Jacob's assist: High school friends share bond on, off the basketball court
By Allen Etzler
Published in Sports on June 23, 2014 1:48 PM
Jay-Len Roberts walks into an empty gym.
His childhood friend Jacob Coley rolls in right beside him.
Jacob has always wanted to play point guard.
Roberts sets the ball on Jacob's lap at the top of the key.
Roberts counts down from five and Jacob rolls the ball to Roberts, who knocks down a jump shot.
Jacob logs an assist.
The young man has racked up plenty of them over the years.
All of them have been to Roberts.
Jacob has cerebral palsy.
He is bound to a motorized wheelchair.
He has also been one of Roberts' best friends since fourth grade.
"It's not to make myself look good or because I feel bad for him," Roberts said. "He's always been in my corner. He's made me believe in myself because he's believed in me.
"Jacob, he's never going to be able to play point guard on a real team, or run up and down the court and do those kinds of things. So if he can sort of live that dream through me and I can help him, then that's great."
When Roberts didn't make the team in seventh grade Jacob made sure he didn't give up on basketball and that he tried out next year.
The next season Roberts won the team's Most Valuable Player award.
"I shared my MVP trophy with him that year," Roberts said. "He made me think I was good enough."
The two friends spend all of their gym class running plays together.
Roberts is intensely focused on making as many jump shots as he can.
Jacob flashes a big smile after each assist, all the while not knowing how much he has helped shaped Roberts' future.
Roberts remembers what it was like growing up without much money and stealing things for no reason.
"I was just a bad kid," Roberts said. "No rhyme or reason to it really."
That's when Roberts met second-grade teacher Carrie Kornegay, who helped him change his life before he traveled too far down the wrong path. The two still keep in touch.
A few years later, Roberts realized he wanted to help kids who were underprivileged like him when he was younger. Then, after meeting Jacob, he also wanted to help special needs kids as well.
Thus, his non-profit idea started to become reality.
"Everything just sort of built up to this," Roberts said. "I think every kid has a special need. It's not just kids like Jacob or kids like me when I was younger. Sometimes it's just helping a kid realize the career options (he or she) has available."
This past year Roberts sought to help the special education kids at Southern Wayne with another need of theirs -- social skills.
"Most of us are changing classes throughout the day so we interact with our friends in the halls," Roberts said. "They're in one classroom throughout the day and don't get that. I think it's important for them to be able to get out of class and interact with the rest of the (student body)."
So, Roberts got a group of athletes from the school together and organized a luncheon for the special needs students. He organized a "guys night out" and a "girls night out" for the students to socialize with girls from the cheerleading squad and with the guys on the basketball team.
He said it's paid off.
"It's been like six months and they still talk about it," Roberts said. "They still talk to the friends they made."
Small Division I and Division II schools, particularly Virginia Union and the University of Virgin Islands, have intermittently recruited Roberts.
But the desire to start his own non-profit organization to help underprivileged children led him to accept an academic scholarship to William Peace University in Raleigh where he will play basketball for the third-year program directed by coach Claude Shields.
"They told me they will help me with my non-profit program and making sure I have the tools I need to succeed after basketball," Roberts said. "That was important to me. And it's in North Carolina so Jacob can come to a game if he wants to. That's important, too."
Roberts was drawn to being one of the faces of the school and doing things like creating the first fraternity on campus and being involved in the Student Government Association.
But mostly, he wants to kick-start his non-profit organization called GYFTED -- Gearing Youth For Their Eternal Destinies.
Roberts is a 6-foot-6, 205-pound gentle giant -- except on the basketball court.
"I think a lot of people mistake my kindness for weakness," Roberts said. "They think they can get on the court and take advantage of me, but I don't let that happen."
Roberts averaged 9.7 points and led the Saints in rebounds, according to MaxPreps.com. The team didn't have a lot of size, which forced Roberts to be their low-post presence.
At William Peace, Roberts could move to small forward and take on a role on the perimeter. He admits he'll have to adjust through hard work and dedication, which at times, has been his Achilles' heel throughout his high school career.
However, there's one kid who won't let him get lazy.
"Most tall guys are kind of lazy, but, Jacob, man, he doesn't let me get lazy," Roberts said. "In the gym he'll make me run to go get the ball and all that ... He never lets me lose sight.
"I hope I've impacted his life because he's definitely impacted mine."
And maybe that's Jacob's biggest assist of all.
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