seventh-grader,” Jones said from his office in Salina. “At that time, my assistant coach was Ross Friesen, and we both thought this young man had some potential.”
Jones saw the need for an instructional venue where all kids, regardless of school or skill level, could learn the fundamentals of basketball.
So Jones contacted Tabor men’s coach Lee Erikson about joining forces to start a camp on Saturday mornings in conjunction with Tabor College and Hillsboro High School.
“Lee said he didn’t have time, but he thought Gary Myers might,” Jones said. “I got together with Gary and, after some discussion, we decided it would be a good thing to do.”
Jones and Myers devised a plan that would combine their coaching knowledge with the enthusiasm and talent of members of their current teams as volunteer coaches.
“He would bring in four of his girls and I would bring in four of my boys as coaches,” Jones said. “We’d use different kids each week.”
Targeted for this program were children in grades four through seven, along with eighth graders who didn’t make the school basketball teams.
Jones said the cost for participant was only $2 dollars per session, which included a free T-shirt.
“We advertised professional instruction, which was Gary and I and the kids who worked with us,” Jones said. “The idea was to teach these kids the the basic fundamental skills of basketball-passing, dribbling and shooting.”
Jones said initially they hoped to have “about 40 kids,” but nearly 100 showed up.
“We had just about every kid in town, plus some from Marion and even Peabody,” he said. “We had a three-hour session every Saturday, from the time high school basketball began in late November until the playoffs started in February.
“The first two hours were instruction and drills, and then we had teams the final hour- mixed-gender teams.”
Jones said a high school shop teacher, Fred Zook, concocted a basketball goal on which the rim slid up and down to various levels.
“During halftime of Tabor games, we used that goal and the kids had a contest dunking the ball on the lowered rim and we called it “JAM FEST,” he said. “With the initials from our first name, Jones and Myers, along with the fact that these kids were ‘jamming’ the basketball on this lowered rim is where we got our name.
“‘JAM’ actually became our trademark-it had kind of a dual meaning.”
Matt Dalke, now Hillsboro’s recreation director, was a sixth-grader during that first year of JAM. He said the program left a lasting impression with him.
“We had no prior instruction at that age,” Dalke said. “This program taught us how to dribble, shoot and pass-it was our introduction to the game.”
Dalke said another thing that impressed him and the other participants was the people who helped run the program.
“The coaches and helpers were guys and girls that you went and watched play every Friday and Saturday and we looked up to them,” he said. “They taught us, and it was a real thrill and it made you want to learn.”
Dalke also said the kids felt they were treated as equals in the JAM program.
“They didn’t separate the good kids from the bad,” he said. “No one got preferential treatment- boys or girls, talented or less talented. They were there to teach everyone the basic fundamentals of basketball.”
Dalke said getting to play at Tabor College was another thrill for the participants.
“That was like playing in Allen Fieldhouse to me,” he said.
Jones said Hillsboro was a great basketball town before JAM, but it seemed like because of this, “we had more and more good players.”
“I have no doubt this program had a big influence on the kids in the area,” he said.
Heading the program for the past 15 years has been HHS boys’ coach Darrel Knoll.
“My focus is to teach the kids basic fundamental skills on offense,” Knoll said. “We try to stress that part of it-how to work on getting open and how to work on shooting.”
Knoll said wanna-be athletes who don’t work to better themselves get left behind.
“I think you have to develop your younger talent if you want to continue to have a strong basketball program,” he said. “I think it’s extremely important to keep that going.
“I run JAM more like a basketball camp, and I try to teach fundamentals-which is different from a league where it depends on who you get to coach,” he said. “If we don’t provide instruction on the fundamentals of the game, a lot of them are going to miss out.”
Jones said that without the cooperation of Myers, Tabor College, and the student instructors, the program would have struggled for success.
“I think the new gym structure at Hillsboro has made a great difference, too,” he added. “A lot of towns didn’t or don’t have the facilities to hold something like this.”
Another plus for the program, according to Jones, was the age group that was targeted.
“I think JAM was one of the first efforts that really began to emphasize the young kids,” he said.
Jones said it’s fun to look back on some of the success stories that evolved from JAM.
“Stan Frantz, the boy who got cut twice, wound up being all-conference at Tabor for two years,” he said. “There was a little gal named Susan Decker, who turned out to be an All-American at Tabor, too.”
Decker, now the women’s coach at Baker University, was a first team All-American at Tabor, three-time District 10 Player-of-the-Year, and two-time KCAC player of the year. She said JAM was an integral part of her basketball genesis.
“When I was first beginning to learn about the game of basketball, I lived on a farm and didn’t have much chance to play out there,” she said. “So coming into Hillsboro every Saturday and being a part of JAM was a great chance to learn the game and play with kids my own age.
“Just learning the fundamentals of the game was a big thing for me.
“The thing I remember the most was that they had Tabor and Hillsboro high school kids helping to coach,” she added. “I can remember the Tabor players who were there and wanted to teach you and play with you.
“Becky Carlson (HHS girls’ coach) was there and I remember her working with me every Saturday,” Decker said. “I remember wanting to play one-on-one with her, and bless her heart, she’d stay afterward and do that.
“JAM definitely gave me a great start in learning the fundamentals of basketball.”
Dalke said the lessons his own children will learn from JAM, both on and off the court, are important.
“They’ll get the social interaction with their peers and spend time with people they look up to,” he said. “Coach Knoll lets his kids who coach JAM know it’s important to carry themselves well while they coach, because these kids do look up to them.
“It’s important to have positive role models,” Dalke said. “These kids learn teamwork, listening skills, discipline and even the responsibility of how to get out of bed and to practice on time.
“I think kids can learn a million things besides basketball in JAM.”
Knoll said minor changes have been made in the past few years, including separating the boys from the girls.
“This way we can teach individual skills a little better,” Knoll said. “I’ve been pleased with how this has been going. We can focus attention on each group that way.”
Jones said although the basic fundamentals of basketball haven’t changed, some things have.
“I think kids are more interested in dunking the ball and dribbling it between their legs now than they are in shooting free throws,” he said. “We didn’t have a 3-point line back then and there was no such thing as a ‘high five’ or a ‘low five.'”
Knoll said the premise of the program is still the same, though.
“I think the program has always been to get kids interested in basketball and teach them how to do that,” he said. “I don’t think the focus is any different. Kids get to learn the game and how to execute fundamentals.
“I also think it’s fun for them and it’s a benefit because they get physical activity as they learn the game.”
Looking back on the success the program has enjoyed over the past quarter century years, Jones said he isn’t surprised it continues to be popular.
“We really thought this program would withstand the test of time,” Jones said. “We thought it was something people would keep doing after we were gone.
“It was something we enjoyed at that moment and we thought it’s popularity and success would continue,” he said. “The fact that it’s in its 25th year doesn’t surprise me at all.”