MILWAUKEE — Ja’cia Cunningham knew there would be days on the basketball court this season when she would feel like Sue Bird, and there would likely be other days where she would feel like Tweety Bird.
But never did the junior point guard from Milwaukee School of Languages think it would be her older brother that would be the reason for her moments of joy as well as her times of frustration.
“This is all just such a weird situation,’’ said Ja’cia.
To say the least.
But what Ja’cia and so many other Milwaukee Public School athletes are trying their best to do is make something sweet out of something bitter.
A world pandemic and city health department restrictions have combined to put the winter sports season on hold in Milwaukee – after the fall sports season was also put in temporary storage - with no one knowing if, or when, it may return.
“Pretty much devastated,’’ said Ja’cia when she learned the season was put on hold. “I was looking forward to the season, playing with my teammates and other friends, winning conference and getting all the accolades, just seeing other games. I just miss high school basketball.”
The question for MPS and many other school districts around the state was simple, “Now what?”
The answer was in the eye of the beholder.
Matt Goodwin has been around a lot of coaches and was an assistant basketball coach himself for one year so he knew the value of preparation, especially at a time when you knew little – or in this case next to nothing - about the opponent: COVID-19.
“As we planned for the return of sports coming back, we wanted to prepare for every scenario possible,’’ he said. “And we knew there was the possibility there wasn’t going to be sports, so how can we keep the students engaged. How can we support them? In addition, give them the resources they need to navigate these tough times?”
In the event sports would not be played, the decision was made to tap into the local community, current and former coaches, and former athletes to not only deliver messages of inspiration and encouragement to their athletes, but give them practical information on staying in shape, scholarships, SAT/ACT testing requirements, GPA requirements, NCAA Clearing House information, the importance of attaining CPR certification, and much more.
To ensure this information would reach their intended audience they decided they would simply hang out where the kids hang out, on Facebook and Instagram. And on Sept. 21, roughly three weeks after they chose to move forward, the #StayReadyMPS campaign was launched.
“We focus on the positive aspects of what we can share with them that they can do,’’ said Bobbie Kelsey, Commissioner of Athletics and Academics at MPS and a former head coach at Wisconsin, assistant coach for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks as well as several Division 1 schools and was a member of Stanford’s NCAA women’s basketball championship team in 1992.
“Because sometimes if you sit there lamenting about what you don’t have, you forget what you do have and what you can do. And so, we wanted to make sure we reminded them of what they can do; give them ideas, workouts, things they can do just around the house.”
As a former player and coach, Kelsey knew this also would be an ideal time for MPS athletes to work on their games in a way that is often overlooked at the high school level.
“Kids can watch their sport and make sure they understand the nuances of the game mentally,’’ she said. “We always talk about IQ, basketball IQ, or he’s a student of the game, she’s a student of her craft, that kind of thing. So, I think, there are some areas I think we can certainly help them focus on until we can get back on the court and in the pools, on the links, things like that so we focus on the positive things instead of the things we can’t do.”
It’s been a pretty impressive list of people who have come to offer their support.
Jordan Poole of the Golden State Warriors, U.S. track standout Dezerea Bryant, former Packers and Badgers tight end Lance Kendricks, former All-Big Ten basketball player at Penn State Jessica Kern-Huff, University of Miami women’s basketball player Sydney Roby as well as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, among many others.
Ja’cia says all have been appreciated.
“Just everybody pitching in and helping everybody out,’’ she said, “Just giving us a good word so we can have something to live off right now because obviously for a lot of us basketball is our life, and just motivating us helps a lot.”
You know that old saying that it takes a village ...
“It truly does,’’ said Goodwin.
“The alumni, coaches, athletic directors, community members, they were all excited and they were all more than willing. A lot of them, they were former athletes, were former coaches, so they were all in this position prior and they all wanted to give back to the community.”
When the campaign began, Goodwin said over 1,000 athletes were taking part and many remain engaged as Kelsey and Goodwin have continued to build on the campaign as the pandemic has refused to slow down.
“It’s gone better than I expected considering we were putting it together from scratch,’’ said Kelsey. “We had all these ideas but we know ideas don’t matter if you can’t execute. It’s been executed very well with the help of a lot of folks.”
The unexpected benefit has been it has afforded MPS to build another avenue for education.
“It’s been good because it’s given us the opportunity to do something we may not have been able to do, or thought about if we were in the thick of sports,’’ said Kelsey. “So again, we didn’t sit around and say, 'Woe is us.' We just tried to figure out another way to engage and help the kids focus on things other than what they can’t do.”
Once the virus fades away, the materials used in this campaign will not. Their value will have an indefinite shelf left.
“It lives forever, but it may spearhead us into doing some other creative things such as featurettes or human life stories on the kids, where people can get to know them other than what they do athletically.”
Ja’cia said teammates, her coaches, and even her parents have all chipped in to feed her basketball fix.
And then there’s her brother Brian.
“He helps me out a lot,’’ she said. “He has the best handle I’ve ever seen. I’m trying to get like that.”
But it isn’t always fun, or easy.
“Sometimes it’s fun, but it’s challenging because he’s so quick and his handle is so quick, so it’s making me better, so when I’m playing against someone else I’m going to be able to defend them because their handle is probably not going to be as good as my brother’s.”
And then, perhaps, her senior year will conclude with the conference championship and accolades she can only dream about this season.
Stay tuned, and stay ready.
You can follow along with the #StayReadyMPS campaign on their Facebook page.