By Al Lesar, South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Life trapped Jason Jordan in a world of poverty and violence for longer than he'd care to admit.
A dysfunctional home, foster care, group homes, homelessness, gang violence and ultimately prison gave Jordan - who was born in Gary but raised in South Bend - a very narrow frame of reference in terms of perspective.
Basketball was his lifeline. A game was the instrument that broadened his horizon.
If he'd only have stayed for the sandwich ...
Today, the 28-year-old 6-foot-2, 200-pound point guard for the Indiana University South Bend basketball team won't allow himself the luxury of a second guess. He doesn't buy into the concept of regrets.
"Everything that has happened has made me who I am," said Jordan. "It has brought depth and value to my life.
"Actually, I feel really blessed. I'm not afraid of change, it's evidence of growth."
If change really is growth, Jordan should be topping out around 7-foot-2.
A very difficult childhood evolved into some tough high school years. Raised by a single mother with health issues, Jordan spent his freshman year with relatives in Gary.
As a sophomore in South Bend LaSalle's final year of existence (2001-02) he scored 110 varsity points. When most of the players from that sectional championship team followed coach Mark Johnson to Riley, Jordan said he went to Clay to try to distance himself from bad influences.
Jordan scored 111 points his junior year with the Colonials, and 68 as a senior (2003-04).
"When I first met Jason, he was kind of a hard-headed kid with a temper," said Clay coach Joe Huppenthal. "I just saw him recently. Man, has he changed.
"He was always kinda on his own, a loner; a guy with no identity. Now, it seems he's got his life in order.
"He was a man without a plan. You could just tell by the way he was. Now, look in his eyes - the guy's got a plan. It's good to see."
About a month before high school graduation, Jordan was one of several area athletes at a junior college showcase in town. A coach had flown in from a school in Jacksonville, Fla., to see Jordan.
"There were two sessions," Maurice Scott, director of the Martin Luther King Center, recalled. "I wanted Jason to stay there through the lunch break; I had sandwiches.
"He said he was going out - and he never came back. He got caught in a car with a gun in Mishawaka. That crushed me."
Jordan was a member of the Wild Boyz. He calls the group a "clique.'' Most refer to them as a gang.
"I got a call that my friend needed a ride," Jordan said. "It happened to be on the turf of a rival group. There was a shootout, a lot of gunfire."
Jordan was originally charged with attempted murder. It was downgraded to reckless discharge of a firearm.
Just a boy of 18, Jordan found his way into the system. He served 15 months at Medaryville (Ind.) Correctional Facility, having three months of his sentence dismissed because he earned his GED.
At the time, he had options. He made a basketball visit to Owens Tech in Toledo and received a scholarship offer. Trouble was, he didn't get out of town fast enough.
"The weekend (after the visit) I got pulled over (on a traffic stop by police)," Jordan said. "They found a gun in the car. It was my gun.
"That whole time I was locked up, the Wild Boyz, they were still doing what they were doing. When I left the streets and came back, the streets are still there. These are my friends; more so, I consider them brothers. I felt I needed to have a gun because of the drama that we had."
That parole violation sent him to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for the remaining 21/2 years of his original sentence - Class B violent felony, possession of a firearm.
"That's where the transition started," Jordan said. "I started learning a whole lot about life. I met a lot of older people there who had been down for about 30 years. They took a liking to me and started pouring into me a lot.
"I started realizing that I can't allow nobody else to have that much control over me - tell me when to go lockdown; turn my lights off; use the phone; watch TV; feed me whatever they want to feed me.
"I started realizing my worth, my value, my placement in life. Growing up in the ghetto, you don't understand where you fit. You see so much lack, so much violence, so much negativity, that becomes you."
Jordan said he was never scared about the prison environment.
"Scary's not the word for it," he said. "My mentality when I went in was: I was already on the edge. I had seen so much already. When I went to the fed joint, it's a realization that it is real and everything is up close and personal now.
"You see people getting into fights. You see people getting stabbed. 'This is the world that I'm in right now, and I have to make it out of here. I have to be mindful of who I'm around. I have to be mindful of my surroundings. My life didn't start here and it's not going to end here.' "
One of the terms of Jordan's release was that he be assigned to a stable home. Jordan said he had nowhere to go.
Eventually he turned to Pat Magley's Heroes Camp. The ministry, devoted to the development of spirit, soul and body, was Jordan's last resort. Magley took Jordan into his home, even building an extra bathroom and finishing a room for him, in exchange for Jordan's mentorship at the camp.
It was a place for the fatherless to find positive male role models. Jordan saw himself in so many of the youngsters.
The basketball "itch" never went away. Scott got Jordan involved in officiating recreation and AAU games to make some extra money and stay close to the game.
"He was getting pretty good at (officiating)," Scott said. "He could still play."
Scott got Jordan lined up to work a junior college showcase in Illinois, at least that's what he told Jordan. Once they were halfway there, he dropped the bomb that Jordan wasn't going to officiate the action, he was going to play.
"I knew if I told him he was going to play (before they left), he'd come up with all kinds of excuses," Jordan said. "This way, he was already committed."
"I told him (at 26) I was too old," Jordan said.
Not so. A born leader on the hardwood, Jordan distinguished himself. By the time the workout was over, he had earned a scholarship to Lincoln Trail Junior College in Robinson, Ill..
Besides having a quality season on the basketball court, Jordan made the Dean's List and earned the college's President's Academic Award.
That junior college trial gained him an opportunity at a scholarship at NCAA Division II Kentucky Wesleyan.
"I prayed about it," Jordan said. "I came to the conclusion I would wait on something that would blow my mind."
The mind-blower came by way of paradise. The coach from Hawaii-Pacific, an NCAA Division II school in Honolulu, stumbled onto Jordan. It didn't take much arm-twisting to coerce him into going.
"Just being there, everything was so beautiful, it made me understand that nothing is impossible," Jordan said. "Everyone made you feel so welcome."
Hawaii was a great experience, but it wasn't home. He did well on the court and had a GPA over 3.0, but one thing was missing - his daughter Soleigha.
He had vowed not to do to her what his father had done to him - abandonment.
"I was able to learn from those mistakes," he said.
Paradise can wait. Some other time he'll be there - maybe with Soleigha, who's 3 now.
He traded 82 and sunny (except for a brief afternoon shower) every day for the marvelous weather South Bend is now enjoying.
Jordan, playing at his third different school in three years, is averaging 13.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists this season. His game-winning, last-second layup against Roosevelt a couple weeks ago should have been the highlight.
Instead, his SportsCenter moment comes every game when Soleigha is in the stands.
"I hear her yell, 'That's my daddy; that's my daddy in the headband,' " Jordan said with a wide smile.
"The guys kid him about being the old man," said IUSB coach Scott Cooper. "He struggled early on. He was pretty raw when he came in here. The adjustment has gone pretty well. Everybody's pretty comfortable with his role as a leader."
The oldest of the other Titans are still six years younger than Jordan.
"Besides the age difference, so many of the guys come from small towns," Jordan said. "It's hard for them to relate to things I've experienced and seen."
Jordan said he's had to bite his tongue on occasion, letting some of the immature antics 18-22-year-olds do go by without a comment.
"I'm on the edge and kind of outspoken," said the communications major. "Sometimes, they can take me the wrong way."
That ability to get his point across is a big reason why Jordan has been targeted by Scott to be the point man for the King Center's new program: Made Men.
Even though he won't get his IUSB degree until next December, and he plans on playing for the Titans next year, Jordan didn't hesitate at the opportunity.
"He knows he has a voice," Scott said. "We made him the teen coordinator for 'Made Men,' a program to help teens in their journey onto manhood. Jason uses his trials and his journey to help them."
This is a challenge that falls into Jordan's wheelhouse. He is already very involved at the King Center and the Heroes Camp. He is already mentoring several elementary, junior high and high school boys.
"They've got me for life," Jordan said. "God pulled me out of the fire. This is not a job. This is something I'm taking ownership in."
Vision is one of the primary gifts he wants to give those boys. Learning from his mistakes, he wants them to be able to see beyond what is in front of them to a world of possibilities that he, for most of his life, didn't know existed.
"You're trapped in this environment," he said. "All you're seeing daily is drama; you're seeing police; you're seeing the fights; you're seeing the shootouts; you're seeing the drug dealing. It's tough to keep pushing through and believing there's more if it's not right there."
He'll be there to prove there's an amazing life beyond the confines of the neighborhood.
And, for him, basketball brought it all into focus.