Basketball was Jeff Capel’s identity.
When he played well, he felt good. When he played poorly, he felt bad.
“Bad about me,” he admitted.
Like so many African American children—or children of any race—playing sports on a professional level is a dream come true. Capel was no different. “I fell in love with the game when I was 6 years old,” he said. “It’s all I wanted to do, all I wanted to watch, I wanted that to be my career and I worked at it—I mean, I worked tirelessly at it, and I had a lot of success with the game.”
Capel, a Fayetteville, North Carolina native, won a state basketball championship as a senior in high school (and should have won the title his junior year, Capel joked). He was recruited to play college ball at the illustrious Duke University with coach Mike Krzyzewski and played in the NCAA men’s basketball national championship game as a freshman. He then went on to start three more seasons for “Coach K” at Duke and was projected to be a first-round pick in the 1997 NBA Draft.
Then came the curve ball.
Capel was preparing for the Chicago pre-draft camp in 1997 when he ruptured a disc in his back. He was out of commission from early May until September. The projected first-round pick was never drafted in the NBA. A year later, Capel said, he suffered an illness that “basically ended my career. So, my basketball career was over at 24 (years old).”
The son of two teachers, the father also being a high school basketball coach, Capel soon realized why his father would preach to his student-athletes the importance of education: “Because of how the game could be taken away from you.”
In effect, a career in the NBA was taken away from Capel.
But just as in sports, in life, there’s another play to be made. Athletes are taught to move on to the next play, because there’s nothing you can do about the previous play. There’s still a game left to play. There’s still a life left to live.
Capel is still in basketball, but not as a player—his next play was to get into coaching. He’s been a head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Oklahoma, and most recently was an assistant coach at Duke. In March, he was named the new head basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh, the first African American head coach of the men’s program in university history.
Capel was the featured panelist at the Homewood YMCA for Pitt’s town hall-style event entitled “Winning Off The Field,” Sept. 26. Capel, along with former Pitt student-athletes Andin Fosam, Shayla Scott and Ron Idoko, spoke to an intimate, engaged crowd (many of whom were African American youth) about being successful in life—even if it’s not in sports.
Seated in front of Capel were 20 members of the Homewood Bulldawgs, a youth football team under the Homewood Community Sports umbrella. Capel told the youth that there’s nothing wrong with having the dream of playing, say, in the NFL, “but also understand there are a lot of other great professional people outside of sports. So, ‘going to the league’ is being successful in whatever it is you’re trying to do and working diligently every day to make that happen.”
The NCAA released a report in April which stated that for the 2016-17 season, more than 480,000 people competed in NCAA athletics, but “just a select few within each sport move on to compete at the professional or Olympic level.”
For instance, in football, there were 73,063 competitors nationwide. Approximately 16,236 were draft-eligible. The NFL Draft has 253 draft selections total. Thus, 1.6 percent of the draft-eligible NCAA collegiate athletes were selected to play professional football in the NFL. Of course, being drafted doesn’t automatically mean the player will officially be offered a contract or ever play a single snap in the league.
Players can also make it to the NFL as “undrafted free agents,” but those numbers are very miniscule.
Capel then addressed the youth again. “It’s not going to be easy,” he told them. “Do you have the discipline? Do you have the dedication? Are you going to be lucky, fortunate, are you going to make the right decisions? Are you going to study? Are you going to put yourself around the right people? Are you going to allow them to coach you, are you going to listen? If you do all those things…then you maybe have a chance.”
Chances of making it to the NBA are even less likely, according to the NCAA report. Out of 18,712 NCAA men’s basketball athletes in 2016-17, with 4,158 as draft-eligible, only 50 NCAA players were selected out of a possible 60 NBA draft slots. That’s 1.2 percent, with the other 10 available NBA draft slots possibly going to players overseas.
In short, the chances of making it to the pros are not exactly “one in a million,” as the phrase goes, but it’s close.
When you see athletes playing at the collegiate level, especially high-profile Division I schools such as Pitt, Penn State, Michigan, etc., most of the football and basketball players are playing on an “athletic scholarship.” The student-athletes are attending school “on scholarship” (full or partial), paying no tuition (if it’s a full scholarship), and oftentimes will graduate from the university with a degree in hand. The NCAA has certain “Progress-Toward-Degree” requirements designed to guide student-athletes toward graduation. Those standards include a minimum grade-point average (oftentimes 2.0), term-by-term and annual credit hour, and percentage-of-degree requirements.
Thus, the educational aspect of the athlete is very important to the NCAA. You can be the worst athlete, and still be eligible to attend classes and obtain a degree. But you can’t be an eligible athlete who doesn’t attend classes regularly and/or doesn’t make the proper grades. Education takes precedence.
Ayodeji Young, the vice president of Homewood Community Sports and affectionately known around Pittsburgh as “Coach Blue,” was a co-moderator at the event held at the YMCA. He stressed the phrase, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
“A lot of people go through life saying, ‘nobody ever tried to teach me,’ or, ‘I had nobody to look up to.’ But in reality, you did. But were you ready to accept what they had to say? The world is surrounded by mentors and teachers,” Young told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “But you have to be willing and humble enough to open your eyes and ears and listen to those people whom you’re surrounded by.”
Those mentors and teachers can help Black youth on their path to success. And an education is vital to that success. That’s why Capel is proud to be a mentor to his former players he coached, along with an excitement to coach and educate his new players donning the Pitt uniforms.
“Education is the most important thing,” Capel, whom, while playing basketball at Duke, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in History in 1997. “I’m living proof of it.”
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