With both parents gone, men’s basketball senior forward finds a way to push on

State Hornet Staff

Using the word ‘loner’ to describe Sacramento State senior forward Jordan Salley is not only something he embraces, but also indicative how his life has played out.

Salley, who is an only child, endured the loss of his mother Shelley Roberts to a tumor in 2011 and the passing of his father Keenan less than two years later.

Like most kids who grew up playing pickup games on the playground, Salley said he always had a desire to play college basketball and it was a way to help fulfill his mom’s dream of her son receiving a higher education.

While on a road trip for the Lutheran High School-La Verne boy’s basketball team during his sophomore season, Salley’s mother was in a car accident. He said her motor skills failed so she could not stop her car. It was discovered that Roberts had a tumor.

“They did the (emergency) surgery right away,” Salley said. “She went through surgery and she was fine, but she couldn’t move the left side of her body.”

Jordan Salley said he and his mother eventually moved away from Keenan Salley after Roberts grew disgruntled over her illness causing a rift between her and Jordan’s father. Jordan became the primary caregiver.

“My dad wasn’t working at the time because he was taking care of [my mom] so he was struggling. She felt like that wasn’t an excuse,” Salley said. “She was just never the same and she was mad at the world and wanted to be by herself.”

Roberts was able to gain some mobility back, but chemotherapy eventually weakened her. She relied on Jordan Salley to help with all day-to-day tasks – including bathing.

Going into his high school senior season, Salley said well-known programs like Creighton, Pepperdine and San Diego State recruited him, until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

Salley sat out the entire season, but Montana State offered him a scholarship,  even with the knee injury. Salley was unable to qualify academically, and the offer was rescinded.

“I didn’t know what I was going do after school,” he said. “I was really depressed because [basketball] was my future. I wasn’t going to be able to pay for college. I didn’t really want to go to junior college because that wasn’t my goal.”

Salley ended up at Santa Rosa Junior College playing for head coach Craig McMillan, who started at guard for the 1988 University of Arizona NCAA Final Four team, after Salley’s high school coach Eric Cooper, who played with McMillan at Arizona, tipped him off to Salley’s availability.

Salley showed up to Santa Rosa out of shape and still recovering from the knee injury, so his production was limited as a freshman.

In December 2011, during his first season at Santa Rosa, Salley’s mother had a stroke from which she would never recover.

“[My mom’s] main focus was that she wanted to get me to college and that’s what kept her working hard,” Salley said. “Once I got to college, she stopped doing as much work as she was in the beginning.”

Salley left the team and was with his mother as she passed away. After Roberts died, he returned to school and the basketball court.

“He came back and he was an emotional wreck like any 18-year old would be after all that,” McMillan said. “He hadn’t been working out and was out of shape. We tried to get him back into shape and we pushed him probably a little too fast because it was midseason. He ended up aggravating his knee (injury) and it swelled up. He was unable to play the rest of the season for us.”

McMillan said Salley worked around the knee issues as a sophomore and was productive averaging about five points per game and three rebounds, but once again, tragedy struck.

Salley said his father always had health issues with his heart, but those problems were always put on the back burner since his mom’s tumor was the main concern.

“My dad’s passing was shocking to everyone because nobody saw it coming,” Salley said. “I had just talked to him two days before and I told him that Sac State was interested in me. Then my aunt called me and I had a bad feeling because she doesn’t (ever) call me out of the blue.”

Jordan Salley’s father Keenan went to sleep on Feb. 24, 2012 and never woke up.

Salley had no parents and no siblings. His closest remaining family lived in Chicago. Yet, he returned to Santa Rosa and helped lead his team to a Big 8 Conference championship.

Salley accepted an offer to play for Sac State for head coach Brian Katz in fall 2012.

“The main reason why I came here is because of Coach Katz,” Salley said. “He was upfront, told me what was real. He didn’t feel sorry for me to the point where I can take advantage of [my situation].”

Katz said Salley came to Sac State 40 pounds overweight and had trouble adapting to the Divison I level of play.

“I told him he had a lot of talent but I thought he was lazy at times, not real focused and sometimes lacked discipline,” Katz said. “I said ‘Jordan, I’m not going to say I can take the place of your dad, but I can guarantee that no head coach in the country will try harder to fill that void for you.’”

Salley said he no longer simply goes through the motions by just trying to get through practice, which limited his role during his first season with the Hornets. He started working harder and enjoying his job as a role player on the team in 2014.

Salley is averaging 6.1 points  and 3.3 rebounds per game, but with the help of fellow sociology major and junior college transfer teammate Mikh McKinney, Salley has taken a stronger interest in the classroom as he prepares for life away from basketball.

“Both of us have motivated each other on an academic level,” McKinney said. “We struggled together at the beginning as far as going from the junior college academic level to being at a four year (university). With both of us going through the same thing, we kept ourselves in check.”

With only five game left in the regular season, Salley’s career is almost over with the Hornets, but Katz said the work is not done when he takes off the jersey for the last time.

Katz set up a meeting for Salley with an FBI agent. Salley said he wants to be a U.S. Marshall because he does not have a connection to people, and is used to being without family.

“We’re going to guide him through this process beyond basketball,” Katz said. “I want to make sure that he gets the most of this so when he graduates, we can get him headed in the right direction and still serve as a support group with our team, coaches and the institution.”

Even outside the game of basketball, teammates and coaches alike said Salley has the biggest heart and they would do anything for him.

 “It’s a great feeling to struggle with someone and [to go] through life with somebody who has had pain and to see it all come together on the court for him, brings a smile to my face,” McKinney said. “He never shows his pain because he has the biggest smile on the team and he’s always in a good mood. He has so much inside of him and I feel like when you see him dunk the ball so powerfully and scream, it’s like he’s releasing his pain on the rim.”


Joe can be reached on Twitter at @tattoed_scribe