At their game on September the 5th, the Phoenix Mercury named six time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee as their Woman of Inspiration for 2009. Joyner-Kersee, who was named by Sport's Illustrated as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century, has been helping kids in the East St. Louis area since 2000.
The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center offers a variety of educational and recreational activities for youth and adults including: after-school tutoring, youth sports leagues, nutrition and health education, fitness and meals for seniors, as well as other important community related programs.
Jackie addressed a group of about 75 Mercury fans before the game in a private gathering and then spoke to the crowd at half-time. I talked briefly with Joyner-Kersee before the game.
"I think it is so important for women of this generation to understand the history, the history of where sport has come from and how it's grown and the difference that the generation today can make in the lives of the generations that will come after them," explained Jackie about her message of responsibility.
Joyner-Kersee, a former basketball player herself at UCLA and then later professionally for Richmond in ABL, also spoke with the Mercury players and provided this guidance, "The message I try to get across to them is to continue to work hard and not take anything for granted. Be the best that you can be and always be willing to give a helping hand to someone else."
She went on to talk about how playing a team sport like basketball can teach children and young players about understanding their roles in life and how to be accountable in what they do.
While Jackie hadn't spoken to Diana Taurasi about her off the court set-back this year she offered this, "I just think that she's a leader and it's unfortunate but still she found a way to bounce back and focus on the positive and not to make this be the period of her life. It's just a matter of her being able to talk to young people and continue to do what she does really well....We like heroes and we also like to tear them down and sometimes you need that support."
I have been fortunate to meet and interview many great athletes ranging from my childhood heroes Walter Davis and Alvan Adams to any number of young players that may or may not be playing pro ball in a few years, to almost all of the greatest players in the NBA and WNBA today.
What strikes me about the greats is just how normal they are and yet at the same time how obvious it is that they function on another level from the rest of us. Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of those people.