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Using basketball, Wichitan starts nonprofit to mentor youths

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 15, 2014, at 10 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 9, 2014, at 6:20 p.m.

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The Pickup Game (PUG) is a nonprofit, youth basketball program founded by lifelong Wichita resident Jordan Harris.

Harris wants to use basketball as a vehicle to mentor area youth with counseling, field trips and seminars on applying to college and planning careers. The Pickup Game opens its doors July 7 at Champion Church Gym on North Oliver.

For more information, contact Jordan Harris at thepugwichita@gmail.com.

Jordan Harris has lived in Wichita all his life.

He has played basketball since he was 5, and for most of his life, Harris had both his parents and his uncle to mentor him, a luxury most of his other friends did not have growing up.

Now he plans to spend the rest of his life using the game he loves as a mentor for Wichita’s disadvantaged youths. Harris wants his nonprofit start-up – The Pickup Game, which opens its doors July 7 at Champion Church Gym on North Oliver – to become the premier location for pickup basketball in Wichita.

Basketball, Harris said, will be a vehicle to mentor kids, with weekly guest speakers, field trips and seminars on personal finance, applying to college and career development. He’ll also teach them about the dangers of bullying and the importance of family.

“We want to bring good people to youth who need more good people in their lives,” said Harris, who graduated from Wichita State University in 2010 with a business degree and plans to give every PUG member a tour of his alma mater.

“PUG is not just about a game plan for basketball, it’s about creating a game plan for life,” he said.

Jeffrey Enlow, a pastor at Bibleway Community of Faith and owner of E-Lite Tours and Charter, said PUG will be a great alternative for area youths.

“There’s a great need in the area, with many young people to reach out to,” said Enlow, who coached Harris’ wife, Marissa, in high school track and field and met Harris through her. “It’s great for kids who can’t afford something like the Y.”

Jordan Harris has the education and the sincerity to serve as examples for children, Enlow said.

“Jordan is very innovative, and he has tremendous vision,” Enlow said. “You only go into nonprofits to serve people.”

Basketball legacy

Basketball is in Harris’ blood.

He followed three of his cousins and his brother Lance onto the Southeast High School team. His father, Leon, a former basketball star at East Central University in Oklahoma, coached his sons and their Biddy Basketball team of less experienced kids “no other coach wanted” to consecutive division championships, Jordan Harris said.

“He taught us that if we weren’t faster than another player, we could beat him with intelligence,” said Lance Harris, who played point guard for WSU before graduating in 2008. “He taught us to engage our minds and win through effort. He taught us to think ‘I may not outrun you. I may not shoot better than you, but I will outwork you.’ ”

Jordan Harris, 27, said that when his dad coached, the game did not end at the buzzer.

“The game would end after the car drive home, where he’d tell us everything that went wrong and what we could have done better,” Jordan Harris said. “ ‘If you give up on basketball,’ he used to say, ‘you give up on life.’ ”

Those lessons from his dad ended nine years ago. Jordan Harris was in his basement playing video games with his friend when his dad called down to him.

“You coming to practice with me?” he asked.

Jordan Harris was a regular at the Peabody High School basketball team’s practices, where his dad coached. That day, Jordan Harris was playing not basketball but a football video game. He decided not to go with his dad.

There were nine players at practice. They needed 10 to scrimmage. For many years afterward, Harris said, he wished he would have gone to practice that day. He wished he had been the 10th player.

Leon Harris stepped onto the court to fill in and suffered a fatal heart attack.

“I felt guilty,” Jordan Harris said. “I felt I was to blame, responsible for taking my father away from my brother, my sister and my mother.”

It was January 2005, and Jordan Harris was months away from graduating from Southeast and going to college, as his parents had always taught him he should do. He got his first job at a call center and split the paycheck with his mother – the “rock in the family,” he said – who was struggling to provide for her family as a single working parent.

Harris later decided he wasn’t going to follow his brother to college. He was mad at the world, and even though he was away at college, his brother noticed Jordan wasn’t who he used to be.

“He was withdrawn,” Lance Harris said. “He was discouraged with a lot of things.”

A new mentor

It took Jordan Harris two years to play organized basketball again. He never shared his feelings with his family.

He could open up only to his uncle, Steve Bradley, who was dating Harris’ aunt at the time. Bradley began spending more time with Harris. He taught him how to build a credit score and took him to buy a car for the first time, a Nissan Altima that Harris still drives.

Later in 2005, Harris played Kanye West’s “Late Registration” as he drove his Nissan to his first class at Butler Community College – three weeks late. Two years later, he transferred to WSU.

“It sounds like a bubblegum thing to say, but the support he (Bradley) showed me was the greatest thing he did for me,” Harris said.

Bradley said he told Harris that anything he could do for him, he would.

“We still have that inseparable relationship today,” Bradley said. “I treated him as my blood. I’m proud to say Jordan Harris is my nephew.

“I know he’d give 100 percent of himself if I asked for anything, just as I would for him.”

Bradley was more than just an uncle by marriage, Harris said – he was a mentor. Harris wants to serve in the same role for children in the neighborhood around the gym.

‘More to life’

The idea for PUG came while Harris was a manager at the cleaning company SBM Services. He oversaw 65 employees – many of whom were supporting families on minimum wage.

Harris said he was able to give them raises as the company prospered, but he couldn’t give them much more than a few cents, a dollar at most. It hurt, he said.

“I thought, ‘What are their kids expecting out of life?’ ” Harris said. “History repeats itself. In college we learned that most kids end up either one step above or one step below whatever position their parents held. They might see their parents get into legal trouble or make bad decisions and assume they’ll do the same.

“I’m not really religious, but it seemed obvious God directed me there.”

Harris wants kids to know there’s “more to life.”

“I may sound like a corny cartoon, but life is more than working a job you hate,” he said. “Reach, and before you know it, you’ll be doing something you love to do.”

Looking back, Harris said his father’s death taught him one last lesson: “When you say you will do something, do it.”

Harris is planning on that. PUG has been incorporated as a nonprofit, he has found a gym and he has gathered some support in the neighborhood. Up next is working to raise $70,000 in contributions to pay for two full-time staff members – Harris will be one of them – and other costs, including building rental fees.

“I know $70,000 is ambitious,” Harris said. “I don’t expect to raise that much, but I want to make sure that if we come up short, we have enough to keep going.

“I’ll give the program to someone else if I have to. The last thing I want is to see it just fall off.”

Bradley said that when Harris is determined to do something, he doesn’t lose focus.

“Teaching and watching kids grow into better people means a lot,” Bradley said. “Seeing them succeed is overwhelming.

“He just wants to give back.”

Reach Nassim Benchaabane at 316-268-6514 or nbenchaabane@wichitaeagle.com.

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