BLOOMINGTON — He’s just not missing. Illinois sophomore Jalen Coleman-Lands is running the Assembly Hall baseline and catching the ball in the corner and turning and shooting and 22 feet later the net barely moves.
Illinois isn’t going to win this game, the Illini aren’t going to beat Indiana the way Indiana is scoring, but Coleman-Lands is burying shot after shot and this is why he was such a serious candidate at Cathedral to win IndyStar Mr. Basketball. He never did — he transferred to non-IHSAA La Lumiere for his final two years — but this game Saturday at Bloomington is why he was a Top-40 recruit and why Indiana and Purdue and Notre Dame and Michigan State offered him scholarships a few years ago, and why he’ll be on the NBA radar a few years from now.
And when the game ends, I need to know more about this 6-4, 185-pounder from Indianapolis, one of the best pure shooters in the Big Ten. His mom is sitting behind the Illinois bench. Dionne Coleman Lands is wearing a replica of her son’s No. 5 jersey. She sees me coming. She’s smiling.
Your son, I tell her. He’s a fascinating basketball player.
“He’s a lot more than a basketball player,” Jalen Coleman-Lands’ mom tells me. “That’s the first thing he’d want you to know.”
OK, now I really need to know more.
* * *
Always with the phone calls. That’s how Piankhi Lands has to hear about his son’s behavior. Another day, and the phone rings, and this time it’s …
La Lumiere basketball coach Shane Heirman, wanting Jalen Coleman-Lands’ father to know how his son is spending lunch. You’re not going to believe this, Heirman is saying, but Jalen isn’t eating with his teammates or friends. He’s finding kids at the northwest Indiana boarding school who are alone, and he’s sitting down to eat with them.
A year later, the phone rings, and this time it’s …
Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker, calling to ask Piankhi Lands a question:
“Do you know your son is mentoring five or six freshmen on the football team?”
No, Piankhi tells him. He did not. But he can’t say he’s surprised, because this is how Piankhi and his wife, Dionne, raised their children: Be aware of your surroundings. There’s always a way to impact someone else’s life. Find it.
“There’s stuff that’s bigger than basketball, stuff bigger than getting good grades,” is how Piankhi explains the Lands family way. “Like, who are you? Where did you come from? Who can you help out?”
No, Jalen wasn’t playing video games or surfing the internet when he was growing up at home. He was playing board games with his family or watching documentaries. Shows about slavery, about the Holocaust, about obstacles encountered and, in the best of times, overcome.
So many shows.
“All the time,” Jalen was telling me, smiling.
“I’m talking all the time,” Piankhi says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I want you to watch this documentary.’ They really didn’t have a choice. You want to eat tonight, you want to play basketball? You’re going to watch this documentary.”
This is how Piankhi was raised, too. His father is John Lands, the former Fall Creek YMCA director and before that a 1970s community activist who rallied unsuccessfully to save Lockefield Gardens public housing — and rallied successfully to protect Crispus Attucks High School when the opening and ongoing sprawl of IUPUI threatened the historic and formerly all-black high school’s long-term viability.
So anyway. Jalen Coleman-Lands. He was raised to look outside himself. You’re more than a basketball player, Piankhi and Dionne told their son.
Even as he was becoming one of the best basketball players in the country.
* * *
Everybody wanted Jalen Coleman-Lands. He was a sophomore at Cathedral when Kansas and Duke started sizing him up. Indiana had already offered a scholarship. Eventually, most of the Big Ten followed. He was considered one of the best pure shooters in the recruiting class of 2015, plus he was 6-4 dunking on people.
Jalen chose Illinois because of its business school.
He’s not your typical kid. Before getting his No. 5 jersey, he called the Illini legend who wore it best, Deron Williams, and asked his permission. Last season when Coleman-Lands broke Cory Bradford’s freshman record for 3-pointers (the new mark is 87), Bradford tweeted congratulations to the youngster.
Jalen Coleman-Lands responded on Twitter:
“Thanks Mr. Bradford.”
Also last year when the Illinois band director tweeted a thanks to the band for its “amazing work at the Big Ten tourney,” Coleman-Lands retweeted that note with the following words: “I want to say thanks personally.”
A kid like this? You want a kid like this to succeed, but for two seasons it hasn’t been easy. He suffered a broken leg the summer before his freshman season, causing him to miss the team’s trip to Europe and much of the preseason. Coleman-Lands played in all 34 games, averaging 10.3 ppg with 42.2 percent shooting from 3-point range, and played better as the season went along: 11.5 ppg in Big Ten play.
Then it happened again, when he suffered a broken hand in September and missed most of this preseason. Coleman-Lands is heating up as he works into shape, averaging 8.9 ppg (37.8 percent on 3’s) on the season but 11.4 ppg (43.3 percent on 3’s) in the past five games, including a season-high 21 against Indiana.
But that’s enough of that kind of talk. Jalen Coleman-Lands is more than a basketball player. That’s the first thing I want you to know.
* * *
He reads Maya Angelou at night. When he had more time in high school, Jalen Coleman-Lands was writing poetry himself. He still writes some — “in dribs and drabs,” he says — but he makes sure to carve out time for Maya Angelou before he goes to bed.
When the Illini dedicated the renovated State Farm Center earlier this season, the team was hanging together when Jalen went missing and … there he is. Chatting up the CEO of State Farm.
Jalen’s a networker at heart, a marketer. At La Lumiere he was vice president of the Entrepreneur Club. At Illinois he hooked up with another Illinois student to help co-found Volume Technologies Inc., designing and patenting an entertainment app called Volume, which will help users plan their evening by giving the wait time at popular establishments. Jalen is the CMO – Chief Marketing Officer – of the firm.
“I’ve always been interested in business, marketing,” he says. “I want to be more specific — supply chain management.”
When he was named Illinois’ scholar-athlete of the week last season, Jalen wrote a heart-felt post on social media calling the honor “a goal” and vowing to “trample complacency and take my academics to another level.”
Meanwhile, Piankhi Lands is finding new ways to learn about his son’s behavior. This was the Illini’s 2015-16 basketball banquet. Piankhi and Dionne surprised their son by attending, minding their business in the back of the room when the leader of the Orange Krush — the Illini’s rabid student section — took the podium and launched into an emotional story about the time a fellow student approached him and asked about the Orange Krush. They spent close to an hour talking about the group and its methods before the new kid thanked the Orange Krush leader and walked off.
First game of the season, the president of the Orange Krush tells the crowd at the basketball banquet, he sees that kid again. He’s on the court. Wearing No. 5 for Illinois.
In the back of the room, Piankhi Lands is crying.
“My son has broken me down to tears on many occasions, and I’m not super-sensitive,” Piankhi was saying this week. “I’m 40 and I know people who have teenagers, and the stuff he does, it’s just not normal. He makes me want to be a better person. So many people have told me this, and it’s true: The way he carries himself, he’s going to affect so many people, even if he doesn’t play basketball.”
He does play, but let’s call it as we see it: Jalen Coleman-Lands is incredible. Also, he plays basketball.