How a kid from West Oakland learned to fly with the Golden State Warriors
It’d been two months since I had talked to Jesus. Phone tag and missed opportunities nearly sinking what could’ve been a dope feature on an Oakland native. I hadn’t given up, but I had moved on when my phone rang on a Sunday night. An unfamiliar number, I picked up, it was him, Zeus. By Zeus I mean Jesus El, the first name pronounced Juh-zeus, with the emphasis on the second syllable.
“What’s good man?” he asked me. I apologized for the delay. We had started an interview over the summer that I had yet to follow up on. A staple of Golden State Warriors games since the early 2000’s, Jesus’ penchant for high flying acrobatics has earned him a place as one of the Warriors’ preeminent acro-dunk entertainers. Known for dazzling crowds by launching himself 30 feet into the air, since starting more than a decade ago, Zeus has parlayed his extraordinary abilities into opportunities to travel the word, and to put on for the youth in his community here in West Oakland through his work.
“I just wanted to follow through on our interview,” I told him, “I didn’t wanna fully drop the ball.” He had invited me to his gym when we first spoke, but I didn’t know if the invitation still stood. I reminded him of his offer. “We train on Mondays and Wednesdays,” he replied. “Bring some shorts, and a shirt you can sweat in.” “Okay…” I responded, but I must’ve sounded a bit unsure. “If you want to write about this, you should go through it, so you know what we’re doing out here. So you’re not just writing from speculation.” I couldn’t object.
Showing up at the Emeryville’s Head over Heels, I was able to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Jesus’ life and work as he led a small group of kids in warmups and trampoline exercises. A few years ago, Jesus helped found Showtimedunk and its flagship High Altitude Pro program, a platform to teach the youth what he knows, and offer opportunities to travel the world putting on acro-dunking shows. In the four years since the program launched, it’s taken him to China and back, and been covered everywhere from Sportscenter to Ebony magazine. Over the course of our conversation, I got to learn more about Jesus work in the community, about his start in acro-dunking with the Warriors, and what he’s learned from his most valuable mentor.
What was your earliest memory of hoop?
The first time I became truly interested in basketball was when I watched my mentor perform in elementary school. I went to Marcus Foster in West Oakland, and I saw this superhero come out and mix acrobatics with basketball with a motivational speech. Everything that made up acro-dunking I was already into. I was already into flippin’. I was introduced to hoop growing up in the hood. And then entertaining, I always felt like I was meant to be an entertainer.
So were those sort of your three pillars? Hoop, entertainment and a positive message?
Well, flipping, basketball and just being positive would be it. Especially for me, coming out of Oakland, my mom always did the best that she could to make sure that I stay positive despite our surroundings. Like, there’s never been a moment I didn’t live in the hood. Know what I mean?
Can you tell me a bit about the work that you do with the youth here in the Bay Area? (High Altitude Pro & Showtimedunk)
A majority of the work that I do with the youth of the Bay Area is focused around teaching them arts and performance, while also holding group discussions centered around life, self, family, community, and restorative justice practices to allow our students to feel comfortable and safe to express themselves. We created High Altitude Pro to be a positive outlet for inner city youth to hone and develop their skills, in addition to guiding them on the path to better self: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Showtimedunk has become the platform for our High Altitude Pro students that have advanced in the program to go and showcase their talents for mass audiences, while compensating them for those talents.
What do you think are some of the lessons you try to pass on to the youth. And what do the youth teach you?
Everyday that we inhale oxygen into our physical vessels, we are subject to learn a new lesson. I like to teach my students to be open to life and its experiences. I want them to learn that all things come in time, and the end result is due to the path that they have chosen to pursue. Being perfect is not ideal, but striving to perfect self over time is totally conquerable. There is a beautiful light in all of us; for some, they acknowledge that beauty and wish to shine brighter, some are aware of that majestic energy within and have fear of what the world thinks of their innate greatness. Then there are some who haven’t even begun to wrap their minds around their own birth purpose and simply go through life riding the wave.
What I’ve learned from my students is that there are people out there in the world waiting to meet you, to transform your life and also be affected by yours. When you cross paths with other people who believe in themselves enough to enhance the scope of a similar vision, nothing is impossible. As I grow older, I recognize that I too have growing to do, and as a teacher I must also be open to being held accountable. I believe the biggest lesson I’ve learned from them is that we must hold on to our innocence, not to the point where we’re naive, but to the point where we comprehend very well what’s happening around us, but we are unbothered and still focused on having a loving heart for others.
How did you know that there was something out there bigger for you?
I started reading in kindergarten. They started this program at my school. I forgot the name, but it was to see what the school could do to get kids to read and be fond of it at an early age. I was the first kid in the program. Once I was able to read, I began to look at life in a totally different way. Because all of a sudden, everything around me, I could read. From the curse words, to the billboards, to the books. I fell in love with reading because I knew I could get lost in a world that wasn’t mine.
Reading is what heightened my love for superheroes, because it was like Average Joe guys with super powers. Or Batman, who was my favorite superhero because he didn’t have any super powers, he just had intelligence, and he had money! So I was like the broke Batman. But I was creative and I was smart. And then being able to read gave me the confidence to dream bigger and strive for whatever I wanted to do.
So let’s talk about acro-dunking…
Acro-dunking. It’s a combination of acrobatics and slam dunking.
How did you first get into the practice?
My first introduction was in 5th grade, when I saw this superhero, Thunder, the mascot for the Golden State Warriors. He told me I could be anything I wanted to be, which after that day, just so happened to be the mascot for the Golden State Warriors. This was 1998. Thunder showed me that superheroes do exist. He took it from the TV, and made it a real life situation for me. I remember being the only kid standing up on the bleachers while he was giving his speech. I fell in love with it the first moment I saw it.
Photo by Ephram Vives
So how’d you connect with him from there?
I spotted him at the end of a Warriors game, and I ran down to the court. I asked him, “Hey man, how can I do what you do? I wanna be a mascot!” He said, “Go to Head over Heels gymnastics in Emeryville. That night I got into the Yellow Pages, looked it up and was there the next day.
I go down to the gym, find out how much it is, and I’m stuck, because I can’t afford it. I ask them, “Is there any way I can do something around the gym to make up for the payments?” They said they had just started this sponsorship program where you can work for trade. I signed up right then.
It got to the point where I was coming every day. And throughout that time, I was calling Thunder three times a day, everyday, including Saturday and Sunday when they’re not in the office. I did that for a year straight.
Photo by Ephram Vives
I did it to the point where the guy that was monitoring his calls was like, “Man, you gotta talk to this kid.” Eventually he was like alright, let me work with this kid. He picked me up and started training with me, taking me to speech classes, and putting positive motivational books in my hand. He stepped in my life as a mentor but more so as a father figure. I didn’t grow up with my father, and my stepdad was always working, so he taught me the ways of being a man. I was the first person there, before there was a dunk team. I was like “Baby Thunder”. I remember he would bring me out to do small skits during the games.
What did that moment feel like?
I was elated. I was just this dirty street kid that got a chance to get on the court! I remember what it felt like to be that kid with the busted afro and dingy clothes. But at the same time I had this person who believed in me. I started working for the Warriors when I was 12. Back then, I couldn’t reach the rim. He used to put me on the rim and have me see how long I could hold on. He was preparing me for different life lessons before I even knew what they were.
I made a promise to him and myself that I would carry on the legacy, and that’s what made me start the youth program. Because somebody believed in me, and I believe in the youngsters. To look into the eyes of my students, from the youngest to the oldest, and see that same drive that I had, that’s what I do it for.
To learn more about Jesus and his organization High Altitude, visit their team website, and connect with Jesus personally. Special thanks to Amanda Beane and Ephraim Vives on the pre and post production of this article.