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Frank Gray

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James Whittaker, who was mentioned on TV during Ohio State’s NCAA tournament game Sunday, mentored Buckeyes star Deshaun Thomas at Old Fort Y at Reed Street and Creighton Avenue.

Mentor gets his moment

Ex-YMCA director recognized on telecast

Associated Press
Ohio State forward and Bishop Luers graduate Deshaun Thomas has led the Buckeyes into the Sweet 16.

If you’ve watched any of the NCAA basketball tournament, you know it’s common for commentators to offer up tidbits about the various players – where they’re from, maybe mentioning that their father was a coach or the number of three-pointers they average per game.

Sunday afternoon, though, when talking about Deshaun Thomas, who played basketball at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne and now is a star with Ohio State, they talked more than usual.

Thomas, they said, attributes everything that he is to the mentoring he received at the YMCA in Fort Wayne, and everything he’s learned he owes to his chief mentor, Jim Whittaker at the YMCA.

The entirety of the comments only lasted a few seconds, but in a way it was a stunning tribute.

Whittaker learned about it when his phone rang and a friend excitedly told him what had happened. As soon as he hung up, his phone would start ringing again.

It’s a fulfilling experience for Whittaker, who was the program director at the former Old Fort Y at Reed Street and Creighton Avenue and is now retired.

Whittaker remembers when Thomas first started showing up at the Y after school when he was in third grade. He was big for his age, and he was left handed, just like Whittaker.

“I realized I had a special kid on my hands,” Whittaker said. “He was like a sponge.

“I took him on as my own kid,” he said. “I did what any dad would do for his own son,” teaching him basketball, teaching him discipline, talking about being humble. “I shared all the things I knew.”

There were a lot of things going on on the streets outside that Y, Whittaker said. Inside the Y, though, “one thing we showed was love. We loved the kids in the neighborhood. All we had was love and the truth.”

It wasn’t long before Whittaker, who was teaching Thomas high school and college moves, that he was telling Thomas what his future held for him. When Thomas was still only in fourth grade, “I told him, you’re gonna be No. 1 in the state of Indiana. You’re going to go to college and you’re not going to have to pay for it.”

But humility was an important part of it. “No matter how good you are, don’t be arrogant. You have a gift that God gave you. Be humble.”

“He gravitated to the good things,” Whittaker said. “He didn’t hang around with the kids doing bad stuff. I told him to stay in school and get good grades,” and he did.

Amazing as it might seem, Whittaker’s predictions were dead right. By eighth grade, colleges were wanting to talk to Thomas. He became the top scoring player in Indiana, his team won two state championships, he was named Mr. Basketball, and he didn’t have to pay to go to college.

While still a high schooler, Thomas was dazed that all the things Whittaker had told him were coming true.

“It’s not a dream,” Whittaker said. “It’s a plan God had for your life.”

Whittaker said he still gets goose pimples when he thinks about it.

Whittaker is still offering Thomas advice from time to time. After Thomas’s first game with Ohio State Whitaker sent him a message. “You’re pouting,” he said. Instead, be the first one off the bench cheering when the team scores. Soon Thomas was being put in games.

When he complained that they weren’t giving the ball to him, Whittaker told him to get rebounds.

The next stop, Whittaker says, will be the NBA.

Unfortunately, Whittaker didn’t get to hear the brief tribute. He was watching the game, and his wife told him to watch it until the end. No, he told his wife, “I’m hungry,” and they went out to eat, and he missed it.

By the way, he says, if anyone has a recording of it, he’d love to get a copy.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.