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A school on the rebound

Nike documentary about Jefferson basketball ignites school spirit, pride


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Jefferson sophomore basketball player Dario Papa-Vicente takes a moment to pray before the Democrats' Feb. 19 home rivalry match against Benson Tech. One of five high schools sponsored by Nike's Jordan Brand, Jefferson's basketball program is the subject of a documentary project in the works. Silas Melson likes school all right. He has a 3.3 grade-point average, likes English class and likes to write.

But he loves basketball.

The junior at Jefferson High School Middle College for Advanced Studies plays point guard and shooting guard on the undefeated team in Portland Interscholastic League action, a stature he holds with great respect.

“Basketball is everything for me,” Silas says, a couple of days after shooting the winning free throws to beat the buzzer for a 50-48 win against rival Benson Tech. “Without it I think I’d be a good student, but it keeps me motivated.”

The win threw the larger-than-normal crowd into a frenzy, a made-for-the-movies moment that actually will end up on the silver screen.

This year Nike’s Jordan Brand has been quietly filming a documentary at Jefferson, about the role of basketball in the community during the past 30 to 40 years.

“The kids are eating it up,” says Vice Principal Ricky Allen. “It’s brought a level of energy to the building — we’ll try to build on that momentum.”

Nike came calling in October, and started filming once the legal hurdles were cleared. School leaders hoped it wouldn’t be too intrusive, and it hasn’t been, Allen says.

A couple of videographers began shadowing the team in practices, on the road, at games and in their classrooms. They’ve interviewed players, former players, coaches, staff and people in the community to try and capture the essence of Jefferson basketball.

One of the interviewees was Tony Hopson, executive director of the North Portland nonprofit Self Enhancement Inc. and senior star on the legendary 1972 state championship Jefferson basketball team.

The impact of Jefferson basketball has changed dramatically because the community has changed so dramatically, he says.

“There was a time Jefferson basketball was the community,” says Hopson, who also coached briefly and was a councilor at Jefferson for five or six years. “Jefferson was always viewed as the heart and soul of the Albina community ... there was a lot of pride attached to what Jeff was doing. it was the lifeblood.”

As the area gentrified, there are almost as many black students at Grant and Benson high schools as at Jefferson. While the program doesn’t have the same impact as it used to, Hopson says, it’s still a point of pride in the community.

Academically, SEI has long been the most prominent partner to Jefferson and its neighborhood schools, providing more than $1 million in services to PPS students in the Jefferson cluster each year.

Those funds cover tutoring, mentoring and other services at schools including Boise-Humboldt, Woodlawn, Vernon, King, Ockley Green, Benson and Grant, as well as Jefferson and the SEI Academy, a PPS charter school.

Three years ago, just after Hopson stepped in to help save his alma mater from closure, SEI took the unprecedented step of opening its doors to every single freshman (and all incoming freshmen) at Jefferson as part of its Whole School Model — rather than just those deemed “at-risk.”

“You have the potential of impacting a school, as opposed to a few kids in a school,” Hopson says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  A film crew follows Jamartae Brown during a pep rally before the Benson game.

School’s survival

Because SEI services aren’t mandatory, about 85 percent of the students have opted in. That’s in addition to serving the 20 to 25 students in other grades at Jefferson who are already under SEI’s wing.

The goal of the project is to see an 80 percent graduation rate among Jefferson’s Class of 2016, the 127 enrolled freshmen.

SEI has been tracking their progress, looking at data such as who has passed their required classes. “We have some great indicators,” Hopson says.

The on-time graduation rate for the class of 2012 was 58 percent, up from 51 percent the year before.

The Jefferson Project is a costly one; PPS pays SEI $3,500 per student to cover services for Jefferson sophomores and juniors.

The school district and SEI are splitting the cost of services for each freshman, paying $1,750 apiece.

PPS’ share comes to $222,250 for the class of 2016.

Hopson believes the Whole School Model will pay off. In fact he says talks are under way about possibly starting a similar effort elsewhere, in the lower grades, at a school with similar demographics as SEI and Jefferson.

In the meantime, he will focus on engaging kids in school.

“A lot of Jefferson’s survival, in my opinion, has been centered around the two most important things they could talk about — the Jefferson Dancers and the basketball program,” he says. “Having a strong athletic program is a part of what needs to happen to entice kids to come.”

Some schools have strong athletics; others have strong academics, he adds: “We’re really working hard to make sure Jefferson does have both.”

Cameras draw crowds

Back at Jefferson, filming for the documentary project will likely wrap up with the state basketball tournament March 6 to 9.

The buzz in the hallways likely will continue, and the Democrats will wear their T-shirts with pride.

Jefferson has had a contract with the Jordan Brand since 1999, one of five high schools sponsored by the Jordan Brand in the United States. The others are Oak Hill Academy, a Baptist school in Virginia; St. Patrick, a Catholic high school in New Jersey; Montrose Christian in Maryland; and RJ Reynolds, a public school in North Carolina.

Through Jefferson’s contract, players are sponsored and receive all kinds of Jordan swag; this year they also got locker stickers and socks.

Silas, the junior point guard, says just the presence of the cameras has made a definite difference — on and off the court.

For one: There’s been better attendance at games.

A lot of times the rivalry games tend to be sold out or close to sold out, which was the case with the recent Benson game. “I haven’t seen the gym that packed since 2000,” Strickland says, crediting the project for much of that.

Game attendance probably has something to do with the team getting its feet back after the era of Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross, former Jefferson all-staters now in the NBA.

While at Jefferson they led the team to state championships. In the past two years, since Jones graduated (Ross transferred out), the Demos went from great to good, going 14-10 and 15-11.

This year the Demos rose up again to 20-4, but 12-0 in the PIL.

With the documentary project, “We had a little more weight on our shoulders we had to carry,” says Silas, who dreams of playing pro ball. “It’s a good thing. It makes us play more intense. We don’t want to let the camera people or anybody else down.”

Strickland says it was also a good year for the project because of the camaraderie on the team, which includes three seniors. “We’re family; we stick together. We really trust and like each other,” he says.

The only downside he can think of: The cameras catching some of his comments while he’s wearing a mike. On the other hand, Strickland says, “I feel like I’m a comedian,” so he and others had fun hamming it up for the cameras as well.

When the documentary is released, Strickland says he hopes it’ll be a recruiting tool for the school and program, “and to give our school, the city and the kids the recognition they deserve.”

So what is the essence of Jefferson basketball?

Silas struggles to find the right words. Then he puts it simply: “We’re a school of champions,” he says.