Jaquann Starks Is Driven First by Family, Then by Basketball
Jaquann Starks remembers March 4, 2016, as if it was yesterday. The Hartford native and Trinity College senior guard was sitting on the bench—it was the coach’s decision—watching his teammates battle a nail-biter in the NCAA DIII first-round basketball tournament.
Jaquann was used to being in the middle of the action, whether on the court or in life. With the game on the line in the closing minutes against Johnson & Wales, the kid who grew up doing everything first for his family and others could do nothing to help.
Memorial Hall gymnasium on the State University of New York Plattsburgh campus had 450 people in attendance, but it seemed quiet to Jaquann. He had come a long way from Nelton Court, a public housing project in the city’s North End, to the Classical Magnet School, a college preparatory school, and now to Trinity, a selective college whose peer institutions include Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan—some of the best liberal arts colleges in America.
As fat minutes withered down to skinny seconds, Jaquann’s mind was restless, but his body was still. This was not the ending he imagined. Destiny spoke, and then it was over. Johnson & Wales won 75-73 to advance to the next tournament round.
Nearly eight years later, Jaquann still feels the sting of that loss. Jaquann is a grown man now with a wife, three kids, bills, and businesses; however, his last college basketball game is still ingrained in his memory, like data in a hard drive.
That year, I was a little disappointed.
“That year, I was a little disappointed,” he says when talking about the last game of his senior year. “I love my coach to this day. I still talk to him. I was really disappointed at that.”
He says, “It hurts!” But “I’m always looking forward.”
The End of College
Jaquann doesn’t like to dwell too much on things. After the loss, he began preparing for his dream of playing professional basketball overseas. He put all his focus on basketball. Although he was short in height at 5-foot-9-inches, he was overflowing with heart, grit, and determination.
He worked on his game and hired an agent to help him make the arcane connections overseas. The reality of life fell like wet snow onto his young shoulders. His dream would die without leaving Connecticut.
He had done all he could. It was now time to figure out what was next in his life.
It’s late August 2022 when I first speak to Jaquann on the telephone at his Glastonbury home.
His household screams with activities. His kids, Hendrix, now 5 and Cassius, 3 (later in February 2023, he would welcome a daughter, Willow), and wife, Mariah, can be heard in the background as we talk.
Jaquann is not distracted by his kids. In fact, he interacts with them during our call. He is preparing to go to Revolution Basketball Training, the Manchester location, where he is a co-owner.
His black SUV door slams shut, and the sound of kids disappears. It’s business time. He can turn the switch just like that.
Raised in Hartford
Life wasn’t always so sweet for Jaquann. Tragedy struck early in his life when his father died. Jaquann was three years old. He would grow up in Hartford with his mother, Paulette; his younger brother, Tyreice; and his sister, Traniesha.
Women were front and center in Jaquann’s life. They taught him everything he knows, especially his mother, Paulette Woods. She is a native of Bridgeton, NJ, an hour northwest of Cape May, which is at the southern tip of the state.
The Woods family learned to face challenges at a young age. Young Jaquann took on responsibilities most kids wouldn’t know how to handle. That’s all he knows—he was a man in a kid’s body.
He was born with a strong family code. “I always took care of them,” he refers to his two younger siblings. He had a house key at seven years old, he recalls. Walking his little brother to his bus stop was routine, and then he would go to his bus stop.
Jaquann would get off the bus at the end of the school day and then collect his brother and sister. They would be in the house alone until his mother arrived—it was a different time.
“That was just our environment. But I knew to lock the door. Don’t open the door [for strangers],” Jaquann says. “I matured fast, and that is just how I am. That’s how I carried myself.”
His early years were spent in Hartford’s Nelton Court, a 157-unit “barracks-style” public housing complex built in the 1940s, managed by the Hartford Housing Authority.
In October 2010, the last remaining tenants in the building were relocated, and in 2011, the property was demolished and rebuilt. It’s a much different place today than it was back then—it seems almost suburban now. That was years after the Woods family left.
I matured fast, and that is just how I am.
In the beginning, Nelton Court felt like family to Paulette. Then, shootings became more frequent in the area. She remembers waking up one morning and “there was a bullet hole in my car.” Jaquann was the first to see the damage.
Nelton Court went from feeling like a family to being a “little rough.” Paulette knew that she had to get out of there for the sake of Jaquann and his siblings. They would move out of Nelton Court but stay in Hartford.
The family bounced from place to place. They lived on their own, with their grandmother, then in an aunt’s apartment, and would finally buy a house of their own off of Blue Hills Avenue.
When asked what his mother means to him, Jaquann replies, “Everything.” He says his mother taught him how to be a gentleman. How to treat people. How to treat women. How to treat others, your friends.
He learned, “Don’t ask for nothing. Go get your own,” he says. “She was always on the grind,” Jaquann states about his mother. Paulette would say, “You can work for that stuff. Don’t be lazy. Go after it.”
He’s the second oldest of 12 grandchildren. From a young age, being a role model for his cousins has been the only job he has wanted since he can remember. He likes to lead in his quiet, non-assuming way.
Paulette is babysitting her 6-month-old grandson; her daughter Traniesha’s son can be heard competing for her precious attention in the background. Paulette’s voice is infused with youth.
I talk to her on the telephone on a Saturday in early January 2024. She is from a family of three sisters and has a brother who passed away.
“He (Jaquann) literally grew up around nothing but females.” They included his mother, grandmother, Paulette’s three sisters, and three aunts on his father's side.
She knows that Jaquann was not the typical kid growing up, and his circumstances played a significant role. “He felt like he had to take care of us, “ Paulette says. She was a single mother and 18 years old when she had him.
“We were growing up at the same time, pretty much,” she says. “I felt like he (Jaquann) always felt like he had to always take care of us, in the sense of being the oldest child,” Paulette states.
Paulette tells the story of the day when Jaquann was about eight years old. He came to her work. One of her co-workers asked him what he wanted for Christmas; he replied, “An alarm clock so my mother can wake up and bring us to school on time,” Paulette laughs.
Those were good times for the young mother. She remembers being slightly embarrassed at the time. But that was Jaquann—always the responsible one.
She often thinks about whether she may have put too much pressure on him, something only a mother would ponder. Continuing, “I never made him feel like he had to do it,” she says. “But he always wanted to do it.”
When Paulette was working two jobs, which was often, Jaquann was there to help. “I was confident that he was a young man. It was a big help to me,” she says, “but at the same time, it was like, oh, wow, ‘Am I taking my son’s childhood away?’”
He took his little brother everywhere.
She believes that Jaquann enjoyed taking care of his siblings. “I think it kind of made him just look at life differently. I always felt that he carried us on his shoulders,” she says. “He felt like he had to take care of us for some reason.”
People would think that Jaquann had to babysit his younger brother Tyreice, but Paulette believes he wanted to take care of him. “He took his little brother everywhere,” Paulette states, as if his little brother was a blanket.
She adds that Jaquann has always been a nourisher of others.
Paulette is proud of what Jaquann has achieved in his life. It touches her deeply. “It still makes me tear up,” she says. Her tears are pure joy.
Tyreice gives the impression that he is just waking up at around noon on September 18, 2022, when I call on the telephone—the luxury of college life. He’s a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University. His voice is more yawns than words.
He wakes up when the conversation begins with Jaquann. I ask what his favorite basketball memory of his brother is. “My favorite memory is probably him against Khalil Dukes (who plays professional basketball in Turkey) at the Doc Hurley Scholarship Basketball Classic at Weaver High, when they were going back and forth.“
That game was on December 17, 2011. “They were trading buckets, like here and there,” Tyreice notes. This game went into double overtime, but Classical Magnet would fall in the end, 120-116. “My brother did everything at Classic,” he says. Jaquann had 47 points in the game—and would score 1789 points in his high-school career.
“When I say big brother, he’s kind of like my pops a little bit because he used to give me money to go places. He used to make sure we were always straight,” he says, “in the house with food and stuff.”
“He used to just take care of me, just make sure I’m getting places I need to go,” Tyreice states. “He used to change my diapers when I was young.” And Jaquann was just a kid himself.
“He always had responsibility for being a leader in the house because my mom worked a lot of jobs when I was younger,” Tyreice says. Back then, it was tough to make ends meet. His mother was constantly working.
“We grew up in Nelton Court. It’s a lot of poverty,” he says. “It’s a lot of violence in that area. I feel that made us the men we are today because we basically started from the bottom and built ourselves up all the way to the top.”
“It’s basically like survival of the fittest,” he states as if it were a video game or cruel reality show.
Jaquann was loved by everybody in Hartford, Tyreice recalls. “He is just a cool dude, always genuine and nice. He has always been a humble person since we were younger. He’s still humble.”
The brothers are close like fingers in mittens. They have spent a lot of time together. “That was my best friend growing up. He used to take me everywhere with him, even AAU tournaments out of state,” Tyreice adds.
There were valuable lessons learned along the way. Jaquann taught Tyreice to always be himself. There was a time when he didn’t feel like playing basketball anymore. “He said follow your heart. He never looked down on me,” Tyreice says. “Bro, I’m going to be happy with whatever you do,” he recalls Jaquann saying.
That gave Tyreice comfort—worth more than a million dollars in the bank. The love and support of a brother is priceless.
Jaquann set the example. And Tyreice followed. He graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University and now works for Enterprise, the car rental company, as an assistant manager. He owns an apparel brand, Chasers Dept., which he is building.
Traniesha Lamara West is the younger sister. She graduated from Providence College and works in the insurance industry. She recently had a son, who is six months old.
Phillip Starks, the oldest brother, who grew up apart from his siblings, graduated from Western Connecticut State University and works in the insurance industry.
Paulette, her children, and grandchildren all live in Connecticut.
Brothers for Life
I speak to Ed Ogundeko in mid-July 2023, on the telephone. Ed, the 6-foot-5 Brooklyn native, has broad shoulders and looks about 250 pounds. He’s the associate director of admissions at the Thayer Academy in Massachusetts.
He played with Jaquann at Trinity College, where he graduated in 2017, and remains more than good friends with him. “That’s someone I do call my brother. We speak almost every day,” he says about Jaquann.
Jaquann will get your attention with his actions, not necessarily with his words,” Ed says. “Jaquann is like a really quiet dude, but he is an extremely hard worker,” he adds.
He remembers how hard Jaquann worked in college. “His schedule would be going to class during the day, shooting in the middle of the day in the gym, getting his homework done, then going back to the gym again,” Ed recalls.
That was somewhat the same routine that Jaquann’s roommate Shay (Olusegun “Shay” Ajayi) had as well.
“That’s something I also wanted to emulate because they were successful individuals on the team prior to me getting there,” he says.
It definitely was not a good feeling.
Ed, Shay and Jaquann formed a strong bond at Trinity. They were inseparable—Ed and Shay share Nigerian roots.
Jaquann would go on to have a successful career at Trinity. He led the team in scoring in his freshman, sophomore, and junior years—and would score 1280 in his career.
In his junior year, Trinity reached the elite eight, where they lost to Babson College, 76-69 in overtime at Babson’s Staake Gymnasium. Trinity finished the year 23-7.
Everything looked promising for Jaquann’s senior year. Trinity would return to the NCAA tournament the next year and face Johnson & Wales in the first round, which they would lose and finish the year 19-8.
Ed, who was a junior, remembers the loss. “It definitely was not a good feeling,” he says in a somber tone. “We were three individuals [Shay and Jaquann] that worked pretty hard together. We were always in the gym together. We spent our summers together.”
“It was very difficult because we had a goal, and we didn’t reach that goal,” Ed says, with regret in his voice.
Shay is the lean, baby-faced, 6-foot-6-inch chief of staff at Hartford Healthcare. He serves on the Trinity College Board of Trustees. He’s a young executive on the fast track.
When we speak in mid-July 2023, I hear a torrent of electronic notifications flowing from his computer—or could it be coming from his two mobile phones?
Shay was an NABC Division III All-American and the NESCAC Player of the Year in his senior year at Trinity in 2016. He scored 1169 points in his career and would play professionally in Ireland for two years.
He met Jaquann in the summer of his freshman year. They decided to room together. “He’s from Hartford, I’m from New York City. I didn’t know the layout of the state, the city,” he says. It was really nice, “ Shay says. “He was able to show me around.”
Shay and Jaquann bonded. “At first, he could come across as reserved,” Shay states. Once they got to know each other, Jaquann was no longer quiet.
He and Jaquann’s family are “very close now.” In fact, Shay’s the godfather of Jaquann’s three kids. And he sees the family very often.
“He and I spent so much time together, whether it was in the classroom or in the gym. There was no way he could be quiet around me—the games, the practices,” Shay states. “We left the dorm together and ate together. Almost everything we did together, in lockstep,” he recalls.
The good times would come to an end for the roommates. “What I realize was that was the last time we were going to compete for something in the manner in which we did at that moment, “ he says about his senior year, and losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
I treat them (Ed & Jaquann) like my brothers.
“Getting close to so many people on a team and spending at least 30 hours a week doing something together in unison, that was a gift,” Shay says.
“I treat them (Ed & Jaquann) like my brothers. I knew that I could rely on them if I ever needed anything, and vice versa—very selfless people. They put people in front of them first.”
“We had each other’s back,” Shay says. And they still do today. The trio would reunite on the basketball court on the same team in the Greater Hartford Pro-Am during the summer of 2023. They didn’t return to their old Trinity College form, but they seemed to like playing together again.
The noise level over the telephone is distracting, so Reggie “slides” into another room. “We good?” he asks. It is early September 2022.
He is the 6th-grade Assistant Principal at Elisabeth M. Bennet Academy in Manchester. He started in July 2022.
With 23 years of coaching experience, he doesn’t waste time. “Probably one of the best human beings I have ever had the pleasure of coaching, teaching. I just love that kid,” Reggie starts the conversation off right to the point about Jaquann.
“He encompasses everything our program was all about.” The program started in 2005-06 when Jaquann was in middle school. “Our goal was to build a program where people could be respected, where we wanted to help young men be productive members of society,” he states.
Jaquann would leave Classical Magnet High School as a two-time all-state high school basketball player. He improved his game over the years. Reggie refers to Jaquann as “Aquann,” leaving the “j” off his name to emphasize his non-existent jump shot at the time.
As a junior, Jaquann led the school to the state championship, which they lost. He led the 23-4 Gladiators with 16 points, but they fell to Valley Regional in the Class S Championship 70-46 before 3,750 people at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 17, 2011.
“He just put us on the map, and not just athletically, but academically, from a behavior point of view, role model. He just did everything I could ask for as a coach.”
“He was just a hard-working kid,” Reggie says. But “he had to learn how to study.”
“We refer to him as the GOAT—at 5-foot-9-inches, he is the goat. And everybody is compared to him,”—which comes across like a parent acknowledging a favorite child.
Reggie grew up in the North End of Hartford. “He’s everything I wanted to be,” Reggie says about Jaquann.
“Ahhhh…let’s just say, I wasn’t the best student in school, as far as making choices, doing some things that weren’t the best at the time.” He mentions that Jaquann never got into trouble.
“He was a gym rat like me, but he had that balance, “ he says. “I mean, he was willing to put in the work for improvement in all phases.”
Reggie wanted to be all-state and play in the state championship but didn’t. “I live my dreams through him,” he says.
We refer to him as the GOAT—at 5-foot-9-inches, he is the goat.
James Cosgrove is an associate professor and coach of the Trinity College men’s basketball team. I speak to James in early September 2022. Classes have started at Trinity, where Cosgrove was entering his 13th year as head coach.
“Jaquann is definitely at the top of the list of kids I really respect and admire,” James says with no prompting. “Tremendous young man.” He knows how far Jaquann has come in life.
Cosgrove mentions Nelton Court as if it is a secret CIA program—almost in a whispered tone. By now, Jaquann's background story is no secret.
James is impressed with what Jaquann has achieved, given the neighborhood his family grew up in.
Trinity College is in Hartford, but it feels like a million miles away in terms of the environment it provides it predominately well-off students—the education costs more than $86,000 a year in 2024.
Reggie reached out to James to inform him about Jaquann. James would go to some of Jaquann's games since it was an easy cross-town commute from Trinity.
“The more I saw him, the more I just appreciated how hard he worked, how much he was into it, how much he really wanted to be good,” he says.
“He was the catalyst for our turnaround,” James states, referring to Jaquann. “He never backed down’’ and was “ready to work.”
James’ and Jaquann's relationship is strong—despite Jaquann sitting the final minutes of his last college game (a game he went 2-9 from the floor and scored 9 points in 22 minutes of playing time).
They are peers now. James has spoken at Jaquann’s point guard basketball camp for boys and girls.
At the time we talked, his daughter was going into her sophomore year at Conard High School in West Hartford. She attended Jaquann’s camp—the ultimate endorsement of Jaquann’s methods. “He’s teaching them the right things, the right way,” James says.
He’s a Professional
After his college basketball career ended and his professional basketball dream faded, he had options. Connecticut General Assembly Senator Douglas McCrory, a family friend, helped Jaquann get an internship at the Capital when he was at Trinity.
The experience was rewarding but politics was not a true calling for the political science major.
Jaquann thought of being a referee or becoming a teacher. He began the process of earning his teaching certification through an accelerated program.
Jaquann was at East Hartford Middle School from April 2017 to December 2019 before dropping out of the program because he wanted to be “100 percent all in” as a basketball trainer.
When he found training, he realized he made the right decision. In the early days, he trained at Trinity College before finding a dedicated space in Manchester.
He trains kids as young as kindergarteners to professionals. “It feels good,” he says about training basketball players who are playing professionally. The trust that the players put in him to help them train is rewarding. “I love that I can do that now,” Jaquann says with pride.
He thought that not playing professional basketball was one of his biggest failures. “Oh my god, I’m giving up,” he thought. In his mind, he was failing.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth. He has trained Khalil Dukes, who played for Capital Prep in Hartford, where he scored 2228 points.
“He’s a guy I used to go against all the time,” Jaquann says. “Me and him had some legendary battles together, in middle school and throughout high school. So, he’s actually a friend.”
On December 11, 2011, Dukes scored a career-high 51 points against Classical Magnet School. With 2.7 seconds remaining on the game clock, he nailed a three-pointer to send the game into double-overtime. That was the game in which Jaquann scored 47 points.
“We had some crazy battles in high school. He should be an NBA player,” Jaquann says.
“This is my dream job right now,” Jaquann states. All I ever wanted to do since 6th grade was to be a professional basketball player. I’m a professional trainer.”
“If I’m not playing, this is definitely the ‘next best thing.’ It’s still a dream job for me that I’m in this sport.”
He has trained Khalil Dukes, who played for the University of Southern California and Niagara University; and Eli Pemberton, the former Hofstra University and Middletown native player who played in the G League for the Golden State Warriors affiliate Santa Cruz Warriors. Pemberton currently plays for Hapoel Be'er Sheva of the Israeli Basketball Premier League.
I reach Guy Ragland Jr., a sophomore who plays basketball for Cornell University, on the telephone on a mid-September afternoon.
Guy started working out with Jaquann during his junior year of high school at Northwest Catholic in West Hartford during spring break. His dad found Jaquann on Facebook, and they connected. At the time, Jaquann had his workouts at Trinity.
He has been with Jaquann since he started around 2017 or 2018. Guy worked out with him in the summer of 2022. In all, he has worked with Jaquann for 3 years.
“It helped me with my facing the basket skills, dribbling, and having more smoothness with the ball without having to have my back to the basket. It helped me to be more fluid with my shot. ”
Guy has worked out with Kahlil Dukes. “It’s a great learning experience. Playing against someone so skilled and on such a different level than I am currently,” he says.
“Playing against someone like that helps so much,” he states. “He’s quicker, smarter, and has way better body control; it helps me become a better defender. Defending him helps my game so much.”
“Jaquann still has that same drive as when he was a player. “He’s there early,” says Guy. “He’ll be there all day and really commit to helping us get better and focused on helping us find moves that will help us, especially as individuals.”
“He’ll give us each moves that we can actually add to our games, how we actually play—super dedicated on that front,” Guy says. He works to give players moves based on their individual games.
Jaquann still has that same drive as when he was a player.
Guy believes he needs more patience with himself. “Some of the things Jaquann teaches us are tricky at first. It really taught me patience and learning how to get the different rhythms and move at different paces,” he says.
“It was tough to pick up. But it’s really helped me with my patience and carried over to a multitude of over places.”
“I have a lot of good young talent,” Jaquann says. He mentions Mason Romano, a junior playing basketball at a D2 school in California, and Guy Ragland Jr as examples.
Jaquann and his family made it out of Nelton Court to a better life. Now future generations will have opportunities from the foundation that they built.
“I always wanted better for myself,” Jaquann says, alluding to what drives him. “I experienced my mom struggling. I experienced how we lived and where we lived. And how my friends, who I was very close with, changed and became products of their environments.”
“I was motivated to make a change for my family,” he says. He didn’t want to go in the wrong direction in life. “I’m the big cousin, I’m the big brother, so follow me. I’m going to teach you right.”
He knows that not everyone makes it out unscathed, like he and his family did. Perhaps that is why Jaquann is a trainer for all facets of life.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, inspiring stories for people who are curious about the world. Go Anywhere.