Teacher turns basketball skills into class teachings
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 28, 2006
The seventh-graders in Joseph Odhiambo's language-arts classes at R.E.
Simpson Elementary School in Phoenix don't take their eyes off him.
The teacher might spin a basketball on the tip of his finger or toss one at
them. Even better, he might call on one of them to hold a blur of orange.
It's the kind of thing students come to expect when their teacher is a
seven-time Guinness World Records holder. Odhiambo pushed his way into the
record books again by dribbling a basketball for 26 hours and 40 minutes at the
NBA All-Star Jam Session in Houston in February.
At the same event, he spun a basketball on his finger for four hours and 15
minutes, shattering the previous record by 16 minutes.
How he handles a basketball is what he teaches his students: perseverance.
Odhiambo tells his students that learning, say, the first 10 chapters in their
language-arts textbooks is like learning to spin a basketball.
"We practice and practice, and we . . . learn the techniques," he says, spinning
one basketball on his fingertip.
Then, Odhiambo says, they take on 10 more chapters, which he equates to learning
to spin a ball on the other hand.
"We are working hard, but we can't forget the earlier concepts," he says,
spinning both balls at the same time, one in each hand.
But wait, there's more. They must learn 10 more chapters.
"Where are you going to put all this information? Your hands are full."
You must be creative, Odhiambo tells them. He pulls on a purple Phoenix Suns hat
and spins a third ball there, the two others still spinning in his hands.
"Now you have your 30 chapters."
To represent learning the final 10 chapters in the textbook, he juggles three
balls, with the fourth on his head, still spinning. The kids grin up at him -
he's almost 6-foot-3.
"You keep practicing," Odhiambo says, "Before you know it, you're very good at
To break the dribbling record, Odhiambo bounced a ball throughout the night,
walking from a park to a library to stores, followed by a crowd that included
NBA greats Clyde Drexler, Paul Pierce and Kenny Smith. No sleeping.
No bathroom breaks.
"The message for my students is about finding something you're passionate about,
setting goals, working hard and having perseverance," he says.
This is Odhiambo's second year of teaching, though the 41-year-old has been a
substitute for years. On the wall in his classroom, a poster reads, "You'll
always miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
Odhiambo moved to Arizona from his native Kenya to play basketball at Grand
Canyon University. He graduated with degrees in math and computer science and
went to work. But, after three years, he found himself watching too much
television. He began teaching at a basketball camp in Prescott.
There, he saw a videotape of Tanya Crevier, a female ball handler. He was
inspired to try some tricks himself.
"After many, many hours of practice, I could do it," he says.
Well, Principal Cindy Nicholas says, that explains all the basketballs she sees
in the hallways. She says Odhiambo's ability to focus his students'
attention means they do well in class and on state exams.
Outside the classroom, at Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury games and other
events, Odhiambo regularly wows crowds with his basketball-handling tricks.
It works as well in the classroom, but his students also pick up on the lessons
behind Odhiambo's tricky ball handling.
"He's taught me that, if you work hard enough, you can reach your goals,"
13-year-old Austin Mercer says. "If you work hard enough, you can do anything."
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8614.