RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–He’s an unusual role model for urban African American youth: a middle-aged white guy with a Yankees baseball cap and a big boyish grin.
Yet Jack Dempsey scores big with his basketball team in the Richmond (Va.) Baptist Association’s RA program by being tough on discipline, tough on character and tough on the court.
“Jack is like a second father,” says Darryl Johnson, 15. “He will help you on your homework, help you stay in school and keep you from the streets.”
Many of Dempsey’s RAs live in rough neighborhoods, often with only one parent at home. Johnson says that until he met Dempsey, he often skipped school, got poor grades and didn’t take faith seriously. But now, he gets good grades and has his priorities in order. “God comes first before anything,” he says.
Dempsey wears several hats as coach, teacher, friend and role model. Nobody seems to mind that he’s the only white guy; everyone on this team is colorblind.
Watching Dempsey coach from the sideline electrifies the game. He takes a player aside with an arm around the boy’s shoulder and explains the next game strategy in a serious tone. “Take charge,” he says with a sweeping gesture.
Time-in. Dempsey’s players pass the ball skillfully like a pinball machine and swish a score. The coach lets out a cheer and makes one strong clap with his hands. “Good shot! Good job!” he shouts from the sideline.
“Everybody accepts Jack,” says Taj Henley, 15. “It’s like he’s got a black person inside of him. … I look at him as one of the brothers.”
Dempsey gives the boys rides to and from practice and often pays tournament fees and uniform expenses out of his own pocket. In addition to his job as an insurance agent, he loads trucks and delivers papers to raise enough money to help his boys.
Henley says Dempsey saved him from the wrong crowd. “All of us are in the same situation, growing up hard,” Henley says. He believes RAs gives his peers a safe place to let off steam and stay out of trouble. “We can relate to each other like a family and let our emotions out,” he explains. Henley now plays basketball at George Wythe High School on the varsity team. Even as a freshman, his skills were strong enough from his RA years to bypass the junior team. Henley wants the new guys in RAs this year to enjoy the same TLC he got from J.D., as Dempsey often is called.
Purnell Spears, assistant RA coach, lauds Dempsey’s ability to care for these kids, crossing racial barriers. “Jack can go in the neighborhoods where these kids live, and he is accepted,” Spears says. “I don’t even think they know he’s white. They just know he’s someone who is there. He takes good care of them.”
The friendship between Spears and Dempsey, dating back to high school days in the 1970s, crossed racial barriers as well. The two ball players found RAs a place where color didn’t count.
Now, both men build positive race relationships between blacks and whites in the Christian community through basketball. Dempsey feels God gave him the life circumstances to empathize with his young athletes. “Right now, these boys’ lives parallel my life as a teenager,” Dempsey says. “I grew up in and out of broken marriages, with a stepfather here and there. So basically, I never had a constant man in my life to really speak of, or to get involved with my sports or to take me to church.”
Yet while growing up, Dempsey developed a keen sensitivity to African American culture. Riding a bus in 1963, he badgered his mother to explain why black people sat in the back. He took black history classes in high school and developed interracial friendships.
But his own RA experience gave him true stability. Spears and Dempsey played basketball for the South Richmond Baptist Center RA chapter while teenagers. Dan Whorton, director of accounting at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, went to all the boys’ games and held them spiritually accountable. Today, Spears and Dempsey joke that Whorton is the “grandfather” of the boys they now coach in RAs.
“Royal Ambassadors came into my life after my mom died, a time in my life when everything seemed to be going wrong,” Spears says. “I really didn’t believe in God. … Like Jack’s relationship is with these kids, Dan Whorton was the first white man that came into my life — the first white man I ever trusted. He followed me through high school and college. He always had time for me, helped me do my papers, picked me up in the summertime whenever we had meetings.” Just being there was the most important gift, Spear says.
Dempsey says it has taken six years to build his team’s reputation as a positive model for inner-city youth. “About seven years ago, I asked God to give me something meaningful in my life to be able to carry on his name. … I didn’t realize what it was going to be,” he says. “I just asked.”
In 1993, when Dempsey was taking his daughter to cheerleading practice at a local recreation center, several parks and recreation officials encouraged him to volunteer as a coach. Then, by giving kids rides to and from practice, he began to see their many needs. Taj Henley was just 8 years old at the time.
“By their gaining confidence in me, other kids started seeing our relationship, and they really wanted to follow suit,” Dempsey says. “It just grew from that point.”
Dempsey boasts that the high school coaches drool to get his RA boys onto varsity teams. Coaches at George Wythe High School tell Dempsey that his boys come to the varsity court with athletic and mental readiness.
“I really never thought of the impact it would have, until one day I just stopped to look back at what type of men they have turned out to be,” Dempsey says. “What drives me is doing in the Lord’s name what somebody else did for me.”
Youth need positive and consistent role models in their lives, Dempsey says. He promises to be there whenever the boys need him, believing that broken promises strike deeper than any game victory.
At this evening’s game, the Warriors sink another point on the court and Dempsey cheers.
“Nothing should be able to hold these boys back,” says Dempsey, watching the action closely. “They have the right to go out and achieve. And if they do the right thing, right will follow them and opportunities will come. … It’s a snowballing effect.”
His boys want to continue the legacy of caring. Taj Henley now helps coach the RA team when he isn’t busy on his own varsity team. “I’ve finished RA basketball, but I’m still here to help out and try to be a leader and show the new guys about God,” Henley says. “RAs isn’t just about basketball.”
Henley raises both hands jubilantly over a successful three-point shot as the game continues.
Several weeks ago Henley was baptized. Dempsey and his wife sat on the parents’ pew up front, because Henley’s mother didn’t show up at the last minute.
The coach says RAs is about keeping promises and showing God’s consistent love. “I’ve made up my mind that whatever I say to these boys, I’m going to do,” Dempsey says. “They will always have someone to come to, talk to and believe in. That honesty with them, I attribute to my faith in Jesus Christ.”
Two minutes remaining in this scrimmage, and the Warriors are winning. Jan. 2 marked the beginning of the new RA basketball season. With almost 30 RA teams in the Richmond Baptist Association, Dempsey’s boys are the only RA chapter from the south Richmond area. Now that most of Dempsey’s boys have gone varsity, this year’s team is “new meat.” Time to start the cycle of training and prayer to grow a new team up in camaraderie and faith.
“I got a nephew — just born,” grins Taj Henley. “I’m going to try to start him early learning about God, taking him to church, so he can get into it.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.