On any given Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. you can find one of the former Harlem Globetrotters sitting in a chair and teaching kids his favorite sport. He stresses the importance of positioning and shot selection, knowing how much they apply to the real world.
Jim Horne’s students aren’t going to the NBA, but scholarships are available to them nonetheless if they embrace his instruction, if they push hard enough, if they practice long enough, if they keep up their grades and stay out of trouble. And maybe, just maybe, they will earn a spot someday on the PGA Tour.
Horne, you see, isn’t sharing his knowledge of basketball. If anything, he’s luring kids away from the game for which he was known while growing up in Buffalo, the game he dominated while playing for UB, the game that put money in his pocket and placed him in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
The 84-year-old wanted his young protégés to see life away from city streets and playgrounds. He wanted to expose them to greener grass that also was riddled with challenges that will someday strengthen them. All these years later, with his children grown and his career behind him, one game offered him everything:
“You have to figure out another way to get places,” Horne recently said between lessons at Airport Driving Range. “You don’t put yourself in positions where you’re going to hurt yourself. You don’t take the easy way out. Golf is a learning tool. It’s amazing. They learn how to deal with this, and it’s the same way with life.
“There are obstacles and hardships in life. You may go for a job and not get the job. OK, so what are you going to do? I have to find something else I can do because I hit a roadblock. Golf teaches you that. It teaches you to be honest. It teaches you to be accountable.”
Twenty years ago, he was living the normal life of a retired man. He was playing 150 rounds per year, as much as the weather allowed. As he mentions, you can only watch “Judge Judy” for so long before you start searching for a greater purpose. After years of helping people with their swings, he realized another calling.
Horne has been teaching inner-city kids how to play since 1997. He never needed recognition while working right under our noses. He’s had hundreds come through Buffalo Inner City Golf, mostly minority, whom he steered in the right direction over the years without charging a penny.
In other words, he’s your typical former professional basketball-playing showman who devoted his life after retirement to assisting others through golf. He also started the Jim Horne Foundation, which is helping him raise money for equipment and greens fees while emphasizing the importance of education.
The foundation is holding its first golf tournament Monday afternoon at River Oaks Golf Club in Grand Island, where Horne is a member. He also oversees River Oaks’ interclub team, which for the first time this year allowed kids under his guidance to play against other teams for free.
“It was a great way for minority kids to learn about golf,” Horne said. “That’s how I started to get into it. My main goal was to introduce them to golf, and couple that with education. I wanted to let them know there were scholarships available through golf. You didn’t have to get knocked around. You didn’t need to be a big, fast guy.”
Earlier this year, he showed up with a team of minorities, mostly girls, for an event at River Oaks. He sat back and watched a few team members win matches while carrying around old bags and used clubs. Imagine what these kids could accomplish on a level playing field with access to the same courses.
Horne counted 10 students under him who played collegiate golf. They include prize student James Blackwell, who earned a scholarship to Ball State and graduated with a degree in Human Resource Management. Blackwell started playing under Horne from age 6 and grew into one of his mentor's playing partners.
The community needs more people like Jim Horne, a good man who cared about the generations after him and made the world a better place.
“I call him Uncle Jim,” Blackwell said.
With good reason.
Blackwell is an assistant professional at River Oaks, where he shot a course-record 62 earlier this year. Horne plans to use some proceeds from his foundation to help Blackwell get started on a professional career. If he proves himself on the small pro tours, who knows?
If Blackwell’s career fizzles, he already has life lessons in his pocket that he learned from his parents, Horne and numerous contacts he made through golf. Business is conducted every day on golf courses. The reality is it helps to be a good player because you get more invitations to play with bigwigs.
“There are very few people who will ever make it in basketball or football,” Blackwell said. “If you don’t, what contacts did you make as a result? You’re with kids your age in a gymnasium. On the golf course, when I was 12, I was playing with CEOs and learning how they talk, how they think and making my own connections.
“It’s a great networking tool that I see companies use all the time. I’ve played with all different types of people. I feel very comfortable walking into any setting and sitting at the table with anyone and talking about anything. I’m not going to get disheveled sitting down with two CEOs because I’ve already been there. In hindsight, I see what my dad did and what Mr. Horne did when they pushed me.”
Another student, Sarah Godfrey-Singleton, is headed for Niagara University. Angel Mine played at Jackson State under Eddie Payton, the former NFL return man and brother of the late Walter Payton. Curtis Fearington played at Hampton University in Virginia and is now a teaching professional at Byrncliff Resort and Conference Center.
And then there are the Warren sisters, five in all, who began playing two years ago and turned into prodigies of sorts. Shea, 16, plays on the boys team at Park School. Twins Camryn and Marisa finished second and third, respectively, in the state Junior Amateur last summer. Sierra, 11, and Rory, 9, compete in Buffalo District tourneys.
For years, Horne taught them and others who were better for the experience. He rounded up old golf clubs from his friends, from garage sales, from wherever else he could find them. Beginner lessons at Wehrle Golf Dome in Williamsville turned into rounds at Delaware Park and beyond.
“It was all Mr. Horne,” Danessia Warren said. “He has just been wonderful with our girls. They just love him. I grew up in the city. I don’t ever remember golf being an opportunity for kids − never. He builds character. He cares about how kids are doing in school. They want to make Mr. Horne proud of them.”
Horne was a local hoops legend who played for the University at Buffalo. He was a 6-foot-2 guard and held the career scoring record for more than four decades. He served in the Army, joined the Globetrotters in 1957 for $8,000 per year and barnstormed around the country until 1964 with the likes of Meadowlark Lemon and Bob Gibson.
Yes, that Bob Gibson.
Gibson played only one year, 1957-58, before pulling Horne aside to tell him he was quitting to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. Horne was stunned. A year later, the flame-throwing Gibson was embarking on a 17-year big-league career that would lead him to 251 victories and the Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t even know he played baseball,” Horne said with a laugh.
Then again, who knew Horne played golf? It was a lily-white sport played among the wealthy when UB basketball coach Malcolm Eiken introduced him to the game when Horne was in college. Eiken was a scratch golfer who was intent on teaching his star player a different sport. Horne was terrible.
And he was hooked.
In fact, he started out much like the kids he’s teaching today, whiffing in the beginning and improving through repetition. His stint with the Globetrotters led him to a job with the state Department of Labor. He crisscrossed the state working as a contract negotiator while keeping his clubs in the trunk.
He stayed with the game. He learned how to overcome challenges, how to correct mistakes, to be honest and accountable, to be consistent and dependable. He’s not asking his students today to become great players. He’s asking his players today to become great people. Golf is the vehicle driving his message.
“This is a hard game,” he said. “It’s the hardest sport I ever played, by far. I just had a burning desire to do it. I didn’t want accolades. I did it because I had a burning desire to teach kids a sport other than football and basketball. It was the perfect one for any kid of any size without any talent. Golf, you can learn.”
It starts with a good teacher. You know where to find him between Monday and Friday. Forget the weekends, however. He’s playing golf.