Ty Jerome says his dad, Mark, began coaching him hard at age 5.
Tony Bennett knows the perils of playing for your father. As a 1988 high school All-American in Green Bay, Wis., he accepted a scholarship from the local university, coached by Wisconsin basketball icon Dick Bennett.
“Everything is exaggerated,” Tony Bennett said. “The good is great, and the bad is terrible, depending on what your father is like. … But you know it comes from love. That’s the one thing I had to learn as a head coach, and my dad shared that with me.
“He said, ‘Son, I pushed you hard. You gave me a green light.’ I said, ‘Push me. I want this team to go as far as it can and I want a chance to play after college. You’ve got a green light to do whatever you think it takes to make me and this team as good as you can to me.’ I regretted saying that so many times, and he dangled me over the edge, but I always knew, ‘This is my dad saying it.’ It’s almost like a safety net.”
Preparing his Virginia Cavaliers for their third NCAA regional semifinal in the last six years — they encounter Oregon on Thursday in Louisville, Ky. — Bennett has compared notes with Ty Jerome, U.Va.’s All-ACC point guard. There’s one XXL difference in their experiences:
Bennett, the NCAA’s career 3-point percentage leader and a 1992 second-round draft choice by the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, chose to be coached by his father at Green Bay. Moreover, at age 19, he was more than old enough to understand that Dick Bennett’s ruthless standards were rooted in love.
Jerome was far too young to grasp such a concept when his father decided to be his coach. And when, exactly, did Mark Jerome start coaching Ty?
“When he came home from the hospital,” Mark said matter-of-factly. “I put a basketball in his crib, and everybody thought I was crazy. Doesn’t mean I’m not, still.”
Indeed, Ty Jerome was born to basketball. His dad played college ball at Lafayette, and his mom, Melanie Walker, played at Brandeis.
Raised in Harlem, Mark Jerome learned basketball on New York City’s unforgiving street courts. He gave his oldest son the same education, and Ty, a 6-foot-5 junior, has developed into Virginia’s most dependable clutch shooter and a projected first-round NBA draft pick.
But neither sugarcoats the tension their journey created.
They started with Ty sitting on Mark’s lap watching games on television in their uptown Manhattan home. Then came a portable hoop that hung on whatever fence was available; then, as a toddler, actual games.
“When you’re playing street tournaments in New York City, there’s lots of pressure,” Mark said. “There’s lots of fans and lots of people talking trash. … It’s super-intense. There were times we were playing four boroughs in one day. … There were times we had so many games … (that) somebody should have called (social services) on me.”
Not that Ty minded. To this day, competitive basketball is his nirvana.
But when the trash-talking comes from your dad, and when it’s often aimed at you, well, that’s not quite so blissful. Mark’s yelling was so incessant that Ty became immune.
He certainly didn’t like it, and he occasionally fired back. But age and maturity taught him to filter out the noise and absorb the lessons.
“No coach is ever going to be harder on me than my dad was when he coached me,” Ty said, “no matter what level. … I have a million stories to prove that.”
I asked him to share one or 10. He smiled and declined.
“Looking back on it and the mistakes I made: What was I thinking?” Mark said. “There were lots of moments my actions weren’t appropriate. Expectations. He was 5, 6 and 7 playing against kids that were two years older, and I expected him to perform the same way.”
Understand that Mark’s demands were steeped in knowledge. He coaches at the Beacon School in Manhattan, runs his own youth training ground, Global Professional Sports, and used to coach in the renowned Riverside Church program.
From his dad, and from older, unforgiving opponents on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit and at New York’s storied Dyckman Park and Rucker Park, Ty learned the game’s nuances: angles, leverage, body position.
“There’s someone physically trying to stop you from getting somewhere,” Mark said. “And it’s someone who’s more athletic, stronger and faster, and at a young age you have to become so crafty to make your path.”
Ty refined those skills at Iona Prep in New Rochelle N.Y., where he was all-state as a junior before hip surgery short-circuited his senior year. He’s grown into his frame at Virginia and is sneaky strong and athletic, but crafty and cerebral remain apt descriptions.
He’s a clever passer, especially on pick-and-rolls, and leads the ACC in assists at 5.3 per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.18 ranks seventh nationally, and his ballhandling has improved considerably, thanks in part to an offseason week at Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp — NBA scouts attend the camp, and Ty deflects questions on whether he’ll explore professional options after this season.
“He’s so composed,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “His ability to read a ball screen, use those little hook passes with a couple seconds left in the shot clock, not too many college players can make that play.”
Jerome’s shooting range extends far beyond the NBA’s 3-point line, and he’s developed a mid-range game. No matter the defender’s size, he has an uncanny ability to make leaners and floaters in the lane.
At 13 points per game, Jerome’s scoring average is third among the Cavaliers, behind De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy. But no one on the roster takes, or makes, more big shots than Jerome. In short, he’s fearless.
His final-minute 3-pointer in last season’s victory at Duke, off a wicked ball fake, will live in Virginia lore. Jerome is also partial to his clinching jumper in the 2018 ACC tournament final against North Carolina, and let’s not forget the turn-around 3-pointer off the dribble — the degree of difficulty was off the charts — with 6.1 seconds remaining in last year’s epic comeback at Louisville.
“My dad always preached to me, ‘Never let anyone take your confidence away,’ ” Jerome said. “So throughout the course of a game, if I’m 0 for 12 and the game’s on the line, I’m still going to want to shoot it because my confidence stays the same. I think it comes from all the work I’ve put in. If I’m going to put in all that work each and every single day, during the summer, during the offseason, why would I shy away from the moment when it’s finally here? …
“Another factor is just the confidence my team and coaches give to me. If your teammates and your coaches don’t have confidence in you, you’re not going to want to take that shot. … If they can have confidence in me, how can I not have confidence in myself?”
Plenty of honors
Jerome was third-team All-ACC last season and finished behind teammates Devon Hall (second-team) and Guy (first-team) in voting by coaches and media. He was second-team this year while Hunter and Guy made the first team.
He was undervalued both times.
“He is what makes this team go,” Guy said. “Obviously it’s a biased opinion, but I think a lot of people would agree with me: If someone should have been on first-team All-ACC, it should have been him.”
“Jerome is as good a point guard or lead guard as there is in this league,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said. “I think the two greatest strengths that he has are his competitiveness and his mind.”
Those traits are a reflection of Mark Jerome. He still coaches Ty, breaking down video of Virginia games and offering suggestions, much like he does with Ty’s brother, Kobe, a sophomore at Bergen Catholic in North Jersey.
Those coaching sessions have become far tamer over the years.
“I don’t want to make it seem like it was all bad,” Mark said. “There were a lot of good times, a lot of great games. But my expectations were so high.”
Ty has exceeded all expectations with U.Va., and this season the Cavaliers (31-3) have used his fire to fuel a run to the ACC regular-season title, the South Region’s top seed and Thursday’s semifinals.
“It means everything to me, honestly,” Ty said. “It’s my first time in the Sweet 16. … Everyone is talking about a Final Four, but I’ve never been to a Sweet 16. Just the opportunity to play with this group again for a whole 'nother week and practicing with this group and traveling with this group, that’s what means the most, I think.”
It’s all come under Mark Jerome’s watchful eye. He attended Virginia’s first- and second-round tournament games last week in Columbia, S.C. — Ty averaged 12.5 points and 4.5 assists, and shot 50 percent from the field in the victories over Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma — and will be in Louisville this week, cheering alongside other proud parents.
Neither father nor son would have it any other way. This is, after all, about love.