Bigger Than Basketball

USF graduate runs a basketball academy that creates tomorrow’s leaders

By Annie Breen, USF News Posted Tue, 07/07/2020 - 11:54

When former USF basketball captain Jerome Gumbs '06 founded Empower Me Academy for kids in San Francisco, one of his goals was to abolish old coaching methods — yelling, punishing players, leading with anger — and create a new way to mentor young people.

Today, students in the program are learning more than basketball. They’re learning about life.

“Here, we have a total mix, kids from every background,” said Gumbs. “Kids who are growing up with less learn about the world of possibilities for their future from their peers who are more privileged. And the kids with privilege learn about drive, that absolute will to succeed that’s burning inside their fellow players who don’t have as much.”

While they practice drills on the court, the players say they are learning about themselves and others.

“He’ll keep pushing you and pushing you until he knows it’s as hard as you can go,” said Emily Jones, a student in the program.

“Jerome has been such a good influence on her,” said her mother, Courtney Jones. “She’s learning how to set goals and follow through on them, and from my standpoint as a parent, that’s what you want to see for your child in their life.”

Pathway to College

As a boy growing up in the Virgin Islands, Gumbs saw basketball as a way out of a country he describes as “extremely dangerous, if you’re not a tourist.” He says his options were either join a gang or a basketball team.

He practiced nonstop, determined to earn an athletic scholarship and realize his mother’s goal for him of attending — and graduating from — college.

“I was lucky enough to have a mentor in the islands with whom I’m still very close to this day,” said Gumbs of Cyril Benjamin, who helped him train. Benjamin was friends with Bill Hogan, the USF athletic director at the time.

“Bill convinced my mom that USF is where I’d have just as much support academically as I would athletically," Gumbs said. "That’s just what she wanted to hear. And I don’t go against my mom.”

At USF, on the basketball court, Gumbs saw coaching turnover that moved him from team captain to the bench. This difficult period inspired him to construct his own style — a different style — of coaching.

Still, Gumbs found the academic nurturing that Hogan had promised. Gumbs fulfilled his mother’s hopes and graduated in 2006 with a degree in business administration. “For me, coming from a small island, USF was exactly what I needed," he said. "It was small enough to feel like home, and it gave me a family when mine was thousands of miles away.”

Changing Their Worlds

After college, while playing professionally in Europe and South America, Gumbs decided his future was using what he knew — basketball — to help kids.

Right now, the program looks a little different. COVID-19 has wrecked practice schedules and Empower Me hasn’t met in person for months. Gumbs’ nontraditional style has come in handy, however. He built an at-home practice regimen to keep up his players’ skills while also taking into account that many of them are confined to small spaces and have no fitness equipment.

And his outreach doesn’t stop at basketball. He schedules one-on-one time over Zoom and on outdoor basketball courts — staying six feet apart — with each young person.

“My life’s work is about making sure these kids know their worth, and basketball is a tool we employ to give them the confidence to use that worth for good,” said Gumbs. “They’re the leaders of tomorrow.”