Chance encounter in a gym turns into a big opportunity

Clinton coach takes boys hoops star Jomauri Pena under wing, sparking team


Two years ago, Chris Ballerini was heading up to the second floor gym at DeWitt Clinton High School during one of his breaks. New York City was still on tentative lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Clinton was beginning to bring in some of its students to learn in-person before, eventually, the city would reopen all of its schools.

Ballerini, a history teacher, was one of the people called in to teach in-person, and upon arriving to the gym he finds a group of students playing four-on-four. Glancing over, one student caught his attention when he made a shot from three feet behind the three-point line.

“A kid can make a play every now and then, it’s not that special” he recalled thinking. The next play, the ball came off the rim on a long rebound and that same student jumped up two to three feet in the air, caught it, and threw it over his head to his teammate under the basket. Ballerini stopped the game immediately and walked up to the group.

“Who the heck are you, what is your name?” he said to the kid. This was the first time he met then-sophomore Jomauri Peña, which would be an unimportant detail if Ballerini weren’t also the head coach of the varsity basketball team since 2015. It’s his job to, at the very least, know who can play ball at his own school and here was, essentially, a clearly talented stranger hitting jumpers in his own gym.

Usually teenagers are eager to showcase, or at least nurture, their talents in school, so why was coach Ballerini meeting Peña for the first time? Why wasn’t he on the team? It turns out, as Ballerini describes it, Peña wanted to try out for the basketball team the year before as a freshman, but had gotten into a scuffle with another student the day before.

Fast forward to this year, Peña’s senior season at Clinton. With hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the team without their leading, two-time All-State point guard who Ballerini has described as “the engine” of their offense. They went 46-4 with Peña at the helm, had two undefeated regular seasons, and made back-to-back playoff runs.

Clinton’s new reputation as a sturdy Bronx A league powerhouse that’s expected to contend for a playoff title every year, was largely built off players like Peña. Last year he had the 11th most assists in the city and, when averaging his total for this year, he had the 12th most assists per game. Most of the players ranked above him go to bigger, more competitive AA schools. Before him, Clinton had a few inconsistent years, going 12-6, 6-10, 6-10, and 10-7 in the regular season. He was part of the crew that brought the program back to prominence and is, in many ways, an overachiever.

On a breezy overcast afternoon I made my way to St. James Park between Jerome and Creston Avenue, just north of Fordham Road, to meet Peña. The basketball courts there are ones he frequents often, and that day there were a bunch of Bronxites on the court, young and old, in sweats and basketball shoes as much as jeans and polos. He was honing his craft amongst the fray while Spanish music blasted in the background over a loudspeaker. Then, he walked over from his huddled group of friends on a courtside bench, basketball in-hand, to chat.

First, Peña shared his thoughts on their last game of the season, a recent close semifinals playoff loss to Transit Tech from Brooklyn, the best A league team in the city (who nearly beat AA finalist Jefferson High School). Clinton lost that game by only 10 points, and it was a close back-and-forth slugfest the whole way through. Transit Tech ended up blowing out South Shore in the final 71-47. It’s a heartbreaking realization that, if Clinton overcame Transit Tech, they probably would’ve won the whole thing.

Peña also recalled meeting Coach Ballerini and told the story from his perspective, remembering a different play entirely. “We were smack talking each other and I hit a deep three. After that, I was going for a pick-and-roll… I throw it off the backboard [to myself] and tried to dunk, for some reason, and a kid steps up. He was about 6-foot-1. I grab it and almost dunk it, and the whole gym started going crazy… they wasn’t expecting me to fly like that,” he said.

He confirmed a scuffle was what kept him from originally trying out for the team his freshman year.

Then why didn’t he try again his sophomore year? He assumed they wouldn’t take him, that maybe they saw him as a troublemaker. “Everybody had heard about it, so I didn’t want to try out. I was embarrassed,” he said.

Not knowing what to do, he planned on playing basketball outside of school on an AAU team and would try to get noticed by college programs that way instead.

Regardless, he did end up getting noticed, and was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Rockland Community College, where he’ll be attending this upcoming fall. He has dreams and aspirations of making a career out of basketball, going as high as he can in the professional ranks.

“To be honest, I really want to go to the NBA,” he said as he explained that, being undersized, you’re always going to be a liability on defense. He could try and play overseas, and he would really like to become a coach one day. For him, though, it goes beyond making money.

“Basketball is just my passion. I like working on my game, I like crafting my game. I just want to go up [career-wise], and give back to the community,” Peña said.

When asked something about his coach, Peña said Ballerini told him finding success at basketball gave him something to focus on, and this kept him focused in other parts of his life too, like school.

Ballerini mentioned that Peña was starting to fall behind at Clinton, not unlike most kids growing up with few options and more than enough hardships and pitfalls to dodge. When asked if he thought that was true, or if there was more to that, he said:

“Well ... there’s definitely more,” he explained. “There’s definitely more. Basketball is peace, to me. It’s like, I won’t go outside, I won’t party, that’s probably other people’s peace. This is my peace, it’s just me and my rock.”

When he says he doesn’t go outside, he doesn’t mean that literally. He means there are, on the street, at any given time, potential hazards that can snatch up and destroy young people like him.

The peace that basketball gives him is the peace of keeping him away and his mind occupied, and thus keeping him safe. A split-second lapse in judgment can sometimes mean life or death. Having basketball captivate and fascinate him is more time spent away from potential hardship. In other words, even if he doesn’t fully realize it yet, by gifting him this peace, basketball — his love — loves him back.

“It keeps everything balanced,” he said. “You can be on the basketball court with a thousand people… if you play basketball with them, everything’s gonna be cool, feel me? If you put weed in somebody’s hands, it’ll probably go a different route. You have to go your right route, and find yourself. This is me, basketball is just me.”

Committing to improving in basketball, especially at his level, takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. It’s not a cheesy “Rocky” montage. It’s the kind of hard work that makes you quit and wonder why you even tried in the first place. It means sometimes waking up at 6 a.m. to get to 68th Street by 7 a.m. for three hours of drills and training before school. Before sitting down for an interview, he’d already finished a workout.

“It’s mandatory,” he says, referring to training. “You have to love it, otherwise, you’re not gonna do what you need to do. You need to love waking up, you need to love working on your handles, you need to love messing up during the drills – because that gets you better. If you keep doing the drill and don’t mess up, then you’re not working on nothing. You have to fail.  You have to keep failing. Stack your failures to work up to success.”

He knows that this is what it’ll take to keep improving, but that sort of work ethic always wears a person down. When asked what gets him to keep going when it gets hard, Peña said. “To be honest, I just want to give back to my family, to my mom. My mom, my uncle, my friends.”

He then points at a bench around a nearby tree.

“You see the guy with the red and blue jacket?” he asks. That boy has a cast on his leg, and two crutches.

“That’s my blood brother right there.” His name is Alex.

“He’s always been there with me. It was always me and him. We always used to play in the same team, all the time, same middle school. We were supposed to go to Clinton together.”

Peña continued to tell stories and explain why these people mean so much to him. He talks about how he has a younger brother who’s 15 that also goes to Clinton, that he lives with him and his mom on Grand Concourse. He’s close to them, his grandma, and his two uncles, who’ve since moved out of the Bronx to Florida and Chicago.

He laughed as he recalled a time his mother bought him a new pair of sneakers when he was 7. On the same court we were on when he broke those new shoes playing basketball and, crying, he didn’t want to come home.

Not knowing what to do, he walked to his uncle’s place asking him to bail him out, and he did. “He’s always blessing up.”

Going to Rockland Community College — though it’s only an hour away — means leaving everyone he loves behind. But it’s not so far that he won’t be able to come back to see them throughout the year.

Besides, he explained, “I’m just hoping this prepares them for later, when…” he chuckled before finishing the sentence. He means when he might have to leave for good, that maybe someday he’ll be pulled further away from the Bronx because he’s living out his dream of playing basketball professionally.

Of course these are big dreams, but he’ll be content as long as basketball can give him just enough to give back to those he cares about. For now, he’s willing to go as far as basketball will take him, and all of that will be a blessing on top of the peace he’s already been given. Grateful is certainly a word he’s thinking about, even if he didn’t say it out loud.

Chris Ballerini, DeWitt Clinton High School, Jomauri Pena, boys basketball, Governors