From Youth Basketball To The NBA
January 3, 2019
The New Jersey Roadrunner program is the stuff of basketball legends. Among its countless alumni, 39 NBA players once donned the Roadrunner blue and white. Equally jaw-dropping is the fact that over 1,000 NCAA players have come through the program over the years. How did they build such an organization? To find out, we spoke with John Gardner, the general manager of the Roadrunners.
What inspired you to get involved with youth basketball?
I had a very tall son. As an eighth-grader he was over six feet tall. By the time he reached ninth grade he was 6’6″. It was at this time that I was introduced to Sandy Pyonin of the New Jersey Roadrunners, and this dates back over 15 years ago. At the time I didn’t really know much about basketball. I was a college football player and that was the extent of my athletic background, so I didn’t come into this with a passion for basketball. But thanks to my son, I was introduced to the Roadrunners, an organization that brought together kids from every walk of life who all needed to be mentored and molded. And what I found was that the goals of the organization, what these kids were working towards, really resonated with me and aligned with my core belief system. It didn’t come down to basketball for me, it came down to the human element. Having the opportunity to improve the lives of young people and by association improve society, that’s what drew me to this.
With the pillars of the Roadrunner organization well established, how do you communicate those expectations to parents and players?
I’ve been with Sandy Pyonin for 15 years. My job is to be the ambassador of our brand. That extends to what we do, what we say, how we behave and how we carry ourselves. We start our program with seventh and eighth graders. Before you can be in our program, your parent or guardian has to come to a meeting with us. In this meeting, we talk about our core beliefs. We’re transparent with them from the beginning (7th grade) that if you can’t buy in and support our core beliefs, this place isn’t for you. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a “Top 100” player or the number one player in the country. If a player can’t abide by our core beliefs system, they can’t be in our program.
First and foremost, to be a New Jersey Roadrunner you need to be a good person. Now, kids are going to make mistakes and we’re here to help them through those mistakes, but when you continually make the same kind of mistakes, that’s not acceptable. Along the way, we’ve asked players to leave the program for this very reason, because they didn’t have the moral fiber to conduct themselves in the right way. The guidelines are straightforward: Behave yourself at home, listen to your parents, behave yourself at school and be a leader in that setting. We can’t help you get recruited unless you excel academically. No school is interested in a player, regardless of skill level, if they have a low GPA. We try to drill that into their heads at the 7th-grade level, that the key is education and that your grades can make or break you at the next level. And if they need help, we’re not just offering encouragement, we’re offering support as well.
We have tutors come in to help students. Clearly communicating our expectations, supporting every kid who wants to do it the right way, that has led to a tremendous amount of success for our kids. We’ve had 39 NBA players come through our program and over 1,000 NCAA players. It doesn’t matter if you’re Kyrie Irving or Randy Foye or a player that didn’t play a minute in college, the behavioral expectation is identical for everyone and that’s what makes the difference in my opinion.
Kyrie Irving is the Roadrunners’ most famous alumnus, but over the years, which player that hasn’t received the same fanfare stands out in your mind?
Keon Williams. He was a McDonald’s All-American who played at Hackensack High School. He came from a single parent family, from lower socio-economic housing, and he became close with me and my family. We’d help out however we could, giving him rides to practices and games. It all led to 15 D-1 scholarship offers. He ended up going to Iona, and subsequentially injured his knee. From there he had multiple surgeries on his knee and ankle and throughout it all we stayed in close contact. He ended up transferring to Pace University after things became untenable at Iona. In the end, he graduated with an undergraduate degree and a masters degree. This was all driven by and made possible by the game of basketball. And there was no doubt about it, he was a big-time player, but he got hurt. Keon would say that the game of basketball taught him how to be an adult, a good person, and a professional. Once he was done with college I helped him get an internship with at Kraft Foods that turned into Mondelez. Today he’s an executive at Mondelez Foods. He still stops by our house at all the holidays; he’s a part of our family now. And to us, he’s more of a success story than the NBA players that have come through the program. He went through adversity, he valued education and achieved his two degrees, and because of that, he’s successful in life. We have countless stories like that with the Roadrunners. These kids use basketball as a vehicle to get an education and then a great job, which puts them on track for a great life.
And those stories continue today. Brandon Anderson came to us from Mahwah and he’s now the starting point guard at Brown. He accomplished that through education. I remember when he was growing up in Northern Jersey he’d come around my house and ask “Mr. Gardner, I want to be a Roadrunner!” And I’d have to tell him, “you’re not old enough yet, you’re not old enough yet.” Once he was old enough, he worked really hard to achieve his dreams on the court and off of it. He spent countless hours in the gym.
That’s something that people don’t like to focus on. If you want to go to the next level, you have to spend your waking hours between school and working on your game. There is nothing else. That’s not to discourage people from their dreams. We just want to be clear from the onset, if you want to be an All-American or a D-1 player you have to be willing to sacrifice other things in pursuit of your goals. But you have to be willing to work on both ends, school, and basketball. We have an expression around the gym, “Four years later, the ball is going to stop bouncing, what are you going to do?” I coach the kids when they come in the door at 7th-grade and Sandy coaches them at the end of their time here. And in between, we have the same message for these kids. It has to be more than basketball so that when you’re finished with the game, you’re ready for the rest of your life.
Why are Roadrunners seemingly more ready for the next level of basketball?
We run college offenses and college defenses when our kids are in seventh and eighth grade. When you talk to college coaches who have scouted and offered scholarships to our kids they’ll tell you, these kids come out of the box assembled. They can’t be shaken, they’re emotionally stable. We don’t coddle our players. We teach that the game of basketball just like life can be unfair at times.
Sporting Orange Sweats w/ Blue High Tops, He Promised: “Trust Me & You’ll REACH YOUR DREAMS.” He DELIVERED! @sandypyonin NEXT #OutsideShot pic.twitter.com/NpOHnQ61zK
— Randy Foye (@randyfoye) July 12, 2017