BY KEN MORSE
Ask any father who is a former athlete when the love affair with teaching his son all about sports began and you may get the same answer, in the delivery room. Sometimes even sooner than that, especially if they already know they are going to have a son. The preparation begins early on. Forget the Spiderman pajamas. They are replaced by the football, baseball, basketball variety.
Soon comes the day when they are old enough to understand the game and sit there with their Dad watching and learning all kinds of new words that Mom wouldn’t approve of. They do the touchdown dance around the end table in the living room as Mom rolls her eyes at them.
Then that day finally happens and your little boy is filling out his varsity uniform and the tears that well up inside you spill down the side of your face in one of the proudest moments you will ever experience in your life.
Naugatuck assistant boys basketball coach Jamal Francis experienced that lump in his throat moment when his son Jalen suited up as a varsity starter and led the team in scoring in his first game of the 2022-2023 season.
That was just the beginning. Jalen scored a career-high 27 points and broke the 20-point mark four times in a span of seven games. It was very obvious then, that Jalen got game.
“I’ve been in the program for three years so I knew what I was getting myself into,” said Jalen. “The NVLs and the states, that’s kind of challenging. But that’s what you want. You want to challenge yourself. It’s the only way you are going to get better.”
But the one question that had to be asked in all this was who wins those battles on the court in the driveway?
“My Dad still wins those games,” said Jalen.
“At least he still does now,” he added with a laugh.
By the looks of it, there may soon be a new sheriff in town as Jalen would up scoring 302 points on the season, averaging 14.3 per game and earning All-Iron Division honors.
“At times I’m at a loss for words,” said Jamal. “My wife Brenda and I are so proud of what Jalen has accomplished this year and even more proud of achieving high honors in the classroom.”
What proved to be a tremendous help for his development and not being intimidated by the environment was that Jalen has been around Greyhound basketball since he was about five years old.
“He was always coming to practice with me and being around the older kids in the locker room,” said Jamal. “He was there when we went to Mohegan in 2015 (for the Class L state final), so when it came his turn to be in that room as a varsity player it was really no big deal to him. He never really lets his emotions get to him. He’s always calm and cool in whatever situation on the court.”
It didn’t hurt that he earned MVP honors at City Hill Middle School, or that he won the Lil Pal Championship for the undefeated Nardelli’s under coach Ken Stone. In his first year at Naugy, freshman coach Brett Hayward took him under his wing and Jalen began to learn all about the “We Before Me” mentality of Greyhound basketball. In his sophomore season, he did manage to score 29 varsity points for the undefeated NVL champion Greyhounds.
“I knew I needed to make that separation early on,” said Jamal, a 1995 Naugy graduate who averaged 17 points per game in his senior year. “I had to be a coach on the court and a Dad at home and didn’t want to be overbearing in either aspect.”
“I never played the favoritism card and Jalen earned his time on the court and became very adaptable in his role. He has always been a hard worker and has never taken anything for granted.
“I know Mike (Wilson) and I would have liked to get Jalen and a few of the other younger players more varsity minutes last year but we had six seniors and two of them were All-State. It was a tough lineup to crack.”
Jalen got some of his natural athletic ability from both of his parents as his mom, Brenda, (Ricard) was a two-sport (basketball, softball) standout for the Greyhounds. With his success on the basketball court, Jalen has decided to stick with one sport and continues to hone his game in the offseason working in AAU under the tutelage of DeVonne Parker and Lou Rowe.
His younger brother Jordan just completed a successful freshman season as a varsity player on the Greyhound soccer team. Jordan is following in his brother’s footsteps, sticking with one sport and putting all of his efforts into success in the classroom.
“I had a stretch of games during the second half when my shot wasn’t falling,” said Jalen. “Normally I let my defensive play direct my offense so I just tried to continue to play strong, hard-nosed defense. But I did start to press a little bit. I thought I did pretty good for my first year playing varsity. I just went out there to have some fun and to play the game I love.”
Jalen added with a chuckle: “I really didn’t feel any pressure. Let the coaches worry about that stuff.”
Jalen will be working hard in the offseason to better his game.
“I’m looking forward to the AAU program and to keep getting better,” Jalen said. “I think with the players we have coming back we have a chance to be even better next season.”