NBA players take on role model status in OKC school

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY– Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stood near midcourt holding a basketball high above his head. The All-Star guard was surrounded by defenders doing their best to try and knock the ball out of his hands.

But just like during most of his NBA games, Gilgeous-Alexander stood cool and calm and had no worries that his opponents would get his prized possession.

However, this competition didn’t take place during an Oklahoma City Thunder game at the Paycom Center. Gilgeous-Alexander was at Martin Luther King Elementary School and his rabid defenders were actually students.

Gilgeous-Alexander and the entire Thunder squad were at MLK Elementary in conjunction with the Thunder Cares community service project. Along with the Thunder, the Oklahoma City Blue and the Thunder organization were on hand Monday afternoon.

The Thunder community service project has become an annual event for the franchise. Outside of actual games, it’s not very often that the entire team and organization will be at one location at the same time.

“It was Thunder take over day,” MLK Elementary Principal Mitchell Ruzzoli said. “The whole organization came in, worked with our students and really made it a day of giving back to the community.”

In total, nearly 200 members of the Thunder organization assisted teachers and students with various projects around the school. That included campus beautification, games in the gym and educational activities.

“I was supposed to be in art class, but I ended up being in history. I got tricked,” Thunder rookie Jaylin Williams said. “But it was fun. All the kids in there were great. We had some good conversations. I helped them with their homework. It was fun.”

The project was in honor of Black History Month, so the players were able to talk to the students about their classwork. Some of the players even learned a few things themselves.

“It was a paper about Martin Luther King. Just where he is from and things like that,” Williams said. “I didn’t know where he was from. That was the only one I didn’t know. But they looked it up and I guess I learned today.”

While the kids enjoyed playing games, shooting hoops and chatting with their idols, they were also being inspired. Just having the Thunder on campus allowed school officials to introduce the predominant students of color to role models.

“We believe very strongly at OKCPS that full engagement matters. That school is a community effort,” OKPCS Superintendent Sean McDaniel said. “When we see the Thunder and we see our young African American kids see adult African Americans who are successful, then they say I can do that. Just from a role model perspective, the contributions that have been made over the decades and centuries and to call it out so that our kids know, that’s the promise for me. They did it, I can do it. It’s role modeling at its peak.”

Andre Daughty, an educator and education keynote speaker from Edmond (Ok.), says role models in the classroom or outside of it, can have a major impact on all kids.

“The importance of role models on young kids of color is the same as important role models for people in general. It’s important because when kids can see themselves in their teachers, they see greatness,” said Andre Daughty, an educator and keynote speaker. “Those teachers/role models know how those kids laugh, play, learn and live. They can differentiate when the students are clowning and although they may be loud, there’s no harmful intent. Those same role models can tell when adults should just allow the kids to have their silence. Those role models/teachers can also adapt their teaching styles to better serve students.”

Thunder forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl talked about having influential people in his life that allowed him to see the value of role models. It was something he thought about when a little boy hugged him just for being in class and talking to him.

“Just being able to bring that joy they bring to me, it means everything,” Robinson-Earl said. “Just having the opportunity to get hugs from kids that I’ve just met for the first time, it says a lot about people who are around in my life who put me in a position to bring that joy to others.”

McDaniel says he and his staff provide a certain type of role models for kids at MLK, but it just means more when they see people who look like them take an interest in their lives.

“It’s critical as we move from kindergarten through 12th grade that we see people that we can aspire to be like,” McDaniel said. “I get a kick out walking through a school and a kid will come and grab my leg and I’ll walk with the kid. But it’s different if it’s a Latino, if it’s an African American who sees someone that knows their culture, understands what they go through. It’s not me. So, we have to have other adults who step into those positions and say, ‘let me show you the way you can do this. I did it. You can do it.’ I think that’s critical. And so, a day like this where that is happening in our halls, there’s no substitute for it.”

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