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Volunteer coach blessed by 'Secret Millionaire'
Tony Branch, founder of Baylor Youth Foundation, stands in The Salvation Army gymnasium in Gary. Branch will be featured on an episode "Secret Millionaire" airing at 7 p.m. March 20 on ABC.

Just about a year ago a guy named James walked into a Gary gym where Tony Branch was coaching basketball.

James told Branch he was out of work and looking for something to do. He liked basketball, James told Branch and he'd blown out his knee playing the game.

Branch, 50, of Merrillville, liked the guy.

For the next week James helped coach the youngsters playing basketball in the Baylor Youth Foundation league, and he and Branch became fast friends, talking basketball and life.

A week later, Branch's team was playing in a tournament at Kankakee Valley High School. The team lost, and Branch was talking to the girls when James walked up.

"I've got something to tell you," Branch recalled James saying.

James was James Malinchak, a millionaire motivational speaker from Las Vegas who also is a contributing author and associate editor for the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" book series.

Malinchak was Branch's "Secret Millionaire." The camera crew that had been following Branch for weeks wasn't filming a documentary on Gary and volunteerism as Branch had been told. It was filming an episode of the new reality TV show "Secret Millionaire."

Malinchak gave checks to Branch and to the Baylor Youth Foundation.

"I wasn't going to take the check," Branch said. "I was in shock."

Branch can't reveal the details of how much he or the youth foundation received from Malinchak. That's a secret until the "Secret Millionaire" episode featuring Branch and two other Gary-based groups airs at 7 p.m. March 20 on ABC. The premier of the limited series airs at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Branch isn't sure how or why he was picked. He and friend Reggie Curry founded Merrillville Youth Basketball about 11 years ago, which attracted youngsters from across the region.

For Branch, the league wasn't only about learning the game, but about life. He emphasized grades and doing the right thing to his young charges, the majority of whom have gone on to college.

Two years ago they joined forces with Baylor Youth Basketball. Since the filming of the series last spring, Branch left the youth foundation and is taking a bit of a hiatus from coaching.

At the time of filming, Branch had been unemployed for about a year, laid off from a local steel mill. Today he is back at work.

Branch, a New York native who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy before retiring to Northwest Indiana, said he doesn't think what he does is special.

"I'm not a hero, I do what I do because it is our passion, our lives," he said of himself and wife LaTonia, a minister with LBM Ministries.

"Our household is all about giving. I got a problem if I can go home and eat and I've passed people on the street who won't even have a sandwich that night," Branch said.

And, while he said being on the program is humbling and he's still not convinced he was worthy of the tribute and gift, Branch is hoping people learn from the show.

"I'm really no hero. There's people doing just as much as I'm doing," he said. "I want people to do good things, to help people, help your neighbor. I would hope it would get people up off their tushes; instead of talking the talk, they'll walk the walk. People can't wait for government to solve all their problems, they've got to get involved."

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.