They love going to Wright State basketball games.
This past season Julian “JuJu” Chambliss – now 3 ½ – couldn’t leave for the Nutter Center until he was wearing his Raiders’ basketball jersey and had his Rowdy basketball in his hands.
Once at the arena, he and his 1-year-old brother Kellen would sit with their mom, Melissa, several rows up from the court, directly across the floor from the WSU bench. That’s where all the coaches’ families sat.
The boys would watch until their dad, Raiders’ assistant Sharif Chambliss, appeared from the dressing room. Kellen would cry out “Dada” and Julian, if possible, would slip to the edge of the court to give his dad a hug.
“Then he’d be off running around with all the other kids,” Sharif laughed.
Or he’d be “watching Big Lou,” Melissa said in reference to the Raiders’ 6-foot-8 star, Loudon “Big Lou” Love. “He wants to be like Big Lou when he grows up and have braids like Big Lou when his hair grows out.”
Meanwhile, Kellen, his mom said, “entertains the crowd with his spectacular one-year-old’s dance moves.”
“They are the two most precious, innocent, loving little boys you could ever find,” said Cherri Chambliss, their grandmother, who they call “Gimmee,” which is their attempt at Grammy. She lives in Racine, Wis., and said every time they end their FaceTime sessions with her they tell her they love her and blow kisses.
Before this Father’s Day, Cherri and Melissa both spoke of the little boys’ bond with their dad.
Sports is big with them and they bird watch Melissa said. She told how she often finds them “locked into an episode of Animal Planet” and how Sharif enjoys a good “tickle monster sessions” with them, as well as reading to them and tucking them in at night.
During the COVID-19 pandemic – which cut short the WSU basketball season at tournament time and forced most people to stay at home the past two or three months – Sharif said he found a few silver lining moments:
“I watched my son learn to ride a two-wheeler with no training wheels and he’s just three.
“Being a dad is the greatest thing ever and seeing that was one of the best things I’ve witnessed. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. It was an unbelievable watching him try to figure it out. He was very independent, even as far as pushing Dad away.
“Now we go on bike rides all through the neighborhood.”
Last month though there was another learning moment he wishes his son hadn’t experienced.
On May 29th, Shariff was watching CNN coverage of the protests in Minneapolis over the killing four earlier days of George Floyd, the unarmed and handcuffed black man who lay on his stomach as a white policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while two other cops assisted him and another stood guard as nearby bystanders pleaded that Floyd was dying.
A CNN journalist, Oscar Jiminez, and his camera crew were covering the protest, a pair of cops suddenly came up while he was on the air, handcuffed and arrested him for no reason and led him away. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, a white CNN colleague of Jiminez was treated with consummate respect as he broadcast live.
Later, Jimenez was released and Minnesota governor, Tim Walz, apologized.
As Sharif had watched incredulously, he realized Julian was watching, too.
“He said, ‘Daddy, why is the police officer taking him to the office?’” Sharif said. “JuJu goes to school and all he knows is that if you get in trouble, you go to the office. So he thought that was happening, but he didn’t know why.
“For me it was hard to explain. How do you tell a three-year-old: ‘Basically son, it’s because he’s black. He didn’t do anything wrong. It’s all because of the color of his skin.’”
Shattering such innocence with some of the realities of race in this country is what’s hard for any black father. “It absolutely hurts my heart that this stuff still happens and I have to explain it to my children,” Sharif said.
“One day I’ll have to explain how people may look at him differently in a store and how, if he’s ever pulled over while driving, he doesn’t want to move unless he tells the officer what he’s doing.”
Cherri taught these same lessons to the 38-year-old Sharif when he was growing up, but now she sees a difference:
“As an African-American mother of a son and two grandsons, for the very first time this is really concerning me. It worries me.”
Sharif said his one hope is that he and Melissa do for their boys what his mom did for him:
“I’ve got to hope we raise them to know they are loved by their parents and the people around them. And you want to instill confidence and a spiritual base.”
“Our boys will learn to embrace anyone they cross paths with and to emulate the Golden Rule,” Melissa said. “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”
Sharif grew up in Racine, a gritty city of 77,500 on Lake Michigan. Although his parents divorced when he was two, he got strong guidance from both during his life.
Cherri raised him with what she calls “love and discipline,” a mantra that came with everything from a 9 p.m. curfew as a high school kid to heartfelt lessons on how to treat other people, especially women.
She also taught him a work ethic. She worked 42 years at Case, the manufacturer of farm and construction equipment, and along the way, she went back to college and graduated from Marian University in Fond du lac when Sharif was in second grade.
Sharif’s dad, Al Haj Jameel Ghuari, was a standout college basketball player at Wisconsin-Parkside. Known then as Chuck Chambliss, he scored 1,334 points and is in the school’s hall of fame.
He ran the famed Bray Recreation Center in Racine which produced several college players, including Caron Butler, the UConn and NBA standout.
While Jameel, who was also Sharif’s AAU coach, guided his son’s playing career to Penn State and Wisconsin before a pro stint in Portugal, the early lessons were instilled by Cherri, who Sharif calls “an unbelievable mother.”
Sadly, she too had to instill those racial lessons when ugly realities collided with childhood innocence.
“I remember I was about 7 and my mom took me to the grocery store,” Sharif said. “I picked up a Hot Wheels and she said, ‘No, you’re not getting it!’ So I put it back on another shelf.
“But the manager stopped me when we were going out and said, ‘OK. where’d you stash it?’
“My mom snapped on him so professionally. She said, “If I tell him he’s not getting it, then he’s not getting it! It’s back there somewhere.’”
Cherri remembers other advice: “I told him, ‘If you are driving and get stopped by a police officer, get your hands at 2 and 4 and don’t move unless told to.’”
She said in later year’s Sharif’s dad gave him some necessary lessons: “I can teach my son good character, but I certainly can’t teach him to be a black man because I’m not one.”
Sharif played three years at Penn State – where he was the team’s leading scorer two seasons – and then gave up his scholarship and transferred to Wisconsin. He saw it as a better opportunity, even though he had to take out loans – which he is still paying – to go there for two years, one as a redshirt scout player.
He was he captain of the Badgers’ Elite Eight team in 2005 and finished his college career with 1,107 points.
Playing for Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, he had a coach who later shepherded him into the coaching ranks.
Sharif spent two years as the video coordinator at Wisconsin and four at Milwaukee under Rob Jeter, the former Badger assistant. He joined Scott Nagy’s WSU staff in the spring of 2016.
The year before he married Melissa, to whom a mutual friend – whose younger brother he’d once recruited – had introduced him.
“He recruited me harder than any recruit he has ever recruited or will ever recruit,” said Melissa, who is from Pewaukee, Wis. “From the start Sharif gave me his all. He showed me what it feels like to be loved and appreciated…He’s the most loyal human being I know. And on top of it all, he’s a sight for sore eyes.”
While he mixed his own charm with those early lessons on treating women, his courtship did get a last minute FaceTime tutorial from Cherri.
He called his mom when he was picking out Melissa’s ring at a Madison jewelry store.
“He had the jeweler across the counter with two rings,” Cherri laughed. “He said, ‘Mom, which one do you like?’”
‘Message of love’
Cherri remembered a question Sharif asked her when he was about 7 or 8:
“He said. ‘Mom if you went right beneath our skin wouldn’t we all be the same?’
“I said, ‘Yes, we would. The only difference is skin color. If you go to the doctor’s office, our anatomy is all the same. And if we get a cold, we all get the same medicine.’
“I told him, ‘Don’t ever say you don’t see color because you’re not color blind. But you want to see beyond color. You want to see who a person is inside.’”
She believes that’s part of the strength of Sharif’s marriage with Melissa, who is white. She said they make a great couple and are superb parents.
Over the years though Sharif has encountered people who can’t see beyond pigmentation.
“I remember the times I’ve been called the N-word,” he said. “I finally addressed it and told the guy, ‘If you want to call me that, come back and say it to my face, not when you’re walking away.’
“Was the person a coward? Yes, he didn’t come back.”
George Floyd’s killing has gnawed at him as has Ahmaud Arbery’s but he’s able to see another picture, too
He said one friend – who he’s known since elementary school and is white – just sent him a text the other day:
“He said, “Rif, I’m thinking about you during these tough times. I just want to make sure you and your beautiful family are OK and tell you ‘I love you.’ I’m sorry the way y’all are being treated. It ain’t right.’
“That was a message of love.”
Another was being delivered here this weekend. Cherri was flying into Dayton on Saturday evening for Father’s Day and before she left one of Sharif’s white playmates from their neighborhood stopped by her house.
He’s a golfer now and he gave her a little putter to give to Kellen so he can join his dad and Julius on the green.
It’s moments like that that give him hope for his kids, Sharif said:
“When Dr. King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, he told how one day he hopes little black boys and girls join hands with little white boys and girls and go do things together.”
When reality and innocence meet for his boys, that is a lesson Sharif Chambliss hopes endures.
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