Jimenez family pushing Tatum basketball to new heights
By Tom Mulherin
TATUM — It was a big day for the Jimenezes.
On March 10 of last year, Tatum boys’ basketball freshman Sebastian Jimenez watched his older sister Celeste Jimenez win a state championship with the girls’ team in Albuquerque. It was her first state title, and the program’s second since 2014. Both Celeste and the community just achieved a major accomplishment, so the tightly knit Jimenez clan grew very emotional.
But two days passed, and while Sebastian felt all sorts of joy for his older sister by 13 months, he couldn’t help but feel a little incomplete. Seventeen years had passed since the boys’ team won its only state title in 2000. Heck, seven years passed since it posted a winning record.
Sebastian met with Fernando Jimenez – the father and longtime coach of both Sebastian and Celeste – in the family’s living room, and expressed his strong desire to win the blue. Fernando – who is also the assistant/junior varsity boys’ coach – asked why and got a pleasant response.
“Because this town deserves it,” Sebastian answered. “And you deserve it, Dad.”
Fast-forward to this season. It’s Feb. 22 and as Fernando recounts his version of the story, he is nearly brought to tears. He watches Sebastian, now a sophomore, and the Coyotes practice ahead of their District 4-2A Tournament final, which they lost Saturday night to Gateway Christian. As his son leads a team that is 16-8 and the No. 7 seed into this weekend’s state tournament, Celeste, now a junior, helps lead a practice down the hall with an eighth-seeded Lady Coyotes team set to repeat as state champs.
“It’s unbelievable to believe that these are my kids,” he said, before touching on that conversation with Sebastian. “As a parent, it makes you happy because (his answer) wasn’t ‘I want it, I deserve it.’ … It touches home, it touches everything we’ve worked for.”
Basketball is a big deal to the Jimenez family, but not merely for the game itself.
Don’t get it wrong, they love them some basketball. Outside of football and volleyball season, it’s just about all the family talks about at the dinner table every night. Fernando says basketball is nearly year-round, and between scrimmages, summer workouts and actual in-season work, hoops takes up the majority of everyone’s time.
But there’s much more to it.
It all started more than a decade ago when Fernando saw an opportunity. Celeste was in first grade, Sebastian was in kindergarten, and their sister Ciara was a baby. Fernando and his wife, Lisa, hadn’t even had their fourth child, Sanaeh, yet.
Youth organized basketball for Tatum was just about non-existent. Lovington Little Dribblers and the Boys and Girls Clubs in Lovington and Hobbs were available, but those were sizeable trips. Fernando – a longtime member of law enforcement in the sheriff’s department – had wanted to establish a program in Tatum for a while, and with his kids at a ripe age to start playing, this was as good of a time as any.
So, he and Lisa went to work.
Fernando approached the Tatum schools to tell them what he wanted to do and was given facilities to run a local little dribblers program. He and Lisa started with no money, so they went to the sheriff’s department to help get sponsors. Sponsors poured in, and the program’s first year had around 70 young kids participate.
“It was pretty amazing,” Fernando said. “It was very heart-warming as well to see that the community wanted this.”
It continued to grow from there.
The following year, the kids got new uniforms. There were boys and girls’ traveling teams, so the remaining funds went toward competing in tournaments across the area. And though only the traveling teams would eventually remain once Fernando took a coaching job at the middle school six years later, excitement over the program swept throughout the town.
“People in the community loved the fact that the money they were putting into the community was coming back to the kids,” Fernando said.
Not only were Celeste and Sebastian just as important on those travel teams as much as they are now to the high school, but they were also teammates in those days.
Yes, Celeste played with both boys and girls. Her involvement reflects just how competitive she is, and she played pretty well. Her teammates were more than happy to have her play with them, too, affectionately calling her “The Queen.”
The two siblings in particular have fond memories of playing together. Truthfully, many of their favorites are the same.
Sebastian recounted a game when their team was down by one point and only a few seconds remained. Celeste tried to get the ball to a teammate down the court quickly, but erred on her pass and the ball struck the back of an opponent’s head. But a player on Tatum’s team grabbed the ricochet, and nailed the game winner.
When asked on a separate occasion to give a story, Celeste pondered for a bit. The story Sebastian gave was about to be given per example, but right when it started to get put into words, Celeste guessed it and started laughing.
Celeste’s personal favorite was a time when Tatum faced an opposing team in a tournament that had a really tall kid on it. Celeste, the biggest player on her team, guarded him. The boy thought the game would go easily because she’s a girl, but Celeste totally shut him down.
Of course, Sebastian shared that story too, describing the opponent as 6-foot-4.
“It was awesome,” he said. “She shut that kid down and it was amazing. … (Opponents) would think, ‘Oh, this is a girl. I got her. I’m guarding her.’ And then, sure enough, you can’t guard her.”
Needless to say, these two had a lot to bond over growing up.
“It was really fun,” Sebastian said. “We have a connection that you wouldn’t really see between a guy and a girl. … We go to each other all the time.”
“Me and Sebastian, we have good chemistry,” Celeste added. “I go to him for stuff, he comes to me for stuff.”
Basketball is greatly responsible for the growth of their unique relationship, as well as how it has strengthened the entire family’s tight bond. Though it’s also amplified the common brother-sister dynamic.
Sebastian and Celeste are highly competitive with each other. Sebastian has developed his game to the point where he is Tatum’s leading scorer. His ball-handling skills are advanced, and his banter with the family at the dinner table has him mentally engaged. And now that the Coyotes are winning after posting a 1-22 season his 8th-grade year and a 5-19 season last year, the 16-year-old jibes at Celeste that he’s better.
That’s when Celeste starts to float her state championship ring in front of his face. She takes most of the criticism from Fernando about her games the best she can, but when Sebastian does it, she likes to remind him that he’s still got a bit to go.
But it doesn’t help she hasn’t played Sebastian one-on-one in almost two years. She refuses to. Her last win came when she was bigger, and knows that a pick-up game now would result in some embarrassing moments for her. But she’d never admit that to him, and instead reminds him of his lack of championships.
“Sebastian’s got a big head,” Celeste said, playfully. “He thinks he’s the basketball master. … I’m just like, ‘Where you at?’”
All sibling rivalry aside, these two have a lot of respect for each other. Their teammates and coaches do too, which puts both of them in leadership positions they have thrived in.
On Feb. 21, the Tatum boys practiced well in advance of the aforementioned district tourney final. Sebastian was vocally guiding the defense in a full-court, full-speed rehearsal of some formations and plays. That provoked the entire team to start talking. Right when John Sharp grabbed a rebound off a miss, his eyes went immediately to Sebastian looking for an outlet pass, and Sebastian then sent a pass to Hector Leos Jr. in the fast break while telling him he’s got to keep running to the basket.
Sebastian feels he’s learning more and more on how to be a good leader for the team, both through his game and his words. Part of that comes from the incredible bond he’s developed with his teammates, and their closeness has propelled the Coyotes to their current success.
Having Celeste on his team before helped Sebastian get to this point.
“Since she is my sister, (I learned) to treat every teammate like they are, not necessarily a sister, but in this case a brother,” he said. “To have their back like you would have hers, even off the court. That’s what helped that bond … carry over to teammates.”
About 30 paces down the hall on the same day, Celeste was on defense while the second group worked on offensive plays. She kept cheating past a screen, and intercepting a pass. She couldn’t hold her smiles and laughs, which made Taylor Graham and Maddy Rice laugh as well. It provoked head coach Rafael Roybal to instruct the player making the pass to do something differently, and that helped her learn.
Celeste feels that most of her leadership comes from moments like this, where her actions speak louder than her own words. But she also says that her and other leaders on the team are always open to helping players in need.
“If someone’s having trouble with something, I’m going to show them how to do it,” she said. “If someone’s having a bad game, everyone has their days. You’re not going to just discourage them, you’re going to bring them back up. … Just do different things to pick (teammates) up.”
With all of this in mind, Sebastian and Celeste know each other have made significant contributions toward Tatum basketball. Fernando and Lisa know it too. But the parents work hard, as well as Roybal and boys’ coach Royce Brown, to make sure the kids know it’s not just them. Success doesn’t come from just one player.
The acknowledgement of that comes down to giving respect where it’s deserved, and everyone has received that message.
“What we try to instill here in basketball is to make sure we have the utmost respect for not only our competitors, but for each other, for our school faculty and coaches,” Fernando said. “It’s something that we’re trying to instill in them to learn for their future and what comes in their path. … It reflects not only on the court, but in the classrooms.”
That leads into another area where basketball has afforded the Jimenez family a positive life lesson; putting competition into every avenue that will help you better yourself.
Fernando feels all basketball players in Tatum have adopted that mentality extremely well.
“Our deal with athletics is if you’re good enough to play athletics, you should be better enough for the classroom,” he said. “Our deal is to strive to be No. 1 in the classroom.”
Celeste and Sebastian are at the top of their class. Between their grades and their success on the court, they each look to be good candidates to play at the next level on a scholarship. In fact, Celeste has already received some interest from the Austin area.
Fernando wants both of them to play college basketball, but is far more interested in the academics.
“I just want to see them go to school,” he said. “Honestly, I would much rather see them get a scholarship for academics.”
Until those days come, Celeste and Sebastian will keep playing with the teammates they’ve bonded with. Practices are light-hearted and their bond is strong enough that there are nights when upwards of 12 or so friends are at the Jimenez home.
So what’s next? The next two siblings. Ciara is in seventh grade and Sanaeh is five years old. And if they follow the same path as their older siblings, March 10 will be a big day for Tatum and the Jimenezes for many years to come.