Why I Lead

I was sixteen years old when I watched Lorenzo Charles grab Dereck Whittenberg’s desperation air ball and slam home the winner at the buzzer in the 1983 NCAA Basketball Championship Final. I will never forget the joy I felt watching Coach Jim Valvano running madly around the court in utter jubilation looking for someone to hug!

For fifteen years, I was fortunate to serve as a camp coach for Iowa Hawkeye Basketball.  I traveled the Midwest giving dribbling clinics and serving as a camp coach to many young players. One of my favorite memories was serving as a referee during the league games. I would often use my “magic whistle” to try and control the outcome of the basketball games.  My goal was always the same; work the whistle in order to have the game end in a tie.  My reason was simple. You see, camp rules stated that if the game ended in a tie, then the game would be decided by pressure free throws. This meant that some young boy would have the opportunity to have a camp moment they would never forget…tie game, no time left on the clock, pressure free throw for the win.  One free throw away from their shining moment; a moment they would remember for their rest of their life, win or lose.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to witness another moment that made me smile and gave me a reason to be proud.  It may not seem like the biggest deal in the world, but it left an impression on me and led to a life-long memory that one young man will never forget.  It was near the end of the basketball season and our boys’ team was playing our cross town rival for bragging rights and first place in the conference. They gym was packed and the noise level was deafening. It was nearing half time and although we were in the lead, the momentum had clearly shifted and the other team was making a run and threatening to head to the locker room with the lead. There was less than a minute left in the half when our post player picked up his second foul of the game.  Earlier in the week my basketball coach @krskillett and I were talking and he had shared that he was having a difficult time keeping some of the reserves motivated and positive due to lack of playing time.  I shared with him something I had learned from a former coach and dear friend of mine regarding reserve players and playing time.  Often it is not the amount of minutes, but rather the opportunity to play significant minutes that matters the most and keeps the spirit vibrant.  Our coach called to the end of the bench for Bob to enter the game.  The crowd erupted into a wild frenzy and they began to chant Bob’s name.  What happened next not only influenced the end result of the game for us (we went on to stretch our halftime lead and win the game), but allowed Bob to feel as though he had made a meaningful and significant contribution to his team’s win. More importantly for our team, it gave everyone a sense of hope that at any moment anyone of them could be called on to have their moment to shine in a game that mattered and at a time in which the outcome was not out of reach. In a mere 46 seconds, Bob secured a defensive rebound, scored a basket the first time down the court on a post feed from a teammate, took a charge on the defensive end, and then grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a put back and got fouled and made the free throw.  Each time Bob ran up and down the court, the smile on his face grew wider and wider.  As Bob snared the last defensive rebound of the half after a missed shot, Bob ran off the court with the energy and spirit of a championship feeling and pumped his fists and yelled with excitement.  On that night, Bob finally believed he had contributed to his team’s win and felt a sense of pride and accomplishment he had not felt all season.  And all it took was for one coach to give a player his moment to be a part of something great.
This past spring I was reminded by https://twitter.com/gcouros  in his post, “So Much More Effective,” http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3799 of a special young man who had been dropped from school several times due to non-attendance.  His name was Ben.  One day Ben stopped by school and asked to see me. Nineteen years old and closing in on twenty, Ben begged me for one last chance to earn his high school diploma. Ben had a history of making poor decisions and quite frankly, for making promises and then not delivering on those promises. This time he vowed it would be different. “Why is this time going to be different than the previous times,” I asked? “Because it is my last chance and I don’t want to be a drop out,” he exclaimed! This time I could sense desperation and a different level of urgency in his voice. “Do you understand you have to go the entire year and pass every class to earn every credit to graduate?” I asked.  “Yes I do! Please Mr. Casas, I promise I won’t let you down,” said Ben.  At that moment I reached into my desk drawer and pulled out a pen and a piece of paper and handed it to him. “I want it in writing. You better not let me down Ben. You know why? Because you are not going to be the last Ben that comes to me wanting another chance and I need for you to give me hope to keep believing in kids when they come back asking for second and third chances,” I said.  As he walked out of my office, I unfolded the piece of paper he had left on my desk. It read, “I promise I won’t let you down Mr. Casas. Consider this an invitation to my graduation party.” 
That May I smiled and got teary-eyed as I read Ben’s name at graduation.  Just two months prior we had recognized Ben at our Student’s First Banquet for overcoming adversity and persevering through difficult times. He wrote the nicest letter to me that evening and shared many touching comments about me. I couldn’t help but get choked up as I talked about him at the banquet.  That afternoon after the graduation ceremony I was the first one to show up at Ben’s home with card in hand.  As he opened up the card a big smile came over his face.  Inside his graduation card I had placed the note he had written me that past fall promising me he would not let me down.  In his card I simply wrote, “Thanks for giving me hope to continue believing in the Ben’s of the world.”  With that, he gave me the biggest hug and thanked me for believing in him. The truth was, it is I who owed Ben the biggest thanks of all for teaching me the importance of being a champion for all kids.
Why do I lead? 

I lead because I want to see every child have the opportunity to be a part of something great! Every student deserves a champion, someone to be crazy about them, to believe in them, to move them and inspire them in ways they have never been moved.  I lead because I want to help transform the lives of our students and the best way to do that is to transform a community of people to do more than they ever thought possible.
My hope is that every student including the Ben’s of the world will have an opportunity to look back on their school experience and cherish the memory of a caring adult who believed in them, who gave them a chance to “have their moment” and never gave up on them even when they gave us every reason to do so.  What an amazing gift we have been given to be able to touch the deepest part of a child’s heart!
Will you lead with me?
Quote:  “Our students never forget a great teacher.  You will be amazed at the difference you can make.” – Unknown


  • My first read on a Sunday morning. Thank you so much for telling the story of Ben. Thank you for hanging on to hope and believing in his promise. You inspire.

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you Elizabeth! I have to admit, I had my doubts, but Ben taught me a valuable lesson. His story has inspired me and my team to continue to use these types of stories to fuel our fire for kids. Have a blessed Sunday!

  • Ben Gilpin says:

    WOW Jimmy! Powerful post. This should be read by all educators. Look deep inside people and be willing to find the good. We’re all human and we can do anything we put our mind to.

    This is easily one of the most powerful posts I’ve read. Thank you for sharing. I’ll be sending this out to as many educators as possible.

    Thank you for being a champion Jimmy!

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you! As you well know, as educators we need success stories to keep us going, vibrant, positive, and emotionally in the game. Some of our kids are so wounded. We just never know the impact we may make on a child which is why we always have to keep believing and thinking long term! Keep doing great work my friend!

  • Tom Whitford says:

    Always love the power of your stories Jimmy. Thanks again for sharing and caring. Why do I follow you, because you lead by example, and you look to build leaders, not followers. Thanks for being my leader, mentor, guide and champion. So glad you have room for one more.

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you my brother! Feel blessed to have crossed paths with you and Leah. Looking forward to doing our best to champion together for all kids!

  • Cory Radisch says:


    Outstanding..in my presentations I often use the term Merchants of Hope. Our job is difficult and very rewarding when things like this happen. It happens because there are people(like you) who will do what it takes to provide hope sometimes for the hopeless. In turn, it provides us with the motivational fuel to believe in the power of the potential of all our students. I wrote about this in my blog http://cradisch.blogspot.com/2013/03/merchants-of-hope.html

    Have a great Sunday!

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you for taking time to comment on my post Cory. As you well know it takes a community to raise our children and I am blessed to have a caring staff and wonderful administrative team that truly believes in fighting the fight for our kids. I look forward to checking out your blog post.

  • Deb Day says:

    Awww, you brought tears to my eyes this morning with that story! And now I am ready to fight for the Ben’s of the world–or at least my little corner of it. Every kid needs a champion.

    • jimmycasas says:

      Sorry Deb. I had them too as I was reflecting on Ben and Bob and writing about them last night. I am blessed because I have a hundred similar stories in my head. The powerful gift we all have because we get to work with kids every day! Take care my friend!

  • Jay Posick says:

    Great story, Jimmy. You have found a way to develop relationships and provide hope for your students.
    Continue the great work!

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you Jay! Appreciate you taking the time to read and share your comment. I promise we will do our best to give every kid their opportunity to shine.

  • Dan Butler says:

    Excellent post and very moving, Jimmy. Thank you for the motivation heading into a new school year. Always a pleasure learning from you and your leadership.

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you dear friend. I am inspired by your dedication to your kids and your team. Keep being the change for your community Dan. You are doing great work!

  • Jimmy,
    Wow! What a meaningful, powerful post! I had to stop reading for a minute to dry my eyes. I will be sharing your post with my principal group to help continue the discussion we started about not giving up and not accepting what our students give us as “good enough” if it is not the best they can do. What a great reminder for all of us as we head into a new school year and a fresh start. Thanks for sharing your great leadership with us!

  • jimmycasas says:

    Thank you for your kind words and thank you for sharing my writing with your team. I hope it resonates with them in the same way it did with you and me both. All my best as you begin a new school year. Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can help in anyway.

  • Aaron Becker says:

    Great post, my friend! Seeing it from afar and up close, I appreciate your leadership for your students, staff, and community. It’s even better when others outside your direct influence are allowed to be impacted by it too.

    • jimmycasas says:

      A-A-Ron! 🙂
      Thank you my friend. It has been both a true pleasure and an honor working with you. I feel blessed to have crossed paths with you. Looking forward to our continued partnership and friendship. – jimmy

  • A motivating account of how a single student’s story can greatly influence how we interact with all students. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you all the best this year as you continue to be a champion of students (including the Bens)!

    • jimmycasas says:

      Thank you Charlie for taking time to read my post and leave a comment. I promise to do my best and am always available to support you in anyway I can. Best to you!