I sat stunned at courtside.
My wife had given me a heads-up: “You have to come and see Benny’s coach,” she’d said.
She’d told me it was unlike anything she’d ever seen.
We’d taken our son to basketball practice before. His previous coaches had been dutiful, proficient, and respectful. But they hadn’t necessarily grabbed our attention.
We’d go to practice and watch him, not them.
But now we were at practice watching him – and Coach J Bumagat.
First name: Jeannette. Venue: South Bay Scholars AAU Boys & Girls Basketball Club. Amount of participating student-athletes: 300-plus. States outside of California traveled to for games: Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Florida, Hawaii.
AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union. They’re headquartered in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, but have clubs all over the country.
Bumagat, a Milpitas resident, runs one of them.
“I tell people when they come to me,” she says, “I’m not a basketball coach. I tell them I’m a life coach. And I use basketball as a tool to teach you life lessons.”
To see Coach J in action is indeed to see a form of philosophy in action, one marked by her three core values: Integrity, Honor, and Respect.
She speaks in a low, gruff voice, but is not quiet.
She walks in a short, compact body, but is not small.
During practice, she may raise her voice. During actual games, she communicates more by way of silence. One look from her to a player can say all that she’s thinking. And she’s not about to embarrass anybody out there.
Let alone herself.
When she does address the kids aloud, they reply in sync, and with great reverence:
“Did you hear what I just said?” she’ll ask.
“Am I clear?”
If you’ve never seen a group of elementary school boys whipped into a state of instant discipline and responsiveness, Coach Bumagat’s practices are certainly worth a look.
She’s been coaching now for 26 years, and running AAU for 12. Her AAU division came about to fill a need: She’d been coaching at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, and when the Girls’ Junior Varsity season ended, the players simply did not want to stop.
So she sprouted AAU to close the gap.
However, Coach J hadn’t always planned on being a coach. In fact, in high school, her commitment to sports was but a pathway to college. In other words, excelling at basketball was a way out of her cash-strapped upbringing, in Oceanside, California.
When she was a young girl, her mom, who was Vietnamese, walked out on the family after having been introduced to gambling. This left her dad, who was Filipino, to raise their three children – two boys and a girl, with Jeannette in the middle – as a single father.
“I remember standing in front of the judge at the age of 4, and the judge asking me, ‘Who do you want to live with?’
“And I said, ‘My dad.’”
Her brothers both said the same.
Their dad worked for BMW, but in inventory, the parts department. They didn’t live comfortably, but they lived with discipline. The senior Bumagat taught his kids to keep the house clean and to fix daily bowls of rice for the family, in time before he got home from work. Meanwhile, he encouraged their athletic pursuits, but was clear that sports always came in second to academia.
“Basketball wasn’t fun and games for me,” Coach J says now. “In my mind, it was life or death.”
Her talent on the high school court led to two scholarship offers: one from University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and another from Chico State.
One day, though, fate intervened and changed everything.
A girl on Jeannette’s team started clowning around. It was right before practice, in her junior year. While they waited for the coaches to show, one of her other teammates settled back-down on the floor to catch some shuteye. Another teammate, “the clown”, then decided to try something…
She was going to throw a basketball up in the air, right above the sleeping girl’s head, and catch it just in time before it landed.
Coach J and her friends didn’t like the sound of that. How did she know that she would catch it?
The girl didn’t listen.
Up went the ball.
Then down it came.
And in went Coach J, trying to catch it before the thrower missed it.
Coach J’s foot came down right on the clown’s.
Then her knee popped out forever.
Her dad could only afford two doctors’ visits. This was a problem, since she’d need a doctor’s note to keep on playing. Which meant that during her last physical exam, she had to fake her way through the pain.
The doctor bent her leg this way and that, asking if it felt OK.
“Yes,” she lied, through gritted teeth.
Then she went home and cried her eyes out.
She was able to keep playing, but not for long. As it happened, a UNLV coach showed up at one of her senior year games.
Right in front of the guy, Coach J’s knee popped out.
UNLV called a meeting. Coach J and her dad went in. The reps had questions about her outlook as a player, in terms of how long this injury would last.
The truth was, it would always last.
As hard as she tried, she could only restore about 30% of her previous capacity. She couldn’t run as fast, nor play as well.
Her playing days were actually over.
When the colleges pulled her scholarship offers, she cried for a week straight, her skin breaking out in hives.
But it didn’t take long for Coach J to bounce back. As she tells her three daughters nowadays, “Even though we have a plan for ourselves, God has a different plan for us…”
God’s plan took a while to get going, but when it clicked, it did so with massive force.
Bumagat enrolled in an accelerated program at Devry University, in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree in Business Operations. After two years and eight months, she walked away not only with her diploma, but with her future husband. His post-college job offering brought them both to the Bay Area.
Jeannette was 21 years old.
She soon became a buyer-planner for a semiconductor company in the Bay, and was being paid a lot of money, but realized that something was missing from her life.
All along, she’d continued coaching wherever and whenever possible. During her time at Devry, it had been adult softball, on the side, in between her coursework.
It wasn’t just a matter of staying in shape or on her game. For her, sports (basketball in particular) has always been about “working with people.”
She goes on to explain, “My whole thing was, people had always helped me and my dad.” Likewise, four key coaches during her high school years had told her she had a gift for working with people. They said they saw her peers listening to her.
And they told her that as she got older, when she had the time, she had to give her gift back to the people.
So: “That’s what I’ve been doing for 26 years,” she explains.
First came a job as an Athletic Director at Summit Public Schools, where she initially coached boys’ Varsity.
Then came Notre Dame in San Jose, and the launch of her AAU division.
Next up was St. Francis High School, where she received a plaque for delivering an undefeated year.
All the while, she kept in touch with her old coaches. They saw Coach J’s future clearer than she did: told her that what she really needed to be doing was teaching college basketball.
“How do I go about that?” she asked them.
It all came down to getting her Master’s degree.
So she resigned from St. Francis to do just that. It was during that time when the parent of a boy whom she’d coached in the past signaled her to a job opening at a charter high school. This was appealing, as charter schools offer more flexible hours than traditional ones.
It was at the charter school job where fate once again stepped into Coach J’s path…
She was coaching a boys’ Varsity game at Mission College when she noticed an official paying attention to her during the timeouts. This was out of the ordinary, as the officials tended to chat strictly amongst themselves.
But this one was making a point of watching her coach.
As Coach J would go on to often remind her daughters: “You never know who’s watching you…”
Therefore, wherever you go: Always be on your game.
It wasn’t long before the official approached her, asking where she coached. She told him that for now it was just at the charter school, but that she was also working on attaining her Master’s.
“How far along are you?”
“I got nine months left.”
He explained that he officiated on the side, with motives not unlike Coach J’s: to give something back. He then said that if he ever came up with a budget, he’d hire her to work with him at the college where he coached.
The official’s name was Clarence Morgan.
He coached basketball at Las Positas College.
Thereafter, for months, Coach Morgan would call Coach J and check in. Her Master’s was coming closer and closer, and he was tracking how much further she had to go.
The calls would go like so:
“You have six months left?” Coach Morgan would ask.
“Yes sir, yes sir,” Coach J would say.
But when Jeannette finally finished, clinching her degree, Coach Morgan did something unexpected.
He dropped off.
For Coach J, loyalty is of the utmost importance. After all, her dad had shown her that loyalty is a form of love, by staying with his kids when their mom left. Likewise, her high school coaches could have chosen to focus on and nurture any of the young girl players, but they’d chosen to be loyal to her.
Loyalty means something to her, always. She doesn’t forget it, much less take it lightly.
And while she awaited Coach Morgan’s next follow-up, she found herself saying to her husband, “A lot of people have made me promises in all these years, and not come through. I hope he’s not one of those guys…”
Meanwhile, every year, she makes a trip to Reno for Memorial Day weekend. There, 10 or 12 basketball teams compete.
That year – 2013 – shy of a month before Reno, a phone call came.
“This is Clarence. Do you remember me?”
“Of course I do.”
“I finally got a budget. If you’re still interested…”
She paid a visit to the Las Positas campus, where Coach Morgan gave her a private tour. At the end of the tour, she got to meet his team…and got offered the job of Assistant Coach.
He told her to take her time deciding.
She told him there and then that she accepted.
For five years now, she’s worked there full-time.
In the meantime, other coaching offers have materialized, but she declines them all, for it was Coach Morgan who proved his loyalty to her.
Moreover, it was he who noticed her, and saw her worth, in a context where many others might have simply written her off.
But although coaching college ball fulfills a longtime dream, Coach J still shows up with force at AAU. Those younger kids mean a lot to her, and have her loyalty, too.
“The way I live my life,” she says, “is in honor of my dad.”
He passed away in November of 2000, after suffering a series of strokes. He’d had a chance to hold Coach J’s oldest child before falling gravely ill.
He was 65.
Through his daughter, and his two sons, his values live on.
Integrity, Honor, and Respect.
She got them from him. She gives them all back.
And her conduct is a robust example of another invaluable life lesson:
Life’s not about the manner in which you fall.
It’s all about the way you get back up.