Remus de Jesus is a boy’s high school basketball coach for the Saddle River Day School in New Jersey and also coaches a boy’s 14 and under AAU team called Hoop Nation. Remus, 26, discusses how becoming a practice player for the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball team in college helped him find his own unique path and turn failure into fulfillment.
For me, basketball started in middle school, and only because I was tall. In 8th grade I was good, but high school didn’t go the way I planned in my head. That’s when I started leaning more toward being a student than being an athlete. So my senior year, I was just riding the bench and being a hype-man. But I enjoyed it.
Going into college, I didn’t think basketball was going to be a part of my life anymore. I was good at math and came into school on pace to graduate in three years.
My freshman year, I was in the library all the time and I was very goal-oriented. I wanted to be either a banker, an actuary, or in risk management; something involving math that paid a lot of money.
My second year is when math got very theoretical and way beyond me. It got hard. I went from being an A student to being a C student. And I was struggling to get those C’s.
” I was pretty depressed because I felt like…I almost got to the ‘American Dream.’ “
The second semester of my sophomore year I took three classes that I just couldn’t get. I tried to swallow my pride and not drop the courses.
One day, I was studying for two exams. In the middle of pulling an all-nighter, I emailed my professor and told him, “I’m not cut out for math. I’m sorry, but I’m not coming to class anymore.”
At that point, I failed out of math. So I was on academic probation after that semester, which was life slapping me in the face. I went from graduating the next year, to just trying to figure it all out. There was nothing I could do with an Economics major that made sense to me anymore.
I was pretty depressed because I felt like I was almost there; like I almost got to the “American Dream.” I was a year away from reaching what I thought was my life goal.
I went into that summer not knowing what was going to happen. Being on academic probation, I needed to figure something out.
So I went into my third year of college and the first thing I did was play basketball. At that time, I knew everyone who played ball on campus because that’s what I did when I failed.
I met this guy, Matt, who was the manager of the women’s basketball team at the time. He said to me, “Hey man, you’re always playing. You might as well try out for our practice squad.”
So I did. I just had to show that I could play defense, run a few plays, and that I was athletic enough to push the girls.
The first practice, we were doing a drill and the girls were going way harder than I expected. We [the practice players] were playing defense and rotating between guarding three different players. They were kicking my ass. That’s when I started to really get humbled about it. I was thinking, “Yo…this ain’t sweet.”
The first day that Coach Stringer [Head Coach] really learned who I was, we were doing a drill in practice where the girls were playing defense on us, and we lost. The coaches ended the drill and told us we could go get some water.
I stopped and said, “Nah, coach. You’re not gonna baby us. You said they would have to run if they lost, so we’re gonna run.” So we ran. I guess it was a culture shock for them. I don’t think a practice player had ever done that before.
“I felt like I was a part of something; like I belonged.”
I went to practice everyday and really felt fulfilled. I felt like I was a part of something; like I belonged. I felt like I was learning a lesson everyday, whether it was basketball or something about life.
Coach Stringer was the best coach I ever played for, and I didn’t even actually play for her. She had a lot of faith in me and always had high expectations for me. I felt like I didn’t have a coach like that since middle school.
My first year as a practice player, she won her 900th game as a head coach. So I got to be a part of that milestone. Then the next year I thought, “How can I be involved more?”
So Coach Stringer asked me if I could find more practice players. She said to me, “You’re going to be the captain of the practice team.” I answered, “That’s a thing?” And she said, “It is now.”
So I found whoever was interested and ran a tryout. She put me in charge of managing them, like planning who comes to which practices and things like that.
Then one day in practice, the assistant coach at the time, who I called “T.P.” said to me, “Reem, run the scout team.” I was like, “Me?!” She was like, “Yeah, you have the scouting report. You get it everyday.” I was nervous, but then I got used to it and did it all the time.
That year (2014), we won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) Championship, and Coach said that was the best practice team she ever had.
I had immersed myself in a whole different path of life that year and started to learn more about myself. I was constantly in the midst of learning plays and studying film, so I went on YouTube a lot to watch basketball videos.
One time, I saw an Under Armor commercial and thought it was cool. That led me to apply to the Arts school and Communications school at Rutgers. I thought Sports Marketing would be fun. So now, I went to class and actually enjoyed myself.
After graduating in 2014, I got a really good job in New York City as an Account Executive at Yelp. I worked there for three months, but I didn’t get the same fulfillment I had before. I kind of felt the way I felt when I first started school.
I was at a crossroads in my life again. It was another one of those moments where I realized that my heart wasn’t in it, just like with math.
So I put in my two weeks’ notice and for two months, I was doing nothing.
That summer, I went back to Rutgers to one of the team’s workouts to visit and hang out. That’s when T.P. said to me,“You know, you should really consider being a coach.” Coach Stringer agreed, “Yeah! How are you not a coach already?!”
I didn’t think I wanted to be a coach. I just thought I liked basketball and being around it. But at that point, I decided to try it.
Somebody I knew had a Boys Varsity Basketball coaching position available at Avenues: The World School in Manhattan. I got the job there as an assistant coach and we had success. But I wasn’t teaching or doing anything else; I was just coaching there part-time.
So I got a job with a company that does media planning and buying. It was exactly what I wanted to do out of college: marketing.
I had the best of both worlds. I was in the career field that I thought I wanted, and at the same time I was still able to have an impact on young lives and teach basketball. It was great.
Then one day, I got called into Human Resources and was laid off.
So I did what I had always done when I was lost: I went back to Rutgers and the team, and tried to find myself.
The coaches invited me to come to their end-of-the-season banquet. They started giving out different awards and there was one called the “Unsung Hero Award”. They were at the podium talking about it and then started to describe someone.
“Last year, after we won the National Championship, this person was at the gym at 4 o’clock in the morning waiting for us to get back.”
I remember thinking, “Wait, there was no one else there but me.” And then they called my name.
Coach Stringer and T.P. told me that they couldn’t have done it without me. That meant a lot to me.
The next year, in 2016, I joined the coaching staff at Saddle River Day High School (NJ). I’m the Boy’s Head Freshmen coach, Head Junior Varsity coach, and Assistant Varsity coach. We had the best season in school history. We played high-level basketball and won our league, with a conference record of 16-0, 20 wins, and a North Jersey state ranking of #22.
“I really want to be a good example to them. I want to help them find their path the way I did…”
It’s crazy because I look back at my younger self and feel like such a jerk, making WNBA jokes and stuff. Those girls are nice. I never thought I’d be watching women’s basketball. But it’s made me feel so differently about equality and I lean much more toward it now.
I got a chance to be around so many strong women, from top to bottom. It was something that I hadn’t really experienced before. It was life-changing for me. Now I feel disgusted when I see people being disrespectful.
When I catch my kids saying something inappropriate, I make them get on the line and run. A lot of times, I screenshot and print out what they post on Instagram, and the next day I’ll say, “Get on the baseline [to run].” And they’re like, “Coach, for what? Practice just started.” Then I’ll take the copies out and show them.
When I came into coaching, I thought I was just going to teach basketball. I realized I was teaching these kids life lessons. What I’m finding out is that I’m a huge male figure in their lives.
When I first met them, I just thought they were good, young players who could help my team out. But now, I really want to be a good example to them. I’m hoping to help make gentlemen. I want to help them find their path the way I did and set them up so they can discover whatever it is that they want to do in life.
Coach Stringer, T.P., Matt…they all changed my life. If I didn’t meet Matt, I might have dropped out of college. If T.P. never told me I should coach, who knows what I’d be doing?
Rutgers Women’s Basketball became my driving force. It kept me motivated to stay in school, it helped me find my career, and it changed my perspective of the world.
After failing out of class and being laid off and going through everything I went through, I was always around the women’s team. Whenever I was at a down point in my life, they saved me.