During the last two decades or so, if your summertime morning commute took you past Dike West near downtown Fargo, you probably noticed at times boys and girls doing layup drills on the outdoor basketball courts. And if you ever wondered who that tall man was conducting obviously a structured practice, his name was John May.
May was by no means a well-known public figure here in Fargo-Moorhead, but he was certainly recognizable and unforgettable among the hundreds of lives he touched. For more than 20 years, he has gotten countless numbers of boys and girls excited to play the sport he loved-basketball.
Sadly, John May passed away last Friday at the age of 61.
It was a life focused on basketball. Where he grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, May religiously followed John Thompson coaching the Georgetown University men's basketball team. When he headed west to play basketball at Jamestown College, May's enthusiasm for the game was contagious.
"I am going to take you under my wing," May would tell his younger teammates.
He continued with that philosophy when he started coaching youth basketball in the FM area. He coached a traveling team called "Just Us." Eventually he coached boys and girls teams called the "JAM Boyz" and "JAM Girlz." The "JAM" could have been a reference to a slam dunk, but it actually stood for his name-John Amos May.
Some of those he coached never made it past the junior high level. Many found success at the high school varsity level. And some-like former Fargo North standout Tyler Koenig-went on to play at the college level.
"John felt very proud to see them playing at that varsity level," said Shawn Dobberstein, who kept the scorebook for John May's team while his son Mike played. "He probably went to more basketball games-be it the youth level, the high school level and the college level-than anybody in town."
Standing 6-foot-4-inches tall, you couldn't help but notice May at all those youth basketball tournaments he coached over the years. And if you didn't see him, you could certainly hear him-constantly yelling instructions and encouragement to his young players.
That boisterous style may have rubbed some people the wrong way. It may have even rubbed some high school coaches the wrong way. But May had a way of getting kids excited about learning the fundamentals of basketball.
"His enthusiasm and passion were his attributes," Dobberstein said. "He got so many kids of wanting to get better. He was very vocal but a very positive vocal coach. There were a lot of positive rants."
I will never forget one of those positive rants-during a time when I and a couple of other dads had the pleasure of coaching against May. Sitting on our bench during one of many games we played against May's teams, we watched one of his players produce a hustle play that would make any coach proud.
It made May proud enough to come sprinting down the sideline, flashing right in front of us. A bit startled at first, we eventually just started laughing and jokingly told John to get back to his own bench.
"There was no such thing as a coaching box for John," said former Fargo North High School boys basketball coach Dan Shultis. "One thing that people started to realize was that passion and energy was always a good positive reflection for the kids. He was tough, there was no doubt about that. He was yelling because he was motivating his kids. It all just rubbed off on those kids."
Shultis was the North coach when May's son, Jordan, was a starting sophomore point guard who helped guide the Spartans to the 2006 state championship. Today, Shultis is coaching his own youth basketball team-one that includes his own son and May's youngest son, Jalen.
"You can just tell how their kids were bought up," Shultis said, referring to John and his wife Coleen whose family includes Jordan (now 26), Justin (21), Alyssa (20) and Jalen (12). "Their kids respected coaches and adults. With Jordan, it was always 'yes sir, no sir.' That is a direct reflection of how they raised their kids."
And it's a direct reflection on all those kids May got pumped up to play basketball. With that beaming smile and booming laugh, May had a way of making basketball fun.
"Anybody who wanted to learn, he would reach out to them," said his son Jordan. "Anybody he took under his wing, if they were willing to learn the game, he was willing to teach them."
All those youth tournaments across the region won't be the same without him. And taking the morning commute past the Dike West basketball courts won't be the same either.