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Southlake Style

Driving Kids to Excel

Feb 02, 2017 10:20AM ● By Ashley Pape

by Lori Stacy

When his career in professional basketball was winding down, Jermaine O’Neal and his wife, Mesha, came up with a list of places they might like to live. The Dallas-Fort Worth area became a strong contender for one primary reason: O’Neal loves the Cowboys. 

After visiting the area, the couple found Southlake to be the perfect fit. “Our real estate agent drove us around the Metroplex. When we got to Southlake, the education system jumped out at us,” says O’Neal. “Our daughter had always gone to private school; the schools here are at a private-school level.”

Now, after a successful career in the NBA, including eight seasons with the Indiana Pacers—six of which he was voted an NBA All-Star—the 6’11” former forward-center has focused his unparalleled energy on giving back to the community in the form of helping develop and train young athletes. O’Neal is the principal behind Drive Nation, a youth sports organization that will soon move from his home headquarters to a brand-new facility near the south terminal entrance of DFW Airport. 

Currently, Drive Nation includes boys’ basketball teams from grades five through eight. The teams practice at O’Neal’s private gym in his Southlake home. But if all goes according to schedule, Drive Nation will be housed in its 90,000-square-foot training and gym facility by August.

A NEW KIND OF SPORTS COMPLEX 

The all-sports destination facility will play host to tournaments, local leagues and club teams and offer individualized training in volleyball, basketball, beach volleyball, soccer, lacrosse and football for boys and girls from third through 12th grade. O’Neal isn’t just relying on his business prowess and years in the NBA to guide his decision-making; being a dad also drives many of his business decisions. The O’Neals’ daughter, Asjia, now a junior at Carroll Senior High School and the cover star of our 2016 edition of Dragon Pride Winter, is a standout volleyball player who has already committed to play for the University of Texas. They also have a 10-year-old son, Jermaine Jr., who plays for his dad on one of the Drive Nation teams. Of course, one of the most unique perspectives O’Neal brings is that of a former professional athlete, someone who spent nearly two decades playing in the NBA. “As an athlete, I think, ‘What did I need at this age? What can I bring from a professional level to this level?’” O’Neal says. The answer to that question is, it turns out, a lot more than just domination on the court or field. “It’s about creating great young men and women who will go on to inspire oth-ers. We want them to walk out of the facility better people,” he says. He wants to “teach them to be dominant on and off the court.” Because in the long run, with fewer than one percent of kids going on to play professional sports, youth sports is about teaching kids important lessons about life—about winning, losing and recovering from mistakes. “Our job is to take the kids out of their comfort zones, both mentally and physically,” O’Neal says. “How hard you drive determines how successful you will be.” Also important is teaching the kids not to fear failure. “You’re going to fail at things, but the question to me is how are you going to react when it happens? Are you going to quit, or do you redirect your efforts to get around that obstacle?” O’Neal asks. While he may have made a few mistakes in l i fe— who hasn’t after all?—O’Neal never gave up on his dreams, and that’s invaluable wisdom he can offer area kids. He stresses the importance of repetition, of working over and over to improve in whatever field they pursue. O’Neal cites friend and former NBA team-mate Draymond Green as an example of perseverance. “He has worked super hard; he has a dedication to out-working everyone,” O’Neal says. “You have to work harder than anyone else,” he says. “You never know where that hard work can take you.” 

HELPING YOUNG ATHLETES SUCCEED 

If O’Neal expects a lot from the kids, he also expects much from the parents. In fact, he can’t stress enough the par-ents’ role in a child’s athletic development and says parents must have the right tempera-ment to allow their kids to grow at their own levels. At the same time, as a par-ent, O’Neal can also relate to how parents expect their children to be treated. “The kids are going to be treated the way I’d want my kids to be treated,” he says. “We won’t tolerate any craziness with parents, kids or coaches.” Brad Berry, whose son Owen plays on Drive Nation’s sixth-grade team, drives from Dallas to Southlake so he can be a part of O’Neal’s organiza-tion. It’s a long drive, but still, Berry, a father of three boys, says, “It’s the single best bas-ketball decision I’ve ever made for my kids.” 

From a fundamental standpoint, he says, O’Neal is excellent. But more than that, Berry says the coach always relates les-sons in sports back to life. “He expects a lot from the kids, but he’s also very loving,” says Berry. “He brings a level of intensity, but one that’s appropriate for the boys’ ages.” And the boys don’t want to let him down. Tray Naskins, whose son Aidan also plays for Drive Nation, agrees. “I think he’s passionate,” Naskins says of O’Neal. Plus, he adds, “there’s a purpose to what he’s doing. I see my son getting better.” O’Neal is admittedly intense, but there is no doubt he cares about the kids who are giving their all for him. O’Neal calls the players “my boys” and spends time with them on and off the court, often scheduling business trips around the league so as not to miss tournaments or practices. He’s even been there to counsel the boys as well, recently offering support to a few of the players whose parents were going through a separation, a subject that struck a chord with O’Neal. O’Neal and his brother were raised by a single mom, who he praises as being amazing. But he says he is still affected by growing up without a father. He told the kids whose parents were splitting up to feel blessed to still have two fully invested parents and to respect every moment they have with each of their parents, together or not. O’Neal didn’t meet his father until he was 30 years old. The reunion, however, was short-lived, as his father died a year later. Though he didn’t have a relationship with his dad, O’Neal was blessed to have mentors throughout his adult life, includ-ing Hollywood producer Peter Guber. His mentors enabled him to gain insight and experience in the business world. O’Neal has had the opportunity to audit business courses at Stanford University and to work with Silicon Valley venture capital investors, sitting in on pitches from early stage startups. This knowledge helped him navigate the world of business as he invested in real estate and other ventures and still today as he looks for partners for Drive Nation. 

THE BUSINESS OF YOUTH SPORTS 

Although O’Neal is sole owner of Drive Nation, he has brought on investors and sponsors that make sense for the project. The company has strategic partnerships with Nike and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Another partner is Athos, a company that’s develop-ing wearable technology for ath-letes that tracks and analyzes, in real time, athletes’ muscle effort so they can improve and grow. But O’Neal is more than familiar with each of these organizations: He worked with Nike for many years as a professional athlete (and even had his own signature shoe with the company), played for AAU teams when he was younger and has ownership in Athos. Because of his relationship with Athos, O’Neal offered to make Drive Nation a testing facility of sorts for the company. “We’re going to sensorize the ceilings and the floors to track stats,” he says. O’Neal is clearly sparing no expense when it comes to Drive Nation, and for this $10-plus mil-lion endeavor, he’s proceeding without an NBA salary to cushion any financial blows. “This deal has beat me up in so many ways,” he says. “But I truly believe this is what God wants me to do. He would have never allowed the doors to open if it wasn’t his plan for me.” As the facility nears completion, O’Neal and his team will roll out a marketing campaign to generate excitement for Drive Nation. As with everything he does, O’Neal wants nothing short of greatness for the facility. “We want to be, without a doubt, the most dominant force [in youth sports] Texas has ever seen,” he says. And it’s not hard to envision O’Neal making Drive Nation just that.