Inspiring The Next Generation

By: Lorne Chan

Willie Debrow was in seventh grade when his father, Eddie, died of lung cancer. Willie said he stopped caring about school, extracurricular activities or anything for that matter. He said he didn’t have anyone to talk to or ask advice without his father.

Then, Joe Clark came along.

Clark began mentoring Debrow as part of Spurs Sports & Entertainment’s InpireU program. They met once a month to talk about sports and life, which turned into text messages asking for advice and Debrow having someone to cheer him on at football games and track meets.

In June, Debrow will graduate from Sam Houston High School.

“I was always a shy kid because I have a stutter, but Joe helped me open up and be more talkative, and ever since then we’ve been like this,” Debrow said, crossing his fingers.

Debrow and the Sam Houston seniors were recognized at an on-court ceremony at halftime of Thursday’s Spurs game. The Class of 2017 also met Number 17, Jonathon Simmons.

The 15 seniors are the first graduating class of the Spurs’ InspireU program, a workplace mentoring program facilitated through Big Brothers Big Sisters, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s office.

Since 2011, SS&E employees have had regular meetings with their matched student and watched them grow up.

“It’s been fulfilling to see the confidence that Willie has built for himself,” said Clark, Vice President of Spurs Ticket Sales and Services. “I love to encourage, challenge or just talk to him.”

January is National Mentoring Month, and the NBA has partnered with MENTOR and My Brother’s Keeper to help raise awareness about the impact mentors can have in communities.

While Sam Houston is located two miles from the AT&T Center, it can often feel a world away. According to the Texas Education Agency, 91.8 percent of students at Sam Houston are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Sam Houston senior Thomas James has been linked with his mentor, SS&E President of Business Operations Rick Pych, since James was in seventh grade at Wheatley Middle School.

James said he’s always had a fascination with architecture, a subject Pych encouraged him to pursue in college. When James was accepted to Texas Tech University, he said the first people he told were his mother, a Sam Houston counselor, and Pych.

“As much as this program is about giving back, we’ve gotten more out of it than we ever could have thought,” Pych said. “We want to help them see that there is a path personally and professionally, and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”

James was one of the 250 Sam Houston students who attended a sit-down with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and civil rights activist Cornel West in November. As Popovich, West and The Nation sports editor Dave Zirin answered questions from the students, James said the session helped drive home many of the lessons that Pych has been teaching for the past six years.

“One thing I remembered was when Dr. West told us to make something of our lives because our time from the womb to the tomb isn’t that long,” James said. “Days like that and people like Rick are really inspiring.”

Marlon Springs’ mentor is Frank Miceli, SS&E Sr. Vice President of Sales and Franchise Business Operations. Springs said he and Miceli can talk about anything and everything. One of Thursday’s topics being Springs’ pair of Air Jordans.

“Marlon’s a breath of fresh air,” Miceli said. “He’s a great student, works hard, and I’m here to make sure he knows that all the possibilities are out there for him.”

Springs has been accepted to attend Texas Southern University in fall. He paused when he thought about all the time he’s spent talking to his mentor, and simply said to Miceli, “thank you for being there for me.”

With the graduation of these InspireU students, the program is continuing with a new generation of Sam Houston freshmen. There’s currently a waiting list of SS&E employees hoping to match with students.

All of the Sam Houston students at Thursday’s game said that while their time in InspireU ends with their graduation, the mentoring won’t. They all expect to keep in contact with their mentors, and it won’t end there either if they can help it.

“I think my life would be very different without someone like Rick looking out for me and mentoring me,” James said. “In the future, I look forward to mentoring someone on my own.”


For more on how you can be a mentor, visit NBA Cares or sign up through MENTOR at