It was never just about basketball and never will be.
Jason Rhodes founded the Gary-based Above The Rim AAU basketball program to give children like his twin sons Kaiden and Kingston the chance to learn from the game. He wanted to give them an outlet to learn together, hold one another accountable and have fun along the way back when he started his team in February 2017.
Fast-forward 18 months and Above the Rim now has two fourth-grade teams and a fifth-grade squad. The main fourth-grade team, which Rhodes coaches alongside head coach Ogbonna Williamson, finished seventh in the country at a national championship in Clarksville, Tennessee, earlier this month.
“It’s all been happening really fast,” Rhodes said. “One day, you have a vision and a plan for something, but then I would have never expected anything to happen like this.”
Rhodes’s vision came practically overnight and continues to develop with time. Above The Rim went from concept to little AAU program that could to nationally competitive in under two seasons.
Rhodes, who by day is a U.S. Steel employee from Winfield, essentially took his sons’ Gary youth recreational team and made it an AAU program. While basketball is at the core of what the team does, Rhodes also schedules time for the players to clean local parks, visit food banks and contribute to the community wherever they can.
“The whole reason why I wanted to do this was to help the kids make an impact in the places that they live,” Rhodes said. “At the end of the day, it’s about helping the kids.”
Rhodes’s non-profit program includes players from Chicago, Crown Point, Dyer and Gary, among others. The bulk of the team is based out of Gary and holds practices in Bailly Middle School where Rhodes also coaches the eighth-grade team.
Williamson serves as Rhodes’s right-hand man. The self-taught and self-described “basketball X’s and O’s guy” grew up playing basketball but never competed at the middle school or high school level, unlike Rhodes who played at Bailly and Lew Wallace and had a brother, Marcus Rhodes, play at Southeast Missouri State.
“When Jason asked me to join him in coaching the team, at first I was a little hesitant,” Williamson said. “But right away I saw his vision and believed in what he wanted to do for these kids.”
The start was ugly. Above The Rim would lose some games by 50 points while Rhodes, Williamson and the players learned what they were getting into in larger tournaments.
But with time the team improved. Above The Rim practices as many as five days each week throughout the year and travels to tournaments throughout the Midwest.
“What I really enjoy is the process of the whole thing,” Williamson said. “The kids are so innocent. They’re going to tell you the truth for the most part and don’t really worry about anything other than the basketball, having fun and helping each other.”
Rhodes said his players come from diverse backgrounds, but they don’t seem different when visiting the cities they travel to for tournaments.
“The best part is honestly my teammates,” said shooting guard and small forward Jakob Billmeyer of Schererville. “We all play really, really well together and are all friends.”
That’s the part that keeps Rhodes coming back. He plans to expand Above The Rim with the support of wife Victoria and friends when he can. In the meantime, he organizes fundraisers, asks for help from parents and will continue to put parts of his own paycheck into the team if it means keeping the group together.