Desmond Oliver knows what it’s like to rise from difficult circumstances. Oliver grew up in the Ferry-Grider Homes, a public housing development on Buffalo’s East Side, the only son of a single mother.
Oliver felt the lure of the streets when he was a kid. But he wanted a career in basketball more. He played in college and went on to be a coach. He spent 27 years as a Division I assistant at nine different schools before finally landing his first head coaching job at East Tennessee State last April.
The man paid his dues — more than was necessary in the eyes of some in the hoop world. But Oliver, who got a Masters degree in student personnel administration at Buffalo State, never forgot his roots. When he got his big job, he knew it was time to pay it forward in his hometown, to give back.
So, he donated a $750 scholarship in memory of his mother, Brenda Oliver Gault, who kept Des on the straight and narrow when he was growing up on Donovan Drive. He remembers how much nice clothes or school supplies, or a random kindness, could matter to a child in the inner city.
J’vonna Glen Doris Jones, a junior with a 100.6 grade-point average at South Park High School, received the award on Tuesday afternoon in an intimate, emotional ceremony in the community room of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority offices along Donovan Drive.
Oliver, who began offiicial practices as East Tennessee head coach in Johnson City on Monday, couldn’t attend in person. He spoke with Jones via Zoom, congratulating her on having the highest GPA in the project and recalling a time when he was “a normal kid who went to school and had a dream.”
He asked Jones where she planned to go to college and what she wanted to do with her life.
“I would like to be a photographer,” she said, “because I like to capture the moment. Pictures last long. Sometimes you have to live in the moment, but it’s also good to capture it. I would like to go to Ithaca College for photography.”
Jones had her big moment Tuesday. Her mother, Keshia Henderson, stood beside her. David Granville, administrator of tenant relations for BMHA, ran the show. Antonio Haley, a Ferry-Grider resident and Erie CC freshman, handled the Zoom duties. BPD Officer Andrea Anderson, noted for her community involvement, was on hand.
Keshia and J’vonna were glowing with pride as Oliver addressed her over the Zoom feed. You could tell how he came to be regarded as one of the finest college basketball recruiters in the country over the last 27 years.
“What inspired me to do this was I felt there’s a lot of us out there,” Oliver told Jones, “a lot of people like us who want to go to college and value an education. The difference sometimes, especially with boys, is making the right decision versus the wrong decision is having some money to go out and buy some school clothes and look nice.
“You’re a lot younger than me. Your future is a lot brighter. You can be president of a college, run a country or be mayor. There’s so much left in front of you. I just hope that this small appreciation lets you know that people like myself really appreciate you and what you’re about.
“Listen, I know the neighborhood well,” Oliver continued. “I spent 25 years in that complex, 25 years. A lot of fights, a lot of celebrations. It was a great place for me. It taught me right and wrong. Again, thank you for being locked in and being the person you are. But don’t ever change. Stay focused.”
J’vonna thanked Oliver profusely. So did her mom. “I really appreciate it,” Henderson said. “This is really encouraging … “
She couldn’t continue. She was sobbing. Imagine how it must feel to have your precious child’s quiet hard work recognized by a man who grew up the same way and became a big man in his field.
“This is really encouraging my daughter,” Henderson said. “She’s really shy, but she loves school. I know it’s God using you to be a blessing to her and I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.”
Just then, Granville announced the arrival of another person who had risen to the top of his profession: Mayor Byron Brown. Henderson apologized to the mayor for being so emotional. There was no need.
“I know your family is proud of you,” Brown said, “but I want you to know your city is proud of you as well. You are a tremendous example to other young people, and we want all our young people to work hard in school and excel like you are.”
Brown, who played a year of JV basketball at Buffalo State, thanked Oliver, who said they had shared acquaintances in the hoop world. Rob Lanier, who grew up two doors away from Oliver in Ferry-Grider, is head coach at Georgia State. He and Oliver worked together at highly ranked Tennessee.
“Clearly, very good things come out of this community,” Brown said. “You and Coach Lanier are great examples of that.”
Oliver told Jones that his 17-year-old son has his own business in Tennessee, making highlight videos of athletes for their parents.
“Keep your dream of wanting to be a photographer,” he said. “Keep your dream. Long-term, you want to own your own company. That way, you’re the boss. Nothing better than being your own boss!”
Oliver told Jones he’d like it to be an annual award, with more recipients and added scholarship money “to inspire young people like yourself who are mature and focused and hard-working that if you stay the course and work hard, great things are waiting for you behind closed doors.
“Keep working hard,” he said. “And take care.”
It’s hard to improve on perfection, a 100.6 grade-point at South Park. “I just have to stay focused,” J’vonna said. “I ask questions and get help. All my teachers at every grade level have played a part in helping me get to where I am today.”
Brown said there should be more events like this. The kids who do the right thing in the city don’t get enough attention. Haley agreed that the media doesn’t show enough of the good things.
“I am very proud of my daughter,” Henderson said. “I’m inspired by what she has done here, because she’s very focused on her academics in school. She sings in the choir at church. It’s definitely not easy, doing school online and then going back to regular school, but she made the transition pretty good, so I thank God for that.”
Haley, a graduate of Riverside, said he was inspired as well. He was walking past the Ferry-Grider offices before the ceremony. Granville, who engages with every person he meets, told Haley there was going to be a press conference. The next thing you knew, Haley was a videographer.
It was one of those little kindnesses that can make a difference. Haley says he’s good at math, but maybe this would inspire him to a journalism career. Granville explained to him what it meant to be quoted. He liked the idea.
“It’s good to see a friend accomplish something like that,” Haley said, nodding toward Jones across the room. “It’s a very big accomplishment. I’ve never done it before, though I did have the second-highest essay in high school once.
“But my biggest quote is ‘Don’t stop,’” Haley said, growing more animated. “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when it’s done.”
Des Oliver and J’vonna Jones, the pride of Donovan Drive, couldn’t have said it better.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.