Jelani McClain has lost his biggest fan.
The Naperville North High School student’s mother, Cariene Jones, was killed March 20 when fire consumed the Naperville apartment she shared with her only son. This week, the school community rallied around the varsity basketball standout as he faced a life abruptly and forever changed.
Coach Jeff Powers, who has had steady contact with McClain over the past week, said he is doing well, all things considered.
“He’s at school, he’s getting through the day,” said Powers, adding that McClain is staying with an uncle in Aurora for now. “He’s a pretty remarkable kid, in that he’s very resilient. I think in front of his friends he’s putting on his Superman suit. But behind closed doors, he’s pretty sad.”
A registered nurse who grew up in downstate Centralia, Jones, 39, was known for her quick wit and her devotion to her son.
“She was a big basketball fan, and she was a big Jelani fan,” Powers said.
The fire did not destroy all of McClain and Jones’ belongings, but much was beyond salvaging, Powers said. The Family Connections group at North has provided gift cards and arranged to replace a dresser that was lost, and others found the formula for a vinegar-based solution that helps remove smoke odors from clothing, so many of McClain’s possessions are being cleaned.
“There’s some very generous people here trying to help him get back on his feet,” Powers said.
McClain’s basketball peers have been “unbelievably” supportive, the coach said, including two former teammates who took him out for dinner one night this week. Others have stepped up to help however they can, he said.
“His teammates are very, very involved,” Powers said. “The basketball players are very concerned about seeing what we can do to help Jelani.”
Millicent McIntyre described herself as a family friend to both McClain and his mom, and shared some reflection on the little family with The Sun in an email.
“Jelani was very close to his mother and is remaining strong during this difficult time. Jelani is a very kind hearted person who cares more about others than himself, he is a selfless individual and he will go out of his way to help others,” she wrote. “Jelani is a very talented young boy and he is very passionate about basketball. This past summer he worked at a Naperville North basketball camp to help teach younger boys skills about ball handling and shooting techniques. Jelani’s long term goal is to play for the NBA and if he does not go to the NBA, he will go into the medical field. Jelani is focused at school and works hard to ensure that his grades are solid.”
Many others associated with the basketball team — a second family of sorts for the 16-year-old McClain — weighed in via email with words of affirmation.
“Jelani is a tremendous player on the court, but an even better person off the court,” said team co-captain Jayson Winick, a senior at North. “Regardless of what he’s doing, there’s always a smile on his face. When you’re around him, just his presence makes everyone have a more enjoyable time. He’s a great kid who’s very driven and extremely hard working. Whatever path he chooses to take in life, I know he’ll be successful because he’s willing to do whatever is necessary in order to accomplish his goals.”
Some of the upperclassmen on the team made it clear that they look up to the sophomore guard.
“Jelani was younger than most on the team but we all knew he is a leader and someone we could talk to. He is a true role model,” said junior Chris Gajcak.
Brian Dalton, also a junior on the team, had similar observations.
“Jelani is one of the most respected players on the team. He is the hardest worker and has a great attitude towards the game,” he said. “Everyone loves to be around him because of his positive attitude and fun personality. We feel terrible about what he’s going through and we really hope he’ll be able to stay at Naperville North.”
Senior Anthony Rehayem, another of the team’s co-captains, echoed the comments about McClain’s gentle nature.
“He’s the most humble kid I know,” he said, “even being a freshman on the varsity team last year.”
Zach Tuxhorn, another junior on the team, also emphasized McClain’s attitude.
“Jelani always has a smile on his face. Hardest worker on the team. Always has a positive attitude,” Tuxhorn said.
Holly Dalton, Brian Dalton’s mom, said many North families have offered to take McClain in, but the Department of Children and Family Services will determine where he will live now. For her, the tragedy was heart-wrenching, but the response from the school family to McClain’s devastating loss was uplifting.
“I can only hope that someday when Jelani looks back on this awful experience he will be able to see how loved he is, and how many people truly care about him,” she said. “His teammates love him so much — and they mean every word they said.”
A fund has been set up to help Naperville North student Jelani McClain with his expenses in the wake of his mother’s death in a fire. Donations can be made via checks payable to Jelani McClain and mailed or dropped off at: US Bank, 136 S. Washington St., Naperville, IL 60540.