For much of the past decade, Donald Niang Jr. has bounced around the AAU boys basketball circuit, coaching one team after another, a basketball vagabond who has crisscrossed the city in search of a program that fit his hard-charging and passionate ways.
Since 2006, Niang has been involved with five different outfits, moving from the Harlem Kings to New Heights to the Long Island Lightning to the Metro Hawks and finally to the New Renaissance Basketball Association (RENS) — a virtual who’s who of AAU programs.
Niang spent roughly a year with each before forging ahead in constant pursuit of the right fit for his players and his own beliefs.
Now, it seems he’s finally found it.
Hired last summer as the director of basketball operations for the Harlem Jets, Niang is now ready to take the program to another level, adopting an ambitious schedule that will take the program’s teams across the country to play against top competition. The Jets were limited to a local schedule last summer.
Niang is excited to get started and has big plans for the program.
“This is it, this is definitely it,” said Niang, whose son Donald III just completed his senior season on Iona Prep’s basketball team. “Trust me, we’re definitely going to be up there with the best.”
While Niang has been quick to move on from his previous jobs, he also earned a reputation for being honest and straightforward, according to Mike Crump, the head coach at Wadleigh HS, where Niang serves as an assistant.
“He’s not one of these guys who’s trying to pimp some success for himself off the backs of these kids,” Crump said. “He’s not trying to do that because at the end of the day he’s got his own job, his own home, his own car and he’s got a life outside of AAU.”
Frustrated with his place in the AAU universe, Niang thought of quitting the sport after his final stop with the RENS in 2011, believing he had finally run out of options, content to simply work out players on the side.
“I was at a place where I was wondering, ‘What’s next?’” said Niang, who works as an operations agent for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “It definitely crossed my mind.
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Niang coached various AAU teams in the city before settling with the Jets last summer.
That’s when Niang was approached by Jamel Wright, the founder and president of the Harlem Jets youth organization, whose football teams have gained national prominence. Wright wanted to offer basketball to his kids, and he created a basketball start-up last summer. After calling around, he offered Niang the position last July.
Now Niang oversees the nuts and bolts of the program while also coaching the seventh grade team, doing it all on a volunteer basis.
Funding is provided by the Jets, though the program is still trying to put together a financial plan to ensure its staying power, Wright said.
Before he hired Niang, Wright looked into why he had bounced around so much.
“I did my research,” Wright said. “I called around, asked about him. There were guys who said this and that. But after I spoke to Donald, I felt comfortable with what he told me and it wasn’t anything different from what I was originally told. Donald just never felt a part of their program and now with the Jets he feels he can help build it from the ground up. He feels like he’s finally found a home.”
Last month, the Harlem Jets’ 15- and 16-year-old teams traveled to Lithonia, Ga., for the Nike Big Shots Southern Stampede EYB Classic, with both teams having impressive showings. The Jets also played in the Big Shots DC Assault event last month, also faring well.
Niang could barely contain his enthusiasm when discussing his latest opportunity, saying this may very well be his last coaching stop.
“I was really excited to have this chance,” he said, “a chance to have your own stage where you can set things the right way.”
The Harlem Jets will field four different teams at the sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th-grade levels and Niang has assembled a staff of volunteer coaches that includes Cory Sanders (a varsity assistant at Bread & Roses), Fred Rohan (a JV assistant coach from Bread & Roses) and Mario Bright and Doug Jones (both assistants at Wings Academy).
One of his former colleagues at the Long Island Lightning, Shandue McNeill was happy to hear that Niang landed at a good program that seems to fit his needs.
“He’s a passionate guy and very serious about developing his craft,” McNeill said. “There wasn’t any bridges burnt when he left us. We try to develop guys and have them survive on their own. A lot of guys want more and want to spread their wings. And I think that's what Donald has done.”