Jamil Tucker: The Road Less Traveled
By Katharine Palmer, Athletics Media Relations
It may not have been the easiest path to Division I college basketball. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Long and winding, even cold at times. Filled with trials and tribulations. But Virginia third-year forward Jamil Tucker landed on his feet as a strong, motivated young man.
Tucker started playing basketball at the Boys and Girls Club in a Los Angeles suburb when he was nine years old. With his father absent, Tucker and his mother lived with his grandparents and aunts and uncles in Pasadena, Calif.
“I would definitely call that a difficult part of my life,” Tucker said of his childhood. “Growing up, I wasn’t raised by my parents. I grew up in a house with my mom, her sisters and brothers and my grandparents. That is how it was. It wasn’t a traditional family setting there were lots of people in the house and we all took care of each other.”
After his grandmother, the backbone of the family, passed away, Tucker was sent to live with his great aunt in nearby Altadena, Calif. It was then where he first picked up a basketball.
“I was always a tall kid but I had never played basketball before,” Tucker said. “One day I was sitting in the house playing cards and video games. My great aunt told me to get out of the house. So my cousin took me to the Boys and Girls Club.
“I was just walking around playing pool and didn’t even think about going into the gym,” he continued. “One of the AAU coaches asked me if I had played before and then asked, Why don’t you come here and play?’”
That first day playing basketball, Tucker admits he had a nice, funny-looking jump shot. The coach soon asked him to join the team.
With his great aunt no longer able to take on the challenges of raising a teenager, Tucker again moved to live with another aunt in Echo Park, Calif. As a freshman at John Marshall High School, Tucker relished the opportunity to play ball. He yearned for more exposure.
Then, suddenly, his aunt passed away.
“After that happened my great aunt said her daughter lived in Indiana a great place to continue playing basketball and she could take care of me,” Tucker said. “Indiana is known as a basketball state. I wanted to be in an environment where I could boost my status and give myself a better shot at an opportunity, a future.”
In three years at West Side High School in Gary, Ind., Tucker was an all-state selection and was named an Indiana all-star as one of the top 12 players in the Hoosier state.
But it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Moving from southern California to the town of Gary wouldn’t exactly be easy for anyone.
“It was a completely different level of status,” Tucker said. “I was in a whole new world and that took some getting used to. I just tried to focus on school and basketball.”
On top of the adjustment of moving across the country, Tucker, had to deal with another family death the passing of his father.
“He died when I was a sophomore,” Tucker said. “I think one thing that I can honestly say I regret is not spending more time with my father before he passed away. It was one of those situations where you leave off badly and did not get to settle things. I would have definitely made sure he knew that I appreciated him bringing me into this world.”
Continuing to focus on school and basketball, Tucker would soon reap the benefits of his hard work. He landed himself the opportunity to continue his education, as well as his basketball career, at the University of Virginia. He loved the idea of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference his guardians and family loved the great academics UVa has to offer.
Now, in his third-year wearing Orange and Blue, Tucker says his contributions to the team begin with passion.
“I think Coach (Leitao) looks for passion in all of us,” he said, “but I really take it to heart.”
“Just given the fact that it is his third-year, one of the things you want from a junior is experience,” head coach Dave Leitao said. “Obviously he has shown over his first two years his offensive ability, especially from the perimeter for a player of his size. As he gets older and more consistent, all the other parts of his game will fill in.”
His outlet from the everyday responsibilities include playing the card game Tonk, taught to him by teammate Calvin Baker. Though Tucker admits Baker goes from teammate to nemesis when playing Tonk.
“It is my favorite game in the world,” Tucker said. “When I am not playing basketball, anyone could ask me to play Tonk anytime of the day and I would. I am completely hooked.”
It is those kinds of friendships and relationships that Tucker says his is favorite part about playing basketball at Virginia.
“This team is a brotherhood,” he said. “All of my family is on the west coast, so having that connection with your teammates is a beautiful thing.”
A self-described competitor, Tucker hopes to continue his basketball career at the next level once he’s though playing in John Paul Jones Arena. But knowing his background, Tucker is thinking about back-up plans.
An anthropology major, Tucker is thinking about possibly doing some traveling after graduation. Trips to Africa and Mexico are in his mind. But when all is said and done, a return to California is in the future.
“I can deal with having a job and a stable foundation,” Tucker said. “If basketball doesn’t work out, I will be happy doing the 9-to-5 thing and taking care of my family.”
“He has been able to persevere, in the classroom and with his character, to become somebody who has done well here and has the ability to graduate and make a name for himself off the court,” Leitao said. “It makes for a great story about a guy who comes from a tough background, who will do some wonderful things with his life.”
Tucker uses his unlikely path to his advantage as motivation. It keeps him going; it ultimately drives him to be as successful as he can be.
“Not being able to have a mother and father around a lot, people think I was set up for failure,” Tucker said. “It keeps me going. Through high school, even now in college, I think about it. I have a family and I want to show them that even though things weren’t perfect with us, I still made it. That is where my strength comes from.
“My family has been my inspiration. I wanted to be somebody for them. To have somebody make it. To be the one others can look up to.”