Taylor Jenkins had yet to chart his unlikely path to the NBA when he drove a van through West Philadelphia nearly 20 years ago, picking up any players who needed a ride to the game that afternoon.

He was an economics major at Penn, coaching in a youth league launched by a friend with whom he played intramural basketball on campus. The van was intended to transport Jenkins — now the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies — and the other Penn students who organized the Penn-West Philadelphia Basketball League two miles from campus.

But Jenkins would take the van early if he knew one of his players could use a lift.

Jenkins did not play basketball at Penn; he is one of just two NBA head coaches who didn’t play college ball. His gateway to the league after graduating in 2007 from Wharton was a front-office internship with the San Antonio Spurs, an opportunity he parlayed into an assistant-coaching gig in the G League. He also served as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks before the Grizzlies hired him as their head coach in 2019.

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Jenkins’ journey to the NBA was unique, but he quickly proved he belonged. The 37-year-old is a finalist this month for the league’s Coach of the Year Award and his Grizzlies — led by superstar Ja Morant — are championship contenders. They are tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves at two wins apiece entering Tuesday’s Game 5 of their best-of-seven first-round Western Conference playoff.

And it all started in West Philly with Jenkins behind the wheel of that van.

“That kind of sparked me to get to this point,” Jenkins said. “I never thought I was going to be an NBA head coach.”

Basketball mentorship

Matt Impink spent his weekday afternoons as a Penn freshman at Sayre High, where he oversaw an open gym at 58th and Walnut as part of a work-study job. He played high school basketball in hoops-crazy Indiana, so getting paid to play with kids in West Philly seemed like a great gig.

That job led Impink to realize that many of the kids in the neighborhood did not have the same opportunities to play organized basketball that he had back home. He decided to start a league in the fall of 2004. Impink called Jenkins and the other Penn students from their intramural team. They were in.

“We really wanted to connect in a meaningful way,” Impink said. “What we said from the get-go was that we wanted to connect to the community and connect with the kids and have a good time doing it. We oftentimes used the phrase that it’s a mentorship program disguised as a basketball league.”

The youth league consisted of eight teams of 10 players (boys and girls) ages 10 to 13. They played a seven-game season at Sayre High before two weeks of playoff games. The coaches, referees, and scorekeepers were Penn students, and each season was built around the academic calendar, finishing just before finals began.

One season ran during the fall semester, and another started in the spring. The kids played for free and there was enough demand that a waiting list was formed. The league lasted for five years before funding dried up during the recession.

“It ended up being a big part of our lives and our schedules,” Impink said. “We joke that instead of joining a fraternity, we started a basketball league.”

Each team practiced once a week and games were on Saturday afternoons. There were two sessions each week dedicated to homework help, and Friday night was reserved for skill development, when any player could come to the gym for extra work under the watch of a future NBA head coach.

“It wasn’t just the X’s-and-O’s,” Impink said. “Taylor is really good at interpersonal relationships and he spent a lot of time trying to develop not only his players as basketball players but really as good young men and women. He suggested a way for us to keep the teams together instead of having them redrafted each year, so he could establish ongoing relationships with the kids.”

Jenkins coached his team alongside Paul Trejo, his college roommate and childhood friend from Dallas. They built a dynasty in the league by emphasizing defense — Trejo said 80% of practice was spent of drilling zone schemes — and wore suits on the sideline. Jenkins and Trejo won five titles and still have pieces of the nets they cut down after those wins.

“Everyone had their style. Not to put anyone down, but I would say Taylor and I brought a more professional style to it,” Trejo said of wearing suits. “That was our style. That was how we liked things.”

“For a while, I was saying, ‘Hey, we need to dress formally for games,’” Impink said. “That was me being a sociology student saying we needed to present a certain appearance the kids would respond accordingly to that. It was important that our kids had nice T-shirt uniforms and our coaches came looking professional, so it was a purposely visual cue that this was something important and this is something you should take seriously. The more we looked like coaches and the more the players looked like players, the more we all acted like them.

“Eventually someone got coaching polos made and I think that was more popular than wearing ties during some hot days in the gym at Sayre High.”

‘It was a win-win’

Jenkins and Trejo would call their players’ homes the night before a game, reminding their families what time the game was scheduled to start. Those calls resulted in their team always having a bench full of players as Jenkins and Trejo never had trouble with attendance. And the van was always ready if someone told them they needed a ride.

“Going to Penn, that sort of divide when you’re on campus and step off, it’s pretty crystal clear. When we were there, you could feel it,” Trejo said. “I think it was a way to give back to the community and a way to keep with our passion. We all loved basketball. It was a win-win for everyone involved.”

Trejo said he and Jenkins lucked into drafting the league’s best player, a forward who reminded them of LaMarcus Aldridge.

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But they also developed players like the little guard who loved basketball but never had much formal coaching. They told him to turn up the intensity on defense. By the next season, he was more involved in the offense and confident enough to start shooting. And by the third season, that player was an example for the rest of the team on how to play the game.

“By the time they played three seasons with Taylor and Paul, they were pretty good middle-school players,” Impink said. “I think that translated very well to him being at the G League. So much of that is about player development that I think gives him an edge now that he’s at the NBA level. X’s-and-O’s are important and I think he does that extraordinarily well, but he gets his players to really buy in, and I saw that from the get-go when he was coaching at the Penn-West Philly Basketball League.

Not everything was perfect — a playoff game was almost canceled by a fight — but there was always a lesson to be learned. A tough loss at the buzzer or a poor performance became a teaching moment.

“A lot of times it wasn’t about basketball,” Trejo said. “It was about the kids and other ways we could help. Our vehicle was basketball, but there were more elements to it than just putting the ball in the basket.”

The Grizzlies finished last season four games above .500, and became the youngest team to reach the playoffs in 11 years. They were quickly bounced in the first round, but it was an accomplishment for Jenkins in his second year as head coach.

The Grizzlies elevated into contenders this season as they tied the franchise record for wins (56-26) and entered the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed, developing like that pesky guard that Jenkins and Trejo helped blossom in West Philly. Jenkins, just like he was in the youth league, is trying to steer his team toward a championship. And if Morant or any other Grizzlies need a ride, maybe the van can pick them up.

“I don’t think there was any foretelling there when we were coaching, but I think for him it definitely sparked something,” Trejo said. “Granted, it was super amateur, kids’ level, but that might have been the seed that blossomed into the career that he has today.”