Branding beyond basketball: how Isaiah Washington uses his likeness to inspire
St. Raymond’s High School in the Bronx is known for producing top basketball talent in New York City over the years. And this year is no exception.
6’1 senior star point guard from Harlem, Isaiah Washington, is being considered as “the best thing since Stephon Marbury to come out of [the] city.”
With all the hype comes the eventual status and ability to begin building a brand. Washington, who rocks Nike heavily and loves to wear Kevin Durant 4 sneakers, has been thinking of branding for some time now.
But it isn’t Nike, a longtime sponsor of the St. Raymond’s Ravens, that is constantly on his mind.
Washington would rather be associated with a movement he began along with a buddy of his since the eighth grade, dubbed “Jelly Fam.”
“If you nice and you can ‘jelly’ I’ll put you down,” Washington said in an interview with HoopDreams magazine last spring.
Basketball players commonly use the term “jelly” when they score a point by an elegant finger roll off the hands where the ball lays into the basket.
The “jelly fam” name originated from a few of Washington’s friends, some who were his teammates. To qualify, one must “jelly” at least three times in a row in one game and possess keen ball skills. But what started as an insider among a group of friends has gradually evolved the level of competition among local players, raised a standard, and turned into a mentorship.
“I’ve watched it from an organic perspective and watched it grow into a phenomenon and because so many people are drawn to it, so many young kids are drawn to it, he turned it into a positive message,” said St Raymond’s Head coach, Jorge Lopez. “It went from being a simple finger roll to ‘hey listen, go to school, work hard in the classroom, work hard in the game, and eventually good things are going to happen for you’.”
Washington describes how he views his brand simply by “being a role model.”
But this wasn’t always the case.
Immaturity was a trait Washington has long since polished from his younger days as a class clown.
“Coach told us we have to move like professionals,” Washington said. “Before, I’d like to joke around a lot and now I’m just more calm so I don’t want kids [who follow me] to act immature. “
Washington, a four-star recruit ranked in the top 100 on both national recruiting sites of ESPN and Scout.com, averaged 17 points and 6.8 assists per game last season. Now heading into his senior year as a University of Minnesota verbal commit, there are a lot of expectations not only riding off of the “Jelly Fam” movement, but his summer performances too.
The Under Armour Elite 24 showcase is an annual event every summer where 24 of the country’s top players team up and compete against each other to flash their skills to a handful of analysts and recruiters. If players seize the moment, it can help build an athlete’s recruiting stock based on their performance. Washington happened to do so.
At the same time, 37-year-old youth league scout and Bronx native, Kareim Thomas sat with his own set of young basketball pupils and eagerly watched Washington cross his opponents and skillfully weave his way to finger roll the ball into the basket. The showing ended with Washington scoring the second-most amount of points ever scored at Elite 24, with 36. Lance Stephenson, current NBA player of the New Orleans Pelicans, holds the record with 38 points.
Thomas and Washington would meet that time about three months ago when Thomas’ son snapped a picture with Washington after Washington’s impressive performance at the Elite 24. He then handed a post-game gift to one of Thomas’ sons. It was a worn shirt that left Thomas’ son in awe.
“I’m not going to wash [it] because Isaiah gave it to me,” Thomas said, recounting his son’s response.
Compelled by Washington’s kind gesture and the prolonged excitement of his children after meeting their idol, Thomas didn’t want the feeling to end. Somehow he was going to find a way to connect to the star player for his kid’s sake. He furthered matters and direct messaged Washington through Instagram, where Washington has over 42,000 followers. Thomas didn’t know what to expect.
“And he responded immediately,” Thomas said.
That was when he knew a special bond between him, his two sons and Washington would blossom. Over the next month and a half, Washington designated time out of his busy schedule to take Jermel Thomas, 9, and Kareim Thomas Jr., 12 under his wing.
Weekend movie outings, instructional gym workouts, and exclusive game-worn and player memorabilia came with this new relationship.
What may seem like a major act of kindness by others is a duty for Washington.
“A lot of people are watching you and there are a lot of people that look up to you. A lot of people are watching my videos everyday and I just want to be put in the right path to be successful [for them].”
Thomas thinks of Washington as a role model to his kids. As they both share similar struggles of growing up in tough neighborhoods in the Bronx and Harlem.
The “Jelly Fam” movement is what made it all possible.
“We don’t come from Beverly Hills, so in their mind, they see that if he can do it, they can too.”