Freshman Ja’Mari Ward had never dunked a basketball before his junior year of high school. One of the first times he did, he lept from the free throw line, as if he were Michael Jordan in the 1988 dunk contest. His high school track and field coach Leroy Millsap remembers just how freakishly athletic Ward was.
“It was a peer pressure type of thing,” Millsap said. “He had never dunked a basketball before in his life so he kept trying and eventually got one from the free throw line. I was mad because when he did it, he twisted his ankle.”
Millsap coached Ward from the time he turned 11 all the way until he left for Mizzou. After years of working with Ward as head track and field coach at Cahokia High School in Illinois, Millsap had plenty to say about one of the greatest athletes he has ever coached.
Reaching the national stage
“Ja’Mari is a very competitive kid that hates to lose,” Millsap said. “Sometimes it seems like he hits the wall, but somewhere deep in his soul he pulls something out of him, no matter what the other competitors have ran. He can dig down deep and beat anyone he wants.”
He was ranked No. 1 nationally his junior year. He kept pushing.
“Every year, we set a goal,” Millsap said. “We kept advancing that goal by a foot or a foot and a half after every year to keep pushing him. I have been coaching him since the fifth and sixth grade. I knew early on that he would be the greatest jumper I have ever had. I trained him every summer.”
By the end of his senior season, Ward was ranked No. 1 nationally in both triple and long jump, with records of 53 feet 7.5 inches and 26 feet 1.5 inches, respectively. He was also a multiple-time state champion and Junior National Champion in the long jump. It was a proud moment for Millsap when Ward claimed that title for Team USA.
Ward now ranks on the all-time national records list for high school athletes, ranking No. 7 in triple jump and is tied for No. 11 in the long jump.
Millsap says there’s still room for improvement, though.
“He still does not know how to jump.” Millsap said. “He pays very close attention to detail though. When he jumps, he never hits the board before his big jumps. He is always 2 feet behind the board when he hits big.”
That means that on his biggest jumps, Ward could add a few more feet to it by just hitting the board when he jumps.
In May, Ward twisted his ankle and dislocated his kneecap while extending on a jump at a meet. He did not have any structural damage to it, but Millsap decided to sit him out in order to prepare for Junior Nationals, forcing Ward to miss the state meet.
“His mindset never changed, though, when he got hurt,” Millsap said. “He was still hungry and we had to have a meeting with his parents and coaches to tell him we shut him down for now. When he got cleared to jump again, we just went back to the basics and retaught him over again. He actually got cleared to run in the state meet, but I had a plan and stuck to it.”
Millsap believed Ward’s success was because of his family. During his time coaching Ward, Millsap grew close with his family and learned things about them a lot of people did not know.
“He is close to his family,” Millsap said. “It honestly is one unique family. His brother was a great high jumper for me. He jumped 6 feet 8 inches in high school as a freshman. His father was an all-state wrestler who broke his neck wrestling his junior year only to come back his senior year. His father always demanded nothing but the best.”
Ward originally got into track and field because it was a chance for him to hang out with his brothers.
He played tennis and ran cross country for years, until Millsap was able to teach him triple jump while his brothers practiced. He played tennis competitively until high school, but continued playing at the recreational center as a hobby. Millsap credits Ward’s tennis skills as having helped him develop quickness.
Not just an athlete
Millsap joined Ward’s family as they helped him through the recruitment process, sitting in on multiple meeting with coaches and recruits. He also offered advice to Ward.
“Main thing I wanted him to focus on were academics,” Millsap said. “Focus on what to major in. If you can practice for 3-4 hours, then you can hit the books for 3-4 hours. Do not be the athlete that only wants to be an athlete and not a student.”
Millsap sees a bright future ahead for Ward, both as a student and as an athlete.
“Once he learns to really jump, he will shock the world with something great,” Millsap said. “The goal is to break the world record by sophomore year in long jump. He still has to finish learning triple jump. By the end of his career, he could really scare the hell out of both world records and go down as a great.”
Edited by Katherine Stevenson | firstname.lastname@example.org