WARREN - The last thing Shawn Pompelia wanted to do was add any undue pressure on James Burney Jr.
The John F. Kennedy High School junior has shouldered enough burden in his young life.
His mother, Timika, passed away after a brief illness at the age of 36 on Jan. 17. That left James Jr., Taejah, a freshman, and Quinton, a seventh-grader, without a parent.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
John F. Kennedy’s James Burney, right, shown here shooting over Brevin Dye in a game last week, is suddenly a leader for the Eagles.
The four were living in Dayton at the time and James Jr. was attending Dayton Meadowdale High School. He, Taejah and Quinton went to live with James Sr., his father, who had been divorced from Timika.
Pompelia, the JFK boys basketball coach, said James Sr., who resides in Warren, reached out to JFK and asked if his children could attend the Trumbull County parochial school, transferring from the Dayton Public School System.
Pompelia didn't want the 6-foot-3 junior forward to make a hasty decision to pick up the basketball once again.
"If he played one game or he played the rest of this season or he didn't play, that was up to him," Pompelia said. "As a coaching staff, we were not going to ask him to play. We only wanted him to play when he was ready. So I told him I'm going to hang his jersey in the locker. If you put it on, great. If you don't, great. There's no pressure from us. I truly believe that. We were not going to pressure this young man into playing if he wasn't ready to play, emotionally. If that uniform sat in his locker all year, then so be it."
James Jr. dulled his pain by picking up the basketball and joining the JFK team.
"I kind of jumped right back into it," he said. "Basketball is really my outlet. I wanted to get my mind off the situation so bad. Basketball was it."
The hardwood is James Jr.'s sanctuary.
"I think the reasons we coach is for the young men," Pompelia said. "There could be bombs going off outside the gym and we wouldn't know it. Because for two hours, we're in our own little world. Basketball takes our minds off so many problems in the world and so many issues."
Pompelia met Timika last year. She was considering moving back to Warren with her children and sending them to Kennedy. However, they stayed in Dayton.
He saw firsthand how she molded her children into the respectful young people they are today.
"She really developed my manners, discipline," James Jr. said. "Yes ma'am, no ma'am, no sir. I was brought up that way. She kept me well rounded. Whippins came if they had to. She kept me very well structured. I really appreciate her because she taught me a lot of manners and stuff that I know, which is kind of rare for a lot of kids my age."
Timika gave back to her community, too. In addition to being a teacher's assistant with the Miami Valley Child Development Center, she served as statistician for the Meadowdale High School boys and girls basketball teams. She was a member of Revival Center Ministries International, where she was a youth assistant and enjoyed singing and teaching.
Meadowdale coach Felix Turner said Timika organized a parents group, fundraisers and even purchased walking suits for his players.
"She'd find a need and fill it," Turner said. "That's a definition of a successful person in my book. She's very service oriented and we miss her a lot."
James Jr. made his presence known at Kennedy, where he carries a 3.9 GPA and has been a model student.
"I've got numerous comments from teachers, just walking in the halls, how well he has adapted here, how mannerly he is and how respectful he is toward his classmates," Pompelia said.
His teammates have been very supportive, the JFK coach said.
"James fit in really well with our teammates," Pompelia said. "They embraced him, they welcomed him. I think the biggest compliment James could've gave us is he sat down with us and said, 'I never knew such a family here.' I'm proud of that because the young men in our locker room embraced him and he embraced them. You would've thought James has been here for years because there's no jealousy, there's not envy. We're here to win a district championship and James is on board with that wholeheartedly."
Kennedy has a 7-12, 1-8 North Coast League mark heading into tonight's game against Howland.
James Jr.'s first game was Jan. 31 against Villa Angela-St. Joseph, a 79-43 loss. He looked up at Carlton Bragg, a 6-10 post player who is one of the best juniors in the country.
He was amazed with the player's talent, but more importantly, James Jr. was conscientious of his own play on the court.
"I was thinking I didn't want to mess up," he said. "I didn't want to bring a negative effect on the team. Basically I went out there with a positive attitude - win or lose. I didn't know plays. I wanted to go out there encouraging my teammates and show that I was here to play with them and play for them."
Following that game, JFK won five out of its next six games - only dropping Friday's 61-55 loss to Trinity. James Jr., who has played less than a month with the Eagles, huddled the team after the game.
"The locker room wasn't a pleasant situation," Pompelia said. "He was the one that gathered them up and started talking to them and started pointing out things we should be doing better. His leadership skills, even though he might not be a captain, showed that night. When there's adversity, true leaders step up. He wasn't asked to. He did that on his own."
Turner said James Jr. displayed those leadership qualities at Meadowdale. Turner added that he'll sorely miss his floor presence, that he could even be recruited at the collegiate level.
"Typically, you look for one of your seniors to be the leader of the team," Turner said. "Quite honestly, James was our leader. Very vocal. He cares, just like his mom, about his team. He was just a great communicator. Even on the basketball court, he's constantly talking, barking out direction and instructions. Never in a negative way, always in a helpful way. He definitely has leadership qualities."
James Jr. learned those skills from his late mother, Timika.
"My mother, she was always willing to serve people without a second thought," Burney said. "Even when she was here, I always looked to serve people. When you do give, you receive back. I try to give as much as I can, as much as anyone needs it or at least try to."