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Meet The Class Of '17: A Son Learns Dad's Lessons

As part of a nationwide public broadcasting initiative called American Graduate, KERA is following a diverse group of North Texas eighth graders all the way through high school. Today in the series “Class of ’17,” we meet a kid whose dad dropped out of college but passed on a love of hoops and a passion for hard work.

Ricky Rijos Jr.’s favorite subject is algebra, and he spends five hours a week at it in school, then more time at home doing homework. But Ricky’s father says that's nothing compared to the time the kid spends focused on basketball:

“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He has an indoor basketball court at the house, so that’s all he plays 24 hours, all the time.”

That doesn't bother RikiRijos Sr., who's also obsessed with basketball. He played in high school in New York -- still displays a picture of his coach. He played ball at the University of South Florida. School was important to his Puerto Rican father and New York mother, neither of whom went college. But Rijos says his most important lessons came not from school, but basketball, and that’s what he sees his son picking up.  

“I think it keeps him certainly out of trouble and gives him motivation. They’re learning about leadership, they’re learning about themselves, about conquering, about situational stuff that happens on the basketball court, same as in life. How to win, how to lose, and how things change quickly.”

Dad speaks from experience. In college, his parents divorced, so they couldn’t help him with money. His brothers and sister had scholarships; he paid his own way. They graduated; he dropped out after three years.

He briefly coached a small Florida college basketball team.  He became a bartender, managed a bar for a cousin, then jumped into restaurants. Today he owns and runs the Texas Roadhouse in Denton, and is still competing to win.

“I’ve been on stage as a finalist three times out of eleven years, in the top ten in the company, trying to be the Number One store, not accomplishing it,” he says.

Dad beams as he watches his son practice. He says Ricky’s not just good at basketball,  and with a good heart, but smarter than he was at the same age. Maybe 40 years ago you could succeed without college, but not anymore. And the kid buys in.

“You have to have good grades to play, so I guess school would be more important than basketball.  I would have to keep working as hard as I can, keep doing good in the classroom.”

That’s because Ricky also wants a basketball scholarship. Southern Methodist University education professor Sherrill English – a dropout prevention expert -- likes Ricky's approach. She says extra curricular activities are good motivators:

“The balance is ‘I’m going to school every day. I’m showing up, and if I want to play a sport or be a cheer leader or if I want to be in band, I have to be in class every day.’ It’s the carrot that gets them there.”

Ricky's a good player and student. When pushed, he admits he gets “A’s.” He attends top-rated ForestwoodMiddle Schoolin Flower Mound. Like many ballplayers his age, he dreams of the NBA. But he’s smart enough to know few ever make it.

“Like, you have a back-up plan," he says. "So like if you don’t make it to the NBA, you might try being a coach or something like that. Like, if you can’t be on the floor playing, maybe you can be on the floor coaching, like helping other players.”

Dad’s a believer.

“He knows the whole theme. He understands what it means to be a champion, and he understands what it’s going to take for him to be a champion. He’s just  not old enough to take on the task yet. But I’ll tell you he understands the pathway, and…”

...and, says Dad, that’s the way he’s taught Ricky his whole life.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.