Burdett Park is located in College Park, Ga., a town that also features a nine-hole historic golf course and, locals proclaim, the best peach pie God ever created over at Tony Morrow’s BBQ.
The park has a gymnasium, and inside this gymnasium is where dreams are either realized or crushed, where young boys find or lose their way, where back in the day, you might stumble upon Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks and other NBA players wowing the neighborhood kids during pickup games.
Where when he wasn’t doing those daily math problems his father demanded or reading those chapters his mother made a mandatory after-school ritual, Jelan Kendrick sat and watched and soaked up every ounce of sweat, every slick move, every word, every nugget of advice.
The doors were scheduled to close at 8 each evening.
The games went on for hours longer.
“A lot of kids from the area don’t feel like they can make it out, that they can’t go to college and get an education, that they can’t do great things,” Kendrick said. “I want to show them there is something bigger than dribbling a ball. That they are smart. That they are somebody. That they are not an outsider. That there is someone who believes in them.
“When I go back there, I don’t want to see my jersey hanging on the wall. I’m going to frame my diploma and have them hang that.”
He is one of those riddles difficult to solve, hopeful others view him a person of depth and perspective and this ravenous desire to have an impact on the lives of young people.
He just has this way of lighting up the faces of children upon entering a classroom.
Kendrick on Saturday walked in a procession far more important than any half-court set he has been part of, graduating from UNLV with a degree in sociology.
His journey to the reality of a cap and gown, more than anything else, is best described as complex. Basketball was the vehicle that pointed him toward an education, but an innate sense of perseverance, born from those late-night life lessons taught by pros inside a gymnasium, allowed him to overcome those obstacles in his path. There were several.
“I know Jelan takes a lot of pride in his academic achievements,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said. “Certainly, he has had some adversity along the way, but he learned from all of it and became a better person. He just has inherent leadership qualities. He came to UNLV with huge expectations, and while the basketball part didn’t go as he probably had hoped, he was all about the program. He became a great recruiter for us because of how much he loved the Runnin’ Rebels. I also know how proud and pleased he is to be leaving with a degree.”
It’s not necessarily fair, but comes with the label, how most envision those who wear the golden arches on a pair of shorts.
Kendrick was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school in Georgia, and with that distinction is the assumed success that will follow in college. It happens for some. It doesn’t for everyone.
He had stops at Memphis and Mississippi and Indian Hills Community College before arriving at UNLV, where for the first time since the eighth grade, Kendrick attended the same school for consecutive years. He is conscious of the reactions such a traveled path elicit from some, aware of the opinions some have formed.
But no matter what transpired for Kendrick at UNLV — those nights he looked every bit the McDonald’s All-American, those nights he didn’t, the time spent as a starter, the time he spent as a reserve, those moments he was reportedly involved in an altercation with a teammate after the last game of his junior season, those months he represented the Rebels on a student-athlete advisory committee — he emerged over time a leader who was absolutely devoted to the Rebels.
“I met great people and played for a great coach who is an even better person,” Kendrick said. “You will not find many coaches who care for their players like Coach Rice does. All we went through last season, not winning as much as anyone wanted, he never stopped fighting for us and believing in us.
“You know, when I can’t do something, I become obsessed with it. If I couldn’t do a drill when I was younger at a basketball camp, I would become obsessed with it, waking up at all hours of the night, practicing it over and over, wanting to make it look flawless. Challenges have always driven me, and graduating from college was the next one.”
He has a chance to make money playing basketball and probably will pursue that option overseas, but those who know him best can’t imagine a future without Kendrick working with kids.
Rice relays the story of a local elementary school teacher telling him that for weeks after Kendrick spoke to her students, all the boys talked about was growing up to be just like Jelan.
He is guarded yet outspoken, sometimes brooding and others incredibly affable. You never really knew what you might get in terms of thoughts from Kendrick the past few years, but they were most often interesting.
He averaged just 6.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists over two seasons, numbers that didn’t come close to describing his impact on younger teammates and those children he engaged in the community.
“In 15 years, I hope that I am developing boys into men and that I can continue to write my story by coaching or in some other way helping kids achieve their dreams,” Kendrick said. “It’s tough to attack life by yourself. There is a lot of trial and error, and we all make the errors. We all make mistakes. Sometimes, it’s just being young and dumb. Sometimes, it’s just life. It’s going to swing at you and knock you down and cause you pain, but hopefully I can be there to pick some of them up and show them how much they can truly accomplish.”
On Saturday, his parents and friends and those who know him best gathered at UNLV to celebrate, years removed from those daily math problems and reading assignments at home, from those nights spent at Burdett Park learning lessons far beyond the next jump shot.
Jelan Kendrick: College graduate, success story, one born from something far more important than any golden arches on a pair of shorts.
“I’m going to frame my diploma and have them hang that.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “Seat and Ed” on KRLV 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.