ORONO, Maine — Basketball legend Michael Jordan once said that a good game depends on the fundamentals — “proper technique, work ethic, mental preparation” — and that these fundamentals apply not only to a basketball court, but to other aspects of life, including school work, a job or whatever it is that we are doing.
Perhaps few people know these principles better than Junior Bernal, a junior at the University of Maine, well-liked student and Division 1 basketball player, named last year to the five-player America East All-Academic team.
Only last month, Bernal had the free-throw-that-wins-the-game moment in a victory over Princeton.
But the life that he lives today is very far away from the one he began.
The 6-foot-5 athlete was born in New York City in 1985 and grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. When he was a teenager, both his parents were incarcerated, and he lived with an aunt.
“My parents were not around because they were in prison. That motivated me to pave my own path,” Bernal said. “I knew deep inside that I didn’t want to be a failure. I wanted more. I wanted to prove to my family and to myself that if I work hard, I could succeed in life.”
When he was 16 years old, Bernal’s performance in an AAU regional basketball competition began to open some doors with an organization called New Heights.
“New Heights is a program in the Bronx that helps kids like me get out of the city so they can go to better schools and get a better education. I wanted to be one of those kids. I visited some boarding schools, but Hyde School was the one that gave me a chance,” he recalled. “Hyde accepted me.”
Hyde School, nationally recognized leader in the field of character education, is a private high school located in Bath.
“I didn’t know where Maine was,” said Bernal, “but I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up. So I got on a bus and went to Maine.”
The scenery changed from concrete, to grass, to snow. But that’s not all that would change for Bernal.
Hyde School’s noted “Attitude over Aptitude” philosophy would not let Bernal rest on his basketball achievements alone. He would have to look inward to the kind of student, person, teammate, friend, leader and family member he wanted to be.
“The character component of Hyde School was something different for me,” he said. “I didn’t like it at first, because I was not used to people challenging me, but it was something I grew to appreciate. The people at Hyde wanted me to succeed, not just in sports, but as a man.”
“Our society has become preoccupied with achievement,” said Malcolm Gauld, president of Hyde Schools. “In a character culture, achievement is valued, but principles are valued more. That is, what you stand for is more important than merely how you stack up against others.”
In addition, Bernal’s associates from New Heights stayed in touch while he attended Hyde School.
New Heights coach Rocky Rosa, who recalls Junior well, said, “It is part of the program that we follow the kids where they go. So we were in contact with Hyde School, and supported Junior in whatever way we could.”
After graduating from Hyde School, Bernal became the first in his family to attend college. He was offered a full scholarship to attend the University of Maine to play basketball.
Bernal’s major is child development and family relations.
“I want to help kids that need help, just like I needed help,” he explained. “I would not be where I am today without the help of a large number of people. I feel it is my responsibility to do what I can to give young people the same chance I had.”
At this special time of year, when we tend to reflect and take stock of our lives, Junior Bernal has this Christmas wish for other kids who may find themselves in the position he was once in:
“My Christmas wish for teens is, ‘define yourself. YOU define yourself,’ no matter what is happening around you, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what your parents have done. Work hard. And leave to God whatever is beyond your control.”
Hyde Schools are located in Bath and Woodstock, Conn., with charter schools in Washington and Bronx, NY. For more information, contact Carole Hallundbaek at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rose Mulligan at email@example.com.