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Jordan Salley finds surrogate family in Sac State teammates, coaches

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 - 9:24 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 - 7:56 am

When Jordan Salley calls his teammates and coaches on the Sacramento State men’s basketball his family, it’s no cliché.

The senior isn’t sure where he’d be without their support and encouragement, both on and off the court, after arriving at the school two years ago fresh from mind-numbing personal tragedies.

Salley is an only child. His parents died within 14 months of each other while he was attending Santa Rosa Junior College.

His mother, Shelley, had battled brain cancer for several years. She died in December 2010. His father, Keenan, died of a heart attack in February 2012.

“It was a like scene out of a movie. I couldn’t believe I lost my parents in less than two years,” Salley said.

The 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward had been an all-state player and hot recruit at La Verne Lutheran High School in Southern California. But recruiting interest dropped when he injured his left knee before his senior season. Sidelined after surgery and with his mother ill, Salley saw his grades slip.

“At the time, I was really depressed because I had seen all these teams interested in me and I couldn’t play,” Salley said. “But looking back on it, I see it as a blessing in disguise. I got to spend more time being around my mom and helping take care of her.”

Despite the injury, he got a scholarship offer from Montana State, a Big Sky Conference rival of Sac State. Salley, however, failed to qualify academically. At Santa Rosa, Salley played only a few games as a freshman, crushed by his mother’s death and still not in shape because of his knee.

“I think my mother hung on and fought for as long as she could because her biggest thing is she wanted to make sure I got to college,” Salley said. “She had lost her parents when she was young, so she knew what it was like to be on her own at such a young age. She worked really hard, held several jobs, so I could be set up for success, not failure.”

At Santa Rosa, Salley bounced back with a strong sophomore season, helping the Bear Cubs to a 26-6 record and a Big 8 Conference championship. But that season, too, was marred by loss.

Keenan Salley, who was living in Chicago, had kept in regular contact with his son, especially after his wife’s death.

“My dad was helping me through those times,” Salley said. “He kept encouraging me to keep working hard. The last time I talked to him, I told him that Sac State might offer (a scholarship).

“He said that was great, but not to rush into anything. Two days later, my aunt calls me and tells me my father is dead.”

Sac State coach Brian Katz had been watching Salley since his freshman year at Santa Rosa and was impressed with his toughness and team-first mentality. He offered Salley a scholarship and comforting words after his father died.

“Jordan is a wonderful kid,” Katz said. “He’s very sensitive, very caring. I told him, ‘I know this sounds corny, but I don’t care how corny this is: We’ll be your family, and I’ll be your dad.’ 

It wasn’t just a recruiting ploy. Katz is the father of five children and was close to his late father, Victor.

“Coach Katz is like having another father around,” Salley said. “You can talk to him about anything. I also knew he was going to be hard on me, and that’s something I needed.”

After his father died, Salley’s academic efforts again started to wane. There were some concerns he wouldn’t be eligible to play at Sac State.

“I’d tell Jordan, ‘You need to look in the mirror and ask what mom and dad would say,’ ” Katz said. “ ‘Is this going to be a beautiful story or a tragedy? If you do things right, it’s a beautiful story, and you honor your parents’ memory.’ 

Katz also got an assist from Jordan’s aunt, Alisha Salley, who had flown in from Chicago to watch her nephew’s first game, only to deliver some impromptu tough-love advice.

“The first thing she says to Jordan is, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Katz recalled. “Do you know how hard I had to work to get through school? You’re on scholarship. You are going to get this straight.’ 

Alisha Salley said she could see Jordan was still mourning the loss of his parents and that he was depressed. But she also realized he couldn’t afford to blow a good opportunity. She was impressed by Katz and the players. She saw Sac State as a good fit with a strong support system for Jordan.

“He was even talking about quitting basketball, that he only did it for his mom,” Alisha Salley said. “Jordan had always been spoiled by his parents. I told him there were people who could help him, but at the end of the day, there was no mom and dad. He had to work to help himself now.”

Jordan Salley said the message got through.

“She helped me get back on track along with my coaches,” Salley said. “I knew I had to stop making excuses. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.”

Katz said Salley is doing better academically and on track to graduate next fall. His goal is to get into law enforcement, preferably as a U.S. marshal.

Salley credits his teammates for being there for him, particularly junior captain Mikh McKinney. They share the same major, sociology, and often have classes together.

“I just really clicked with him right away,” McKinney said. “With his family loss, I feel like a brother to him. We always get on each other and make fun of each other, like brothers do. We have a real good relationship that way, on the court and off the court.”

While Salley plays 14.9 minutesa game, he’s highly efficient, averaging 6.1 points and 3.4 rebounds and providing strong interior defense against often taller players. He is Sac State’s career field-goal percentage leader at 63 percent (82 of 131).

With just four regular-season games remaining entering tonight’s game at first-place Weber State, Salley realizes that in the twilight of his career, he may be part of a special team.

The Hornets (13-12, 9-7) have won seven of their past eight games and could produce the first winning record of the Division I era (since 1991).

“We’re all on the same page as far as wanting to win games and wanting to win the (Big Sky) tournament,” Salley said. “This is a great group of guys. We’re like a family.

“Like coach says, we’ll name our kids after each other, and we’ll stay in contact long after we’re done playing.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson

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