After long days at Phoenix North Canyon High, solving advanced calculus equations, taking endless jump shots in the gym, J.D. Tsasa finds peace at the piano in his Glendale home.
Only 14, still growing at almost 6 feet, 5 inches, a 7-foot wingspan, his long fingers carefully float across the keys, performing music he created from his heart, mixing the influences of Chopin and Bach and Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
This is his escape, his hope for the future, as he confronts big decisions in his life.
“I plan to be a professional musician and a professional basketball player,” Tsasa says.
Gratia Saamdi, his mother, who raised her only son by herself, moving from Colorado four years ago, has watched her son accelerate at an early age, from a disruptive kindergartner who needed challenges, to a first-grader advanced to fifth-grade math and English, to a guitar player who moved onto the piano, to finding basketball four years ago.
Everything has come fast to Tsasa, as his mom tries to slow him down.
He was going to graduate from North Canyon in May, before his mom had him drop an economics course.
“If we don’t take him out, they’re going to push him through to graduate,” Saamdi says. “I don’t mind. I could just hire a coach. But we want him to enjoy high school.”
She knows he needs to develop his game and develop his life with guys his own age.
“He is having to make up this gap in a short time,” Saamdi says. “He’s competing against guys who are 16, 17, 18 and 19.”
He showed glimpses of potential in basketball this season under coach Michael O’Guinn’s tutelage.
“He is very talented,” O’Guinn says. “His length makes him a matchup problem as he can shoot the ball with range and is an excellent rebounder. His biggest issue is strength at this point.
“There is no question he would be one of the top three players in his class if he were playing with his age group. J.D. is a diamond in the rough, but with his academic circumstance, it has somewhat prevented him from excelling at a higher level on the court.”
Age-wise, Tsasa should be finishing up his freshman year this semester.
Academically, he’s way ahead of the game.
Musically, it’s unlimited. It’s in his DNA. He has family members who are musicians. In the second grade, guitar lessons turned into piano lessons. There were a couple of years he didn’t play, as he tried soccer, swimming and baseball. But he picked piano back up in the seventh grade.
“I became very passionate about it,” he says.
A classically trained pianist, Tsasa has notebooks filled with musical notes he composed. No words. Just music, a mix of classical and jazz. He has performed in concerts, and, in the Arizona Study Program (which develops musicians), he was awarded with “superior” two years in a row, his mom says.
“J.D. is a dedicated student,” says Sarah Elliott, who is CEO and president of the Phoenix Music Teachers Association. “At times, he has even attended his piano lessons on Saturday mornings at seven to be able to follow through with all of his commitments. I am impressed with his level of professionalism.”
Tsasa’s goal: Playing at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall
Saamdi says her son always processed things fast for his age.
She pulled him out of school when he was in the first grade after teachers wanted him in fifth-grade math and English. She thought he was too young, so she home-schooled him for a year. But she had to work (she is a compliance consultant for a bank), and put him back into public school in Denver.
He understands it is time to slow down, give himself a chance to grow on the basketball court.
“I’ll be able to graduate, but I’m planning on staying in high school one more year to get another year of experience in basketball,” Tsasa says.
He will still only be 15, a sophomore for most, if he follows that path. O’Guinn wishes Tsasa would stay two more years in high school. This was only his second year playing high school basketball.
He received a varsity letter as a 12-year-old from Jefferson Prep in Glendale, where he already had achieved his freshman year class requirements because of middle-school honors courses he had taken.
Saamdi took her son out of the charter school that plays in the Canyon Athletic Association after two years. He was taking nine courses, three more than he really needed to each semester.
That put him on the fast-track to graduating from high school.
She sees his basketball talent, and wants him to mature physically, so his basketball career can blossom. He just completed his first season playing in the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
He is only 145 pounds, but he has added weight since the beginning of the year.
“If he wants to get better at it, then he has to give up his school, drop a course,” she said. “He’s too young.”
He has received special instruction along the way from former Glendale Apollo All-Arizona guard Holland Woods’ dad, who has worked with two former Arizona Players of the Year — ex-Phoenix Shadow Mountain guard Michael Bibby and ex-Tempe Corona del Sol forward Marvin Bagley III.
“He could play two more years, but I’m not going to do that,” Saamdi said. “He’s going to get bored.”
Tsasa said high school has become more challenging.
His ultimate goal?
Playing in the NBA and at Carnegie Hall.
And helping take the load off his mom.
“Mostly, for my mom,” he says when asked what drives him. “I just try to be the best I can so she won’t have to work so hard.”