Helping Youths Shoot Straight : Slam-n-Jam Director Teaches a Lot More Than Just Basketball
Issy Washington, who helps young people shoot for a better life, noted recently that this is the 40th straight year he has been involved with basketball as a player or coach.
And for the last 11 years he has also directed the Slam-n-Jam spring and summer development league, acting as adoptive father to many of its participants. The league, for Southern California players from the first grade through college, has been called one of the nation’s best youth basketball programs.
It is not a “dumb jock” program, Washington said, but one that is geared toward academics and against drugs and gangs. “I think we help a youngster realize life is not just basketball,” he said.
Washington was besieged by prominent college coaches last week at the Cal State Long Beach gym during his Slam-n-Jam Invitational Tournament for high school seniors. That is, when the coaches could slow him down. Adept at public relations and trouble-shooting, he seemed always on the move, doing both.
“Where’s Issy?” Nevada Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian kept asking during a break in the games. He finally spotted the former Air Force major, who looked youthful for 49 in T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, and rushed to shake his hand.
Coaches approach Washington as if he could be their key to a winning season, probably because in the last seven years more than 300 Slam-n-Jam players, according to the league, have received scholarships to Division I colleges.
“I don’t know what college coaches think I have,” said Washington, who runs Slam-n-Jam out of his home in Carson, “but every one of them glad-hands me. I know they think I can do a whole lot for them as far as recruiting, but I really don’t steer kids anyplace. I’m a neutral guy. If I can help them with a phone number for a player, I will. But it’s not my thing to tell a kid where to go.”
His appeal evidently extends even beyond coaches. A picture in the tournament program showed him posing with actress Whoopi Goldberg. “She just came to one of our tournaments,” he said. “I’m always amazed at the number of people who follow high school basketball.”
Washington, though, does not see himself as a celebrity. And he is perceived by others as a hard worker dedicated to the youngsters he calls “Issy’s kids.”
“He’s an honest, honorable guy, fair with everyone,” said Seth Greenberg, assistant coach at Cal State Long Beach.
“He loves the kids,” Tarkanian said.
As a child, Washington moved from Mississippi to Tacoma, Wash., and later played basketball at the University of Puget Sound. Stationed in the Los Angeles area for most of his 20-year Air Force career, he became a youth basketball coach and organizer in the mid-1970s. In 1979 he and Walt Hazzard, then coach at Compton College, founded Slam-n-Jam.
“There were no summer leagues in the inner city then,” Washington said. “It was difficult for the kids to get out to some of the leagues at Cal State L.A. or in the valley. We said, ‘Why don’t we do something here?’ ”
The league, which began with eight teams and 70 players, has grown to where this summer more than 600 of the best area prep players competed at Compton College and Dominguez and Carson high schools. And about 300 youngsters in grades one through eight play in Washington’s fall program (he coaches a 13-and-under team) at Victoria Park in Carson.
He sees that his best teams travel to all-star tournaments. This year, a 13-and-under team went to Indianapolis and a 12-and-under team played in Salt Lake City. He has three teams in a tournament this week in Las Vegas. “The trips have educational value,” Washington said. “Some of the kids have never been on a damn plane.”
Slam-n-Jam has been praised as smoothly run.
“It’s probably the best league in terms of organization,” said Ernie Carr, former Dominguez High basketball coach and now an assistant at UC Irvine. Washington “is good at getting things through bureaucracies, getting money and sponsorship. That stuff is a pain but he’s able to get it done.”
A power failure during the tournament last week threatened to throw the schedule into chaos, but Washington was able to get games switched immediately to Long Beach City College. “Lucky I’ve got some friends in this town,” he said. “It usually takes forever to get in some of these places.”
Washington charges $125 to play in the league and uses the money to pay for uniforms, insurance, gym rent, referees and ticket takers.
“A lot of inner-city kids don’t have the money,” said Washington, who estimated that the league is evenly divided between black and white youngsters. “If we based it solely on the ability to pay, the league would be 80% white. “But we never turn a kid away. If he can’t pay, we may make him work the clock or sweep the gym floor.”
Air Force retirement pay and investments, Washington said, have enabled him to give most of his time to the league. “It’s not our purpose to make money,” he said. “I have a master’s degree in business administration and haven’t figured out a way you can make a lot of money in this. If I break even, I’m happy. We’re pretty much debt-free. We’re getting more and more sponsors, and that makes it easier.”
To help pay for the out-of-town trips, raffles are held. “I’ve got mothers and fathers who pitch in with the fund-raising,” Washington said.
Sponsors Help Pay Fees
He is proud of the Scholastic Aptitude Test preparation course the league offers at Compton College. The course, which teaches test-taking skills, costs $690.
“Black kids, who need it the most, can’t afford it,” Washington said. So the fees are paid by two of his sponsors, Reebok and the Princeton Review, a nationwide company that advertises itself as the “best coach” in preparing for the SAT.
Washington said that the players who regularly attended the sessions last year improved their test scores by an average of 150 points. He hopes to have 100 players taking the course this fall.
“I think it’s culturally biased,” Washington said of the SAT, “but if you can’t get a 700 on it you probably don’t belong in college anyway.” Under the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s Proposition 48, a student-athlete must score a minimum of 700 points out of a possible 1,600 to be eligible to play sports.
Coaches Are Role Models
Besides emphasizing academics, the Slam-n-Jam league takes a stance against drugs and gangs.
“All the coaches see the kids twice a week and are constantly preaching about drugs and gangs,” Washington said. “We have coaches who are role models and are young enough (in their 20s) for the kids to identify with.”
Among them are Keith Young, an assistant coach at Fremont High School; Chris Washington, Issy’s son and a former player at California, and Larry Friend, a Watts native and former USC player.
Washington calls his league a laboratory for human relations.
“We get kids from Laguna Hills, Irvine, all over,” he said. “And they all come into beautiful Compton to play basketball. In 11 years we haven’t had one fight or racial incident. I’ve spent a lot of time and money doing this, but you get rewarded. If it helps a kid stay out of the streets or get in college, it’s worth it.”