Coach Jonelle Polk McCloud
It did not take long for on-lookers of Jonelle Polk (currently Jonelle McCloud) to realize, at the time, what she was put on this earth to do.
"When I was in third grade I was already taller than my teacher, and by my freshman year in high school, I had reached 6-1," said McCloud.
The Peoria, Ill., native began playing basketball in middle school although she will admit at the time she was not very good due to her "gangly" nature. McCloud even considered not playing high school ball until one day the head women's coach spotted her in the hallways of Manual High and pleaded with her to play. Naturally, she chose to suit up.
As an upperclassman now standing 6-3, McCloud began receiving national exposure when she competed with a local travel team. Letters from all over the country came pouring in, interested in her for the college ranks. Arizona State, DePaul, and Illinois made the final cut of schools with McCloud ultimately choosing the 90-mile trip across I-74 to Champaign, Ill.
"Illinois' campus was huge. It was awesome," said McCloud. "All of this was so new to me. I was really taken aback by the whole thing."
Throughout her Fighting Illini career, McCloud herself would become `huge' and `awesome,' setting the number one marks for career scoring and rebounding with 1,984 points and 933 boards. Both records stood for over ten years and had since been broken, but McCloud felt no loss of pride.
"I think holding those records for as long as I did is an accomplishment in itself," proclaimed the Illini great.
After gaining her bachelor's degree from Illinois, McCloud journeyed to Europe where she played for four years, taking the court in places such as France, Italy, and Germany. When she returned to the states, McCloud received a master's degree from Northern Illinois University, serving as a graduate assistant coach for the Huskies women's basketball team.
Her next stop was an assistant coaching position at Florida State where she met her future husband, Daniel McCloud. The two shared a common friend and began dating. Once McCloud received a job offer to coach at Bradley University (in her hometown), the couple had reached a decision point.
"Daniel told me that he was not going to move to Peoria without getting married, so he proposed," said McCloud.
Back in Illinois, McCloud finally found her calling as the manager of the Proctor Recreation Center in Peoria where she takes a special interest in youth.
"My goal at Proctor Recreation Center is to provide a safe, fun place for young people after school filled with recreational activities and a place to do homework," said McCloud. "Statistics show that youth are the most unsupervised from 3-6 p.m. when they come home from school and their parents are not home. With the type of activities we provide, they can grow as students and people."
McCloud coordinates an after-school program that welcomes about 50-60 children daily. The center is constantly hosting basketball leagues and free clinics for the young hoopsters. The mother of two daughters even began a travel team called the J.E.M.S., which stands for Journey to Empowerment through Motivation and Self-esteem. McCloud leads a group of young girls who either aspire to improve their basketball skills or simply wish to stay active in something positive. In fact, the club has become so popular that multiple teams will be instituted this summer.
"Basketball has provided me with so many wonderful opportunities," said McCloud. "I have been to some amazing places, met some incredible people and I was very fortunate to get a free education."
It is this fortunate attitude that drives McCloud when working with today's youth. She continually preaches life lessons and gives sound advice to her young patrons, education, and environment being near the top of the list.
"It is important that children do the very best they can in school and not enough just to get by," said McCloud. "They must also surround themselves with positive people."
Positive people like McCloud and while basketball may not have been what she was put on this earth to do, it certainly paved the road that led McCloud to her true calling in life.