"When I grew up, I didn't have my mom or dad because of drugs and the bad decisions they made to get put in jail."
Those are LaMarcus Stewart's thoughts about his life so far. He goes on to praise his grandmother and Portland Community College's basketball program for helping him "better" his life.
When you watch a PCC basketball game, you can pick out Stewart immediately. He's the guy in charge, a 5-foot, 8-inch point guard dominating the court. He's the energy out there pushing the other players, creating opportunities, setting up plays and encouraging everyone on the court to "bring their best."
This success has not come easily for the Northeast Portland native, and he will tell you that. He doesn't dwell on the specifics of his family's past. Instead, he's more likely to tell you about the 18 points per game and the strong academic effort he has under way.
In 2002, Stewart graduated from Helensview High School, an award-winning alternative program in Multnomah County. While at Helensview, he played basketball for Roosevelt High School in North Portland. He's taking general studies at PCC's Cascade Campus with plans to make a career out of his interest in business.
PCC Coach Wayne Mendezona, whose coaching travels have taken him as far as the Middle East, said Stewart is "in a transforming process … becoming a leader because he is listening and accepting responsibility," and he's "gained confidence in his academic abilities."
Stewart's story resonates with many on both the men and women's basketball teams. While PCC is building a reputation on the basketball court — they're now ranked 12th out of 34 teams in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges League — coaches and the athletic director launched a targeted effort to emphasize academic success as well. A demand that players thrive in education goals has been matched by a commitment of staff to monitor their progress, including providing specialized tutors to ensure success. It is working.
Players from Southeast Portland like Avery Rosen on the men's team and Leah Davidson on the women's team model what coaches would like to see from all of their athletes. Rosen graduated from Cleveland High School as a varsity basketball player. After attending Joliet Junior College in Illinois last year, and after being part of a team that lost in the Nationals by one point, Rosen returned to Portland for family reasons. He now has found more success — not only on the basketball court, but also in the psychology classroom.
Davidson's energy as a shooting guard on the court is expected to propel her into a strong career as a personal trainer or physical therapist. Fitting directly within the goals of the program, she expects to move into a four-year program at a local college or university once she gets the career requirements out of the way.
She took a year off out of high school, worked in a convenience store and "realized that I didn't want to always work at minimum wage." She then looked around for a college to attend. She had played basketball since sixth grade, felt comfortable with women's team coach Rob Pridemore and enrolled in PCC. She recently discovered that not only was the extra time spent working out and playing on the court interesting, but a writing class sparked her creativity in ways she didn't expect.
PCC has invested heavily of late in new coaches and facilities. A $5 million, two-story athletic building along North Killingsworth Street has become a jewel in the program, with both the men and women's teams playing to strong audiences in the gym.
The coaches, Mendezona and Pride more, focus on revitalizing and expanding the program. Their goals are straightforward — they, and athletic director Karl Easttorp, believe that a strong athletic and academic program will bring in more students to PCC, and an ever-increasing quality of players. They also believe it helps the students, the college and the community, providing a path for many students who would not otherwise have access to higher education and skilled jobs.