(Duarte, CA) – Basketball has taken Jelani Gardner all over the world and now he’s ready to share a few of the lessons he’s learned with the boys basketball team at Duarte High School.
It’s a perfect match for both Gardner and the Falcons as he brings a lifetime love affair with basketball to a campus that has struggled to field a successful team in that sport in recent years.
“We are very fortunate to be bringing on a coach who has had a lifetime of success in the sport and who believes in the power of positive coaching,” said James Heggins, Dean of Athletics at Duarte. “He gives our basketball players an outstanding role model with a great work ethic.”
Gardner’s basketball highlights film began in high school at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, and included being named the 1994 CIF and California State High School Player of the Year, honors on the USA Today and McDonald’s All American teams, as well as successful playing time at the University of California and Pepperdine.
Basketball has also taken him to Israel, Germany, Australia, France and Russia, over a 12-year international playing career before he started his coaching career in 2012-23 at La Salle High School in Pasadena. He has since coached with the JAG club teams, as well last year at Bristol University in Orange County.
“I’m so grateful to the people at Duarte,” said Gardner. “I’m fortunate to be coming to a school where the athletic director (Heggins) and the principal (Mark Sims) both have a history of success in sports and know what it takes to compete. This is a community that appreciates what sports can do for its young people.”
Gardner succeeds Earl Sanchez, who resigned after leading the Falcons to a 4-22 record in his one season. Duarte has had just one winning record in the last 10 years (13-12 in 2005-06) and the boys basketball team has struggled to keep up with the girls program, which went to the CIF Finals last year.
“I’m smiling when you mention that (the record),” said Gardner. “I believe anything is possible, and my faith is strong. I believe we have what it takes to turn the Duarte Falcons into a winning program. I’ve gotten winning vibes and feel very positive about the things I have seen in this community. Duarte is willing to embrace me and I’m excited about starting with a blank canvas. The players and I have a chance to paint a bright picture from scratch.”
If nothing else, Gardner is a positive man. While still in college, he needed a kidney transplant (from his mother) and that short-circuited his plans to advance to the National Basketball Association. Instead, he opted to play internationally, and 12 years later, believes it was the best possible experience for him.
“You can come out of college with some knowledge about Europe or the rest of the world, but that’s nothing compared to what you will gain from living and competing there,” he said. “I’ve lived in Siberia in Russia, in a town near Tel Aviv in Israel, in Hamburg in Germany and in Townsville, Australia. I’ve played in France and my wife is from France and my kids were born there.”
But Gardner sees those experiences as chapters in the book leading up to the latest plot development, which has him perfecting his skills as a coach.
“Our goal as a group is to focus on accountability and to play for each other, for our parents, for the school and for the community,” he said. “These young men will learn they are playing for the name on the front of their shirt, not the name on the back. Basketball teaches a lot of life’s lessons. It’s not a perfect game. You learn discipline, punctuality, selflessness, sportsmanship; and you learn that the winning team is usually the one that makes the fewest mistakes.”
Gardner said he thinks often of something his father, Tommy, has reminded him about his new role: “It’s about teaching, not coaching.”
After a lifetime learning lessons from basketball, and seeing the world, Jelani Gardner is ready to teach those lessons to the Duarte Falcons. Check the Duarte High School website at dhsfalcons.org for game schedules.