It always has been about the mission for Jamal Cain.
“My father was in his life a lot before he passed away, and he always told him if basketball was important to him, there was a mission he had to complete,” said Amanda Branner, Cain’s mother. “He instilled that in him until the day he passed away and then (Cain’s) father picked up where my father left off.”
Shellie Branner, Cain’s grandfather, was the one who first sent Cain to a basketball camp when he was in early elementary school. He was the one who first signed him up for an organized team in the fifth grade.
He preached about the mission to the youngster until his death in July 2013. Then Cain’s father, Hasen, carried on the talk of the mission – even if he didn’t know much basketball.
“He didn’t know anything about basketball,” Jamal Cain said, laughing. “He’d say something, and I’d be like: ‘What are you talking about?’ He was a basketball fan because I played basketball. He really had no choice but to pay attention to basketball.”
But that ended in July when Hasen died – and suddenly Cain’s mission seemed more like Mission Impossible.
Cain is a 6-foot-8 senior at Detroit Cornerstone Health and Technology, a charter school located in what used to be St. Scholastica Elementary School on West Outer Drive. Last month, he signed a national letter of intent with Marquette and is the No. 2 player in the Free Press’ Top 100 players in the state.
He began the season with a bang Tuesday night, scoring 25 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in a 64-59 loss to a good Wayne Memorial team.
But for a time this summer after his father died, Cain forgot about his mission.
“It was hard for at least awhile, but then I realized I just had to get back to what the mission was,” Cain said. “He told me to keep working and don’t let anything keep you back.”
The mission has helped Cain become one of the best players in the state – and a leading candidate for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award.
A year ago, Cain, who chose Marquette over Michigan and Georgia, averaged 26 points and 15.7 rebounds.
But from where Detroit East English Village coach Juan Rickman sits, Cain looks better than ever. Like anyone who sees him play, Rickman is impressed with Cain’s raw athletic ability.
“He’s stupid athletic; he’s silly athletic,” Rickman said after scrimmaging Cornerstone last week. “No, listen, he’s athletic. As far as explosion and getting off the floor, Jamal is ridiculous.”
That athleticism has guided Cain throughout his career. It enabled him to dominate games in middle school even though his skill set was nowhere near what it is now.
“I thought I was good, but I wasn’t playing against any competition in middle school,” Cain said. “I was always the tallest player, and I could just jump and grab rebounds over everyone else until I got in high school. That’s when my eyes opened.”
Cain played his freshman year at Melvindale AB&T for coach Myke Covington and transferred to Cornerstone when Covington took that job for one season.
Derrick Edwards is in his second season as Cornerstone’s coach, but when Cain was a sophomore, he was an assistant at Detroit Henry Ford, which played Cornerstone.
“Back then you could see his strength, which was he was a spot-up shooter,” Edwards said. “He was a dead-eye three-point shooter, but as time has evolved, he’s worked on his game and now he’s an all-around player.”
But until he got to work on other aspects of his game, Cain spent most of his time on the court retreating behind the three-point line and launching bomb after bomb.
“Growing up, that’s all I did was shoot and shoot threes,” he said. “I didn’t really have handles or anything like that, so I really wasn’t focused on it, so I would shoot.”
While he enjoyed shooting three-point bombs – who doesn’t? – Cain realized his mission was to become a complete player, and he was far from that as a freshman and sophomore.
So Cain worked to improve his “handles.” He spent hours working on ball-handling drills without ever taking a shot, which is difficult for someone who shoots as well as Cain.
Once he became an adept ball handler, Edwards pried him away from the three-point line and introduced Cain to the paint and a post-up game, which did not exist in his skill set.
“With his height and his athleticism, nobody can block that shot,” Edwards said. “I told him from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant perfecting it, once you get in the post and once you can turn and elevate and get a view of the basket, it’s easy.”
Making it easier is the fade-away jumper Cain has learned to use in the lane. And because he is more athletic than most post players, Cain does not have to be in the low post to use his post moves.
Edwards likes to use Kevin Durant as an example of what, at the high-school level, Cain is capable of doing from different sports on the court.
“Even though Jamal might post up, it’s like a midpost where he can catch the ball and face up,” Edwards said. “He’s more comfortable facing the basket. Once he catches it and faces the basket, then he can go into his repertoire of moves.”
Since last season ended, Cain has tried to perfect a jump hook for the times he is in the paint. And unlike a number of talented perimeter players, Cain doesn’t mind playing inside. Actually, he enjoys it now that he understands his shooting percentage skyrockets when he gets the ball in the post.
“To be honest, that’s the reason why,” he said. “It was like – wow! – I can score so easy in the post and so many various ways. I love playing in the post.”
But it’s really not Cain’s first experience playing in the paint. When he first stepped onto the court – even before his grandfather sent him to a basketball camp – Cain found himself in the paint trying to play defense.
That was when he was playing one-on-one against his mother, who averaged 18 points a game as a senior at Pontiac Northern.
“We played games, but he wasn’t as tall as he is now,” said his mother, who is 5-10. “The taller he got, I couldn’t post him. He was always blocking my stuff. But I used to post him up.”
Back then, Cain wasn’t much of a defensive player. Only recently has he begun playing defense with the same enthusiasm he shoots three-pointers.
But better defense is what you get when your coach played high school ball for Detroit Western coach Derrick McDowell, who coached Edwards at Detroit Redford.
“We do more defensive stuff in practice than we do offensive stuff,” Edwards said. “I’m from that McDowell tree, so that’s what we do. The biggest goal from me to Jamal, when I got here, was to get his defense to catch up with his offense and then he’d be out of sight.”
Of course, getting a player of Cain’s ability to buy into playing defense could be problematic. But it turned out to be the opposite.
“That’s the first thing I noticed we when I got here last was that he loves to work; his work ethic is unmatched,” Edwards said. “The thing I love about Jamal is he’s so determined. If he doesn’t get something, he wants to do it over and over until he gets it.”
Cain gets it now, even though this season he won’t have his father sitting in the stands watching as he strives to make it mission accomplished.
“I think about him every day,” Cain said. “It’s not painful, really, because I know he’s in a better place. I knew what his words would have been – he was good and keep doing what I had to do. That’s the only thing I can think.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.