Shining Legacies from Spurs Youth League

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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The road to the NFL for Jarett Dillard began on a basketball court. At 7-years-old, Jarett’s father, Porter Dillard, signed him up for his first venture in organized sports: the Spurs Youth Basketball League. Jarett wasn’t particularly skilled. And he doesn’t recall much about that first season except that he had a lot of fun.

“I didn’t know what competition was at that age,” says Dillard, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound free agent receiver who spent three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “I just went out there and played. If I scored one bucket, which was one point, or made one steal, it didn’t matter. I just liked the hot dogs at the end of the game.”

The road to the WNBA for Tai Dillard -- Jarett’s older sister -- ran through the Spurs Youth Basketball League or SYBL. In fourth grade, she joined her first SYBL team and continued playing until 7th grade.

“I remember reciting a drug-free pledge at half court before games,” says Tai, a former Silver Star, now an assistant basketball coach at USC. “At that age, you start learning, ‘If I am going to make this pledge, I need to live out the pledge.’ Some people got caught up in the wrong crowd. Luckily, I had a great core group of friends who strived to do great things.”

Jarett and Tai aren’t the only siblings to play pro ball. But they represent perhaps the only brother-sister tandem to rise from the SYBL to careers in the NFL and WNBA.

Funded by Silver & Black Give Back, with support from Pizza Hut and Valero, SYBL attracts thousands of boys and girls, ages 5-16, across Central and South Texas.

In 1991, Gregg Popovich, at the time an assistant coach with the Spurs, co-founded the league -- formerly known as the Spurs Drug-Free Youth League -- with Kids Sports Network President Frank Martin to provide a clean, character-building environment for kids. The intent was never to produce future stars. But the program attracted talented athletes, some of whom achieved collegiate and professional success, such as former Spur Devin Brown and former Western Kentucky star Orlando Mendez-Valdez.

Tai remembers watching Anissa Hastings, a year younger, play in the SYBL. Hastings became a standout teammate of Tai’s at the University of Texas and now coaches at Stevens High School. Jarett remembers playing against Quintin Demps in the SYBL -- the same Demps who plays safety for the Houston Texans.

“We were always good competitors in the Spurs league,” Jarett says. “I remember him playing on one side and I was on the other. He had the green logo. I had the yellow.”

They played one year of youth football together, then faced off in high school -- Jarett at Sam Houston, Demps at Roosevelt -- and in college. “He was at the University of Texas at El Paso, I was at Rice,” Jarett says. “It was great. I’d make a catch on him and he’d say, ‘Aw, you dropped it.’ We have a competitive spirit. It’s great to be friends with a guy like that.”

At Rice, Jarett set an NCAA record for career receptions with 60 and earned All-American honors. At UTEP, Demps intercepted 17 passes and made All-Conference USA. Jarett was drafted in the fifth round by Jacksonville, Demps in the fourth round by Philadelphia.

The roots of their rivalry formed in the SYBL. In the early days, Jarett didn’t worry about final results.

“I didn’t care about the winning or losing,” he says. “And that’s where I kind of missed the boat. Some guys were sad about the loss or happy with the win. I kind of walked off the court with an attitude of, ‘Hey where are the pickles? Where are the nachos? Where’s the food? Let’s have some fun.’”

In their SYBL days, fun for Jarett and Tai often played out in the family driveway. Jarett, four years younger, challenged Tai to endless games of one-on-one. Tai would win, Jarett would challenge her again, and on and on they’d go until late in the evening.

“Growing up, I could never beat her,” Jarett says. “She was though. Her defense was tough. When we played on an outdoor goal, I would always blame it (the loss) on the wind.”

Tai: “I was bigger and stronger. But once he started developing and shooting better, I was like, ‘Okay, you need to start playing with boys.’ We had a nice little rivalry. If I lost that night, I was mad. If I beat him, he’d have his little temper tantrum.”

Tai recalls playing SYBL games at Copernicus Community Center, just down the road from the elementary school she attended. “I’m really happy and proud to have been a member of the Spurs Drug- Free League,” she says. “And I’m happy it’s continued to be a great opportunity for kids to play and start their dreams.”

In the SYBL, Jarett grew in ways he never imagined. A competitive fire ignited around age 10. Not long after, raw athleticism kicked in. Soon, he began jumping higher than all the boys, and today he boasts a 42 ½-inch vertical. What may have impacted him the most, though, was watching former Spurs address SYBL participants in clinics and camps.

He heard George Gervin speak. He also heard David Robinson and Avery Johnson. “A lot of Spurs always came around,” says Jarett, who recently recorded a public service announcement for SYBL. “They definitely gave back to us and that’s what motivates me to give back to the community today.”