What Happened to NYC Basketball?

Kevork Djansezian

I came across this article that bemoaned the relative paucity of New York-bred players on NBA rosters.

New York City hoopers used to have quite the profile in the NBA. Legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes, Connie Hawkins, Lenny Wilkens, Bernard King and Tiny Archibald were New York City products. But when the 2014 playoffs started, if you looked up and down the rosters, you saw only two NYC graduates-Stephenson and Kemba Walker.

In fact, there are just five players either on current NBA rosters (Kyle O'Quinn, Stephenson and Walker) or that suited up in the NBA this season prior to being waived (Ben Gordon and Metta World Peace) that grew up and played high school basketball in New York City.

As a college hoops fan, and a product of Brooklyn hoops myself, I was intrigued, but really wanted to explore the downstream aspect of NYC hoops - the grade school and high school levels. The article does touch upon the basic reason for the decline: the brain-drain, or in other words, the lack of teacher-coaches. But why did the brain-drain occur?

I made a few calls (oofah -- that's the Sicilian in me) to help me get to the bottom of this. Of course it's complicated. Socioeconomic changes are at the root of everything, but let me share some thoughts with you. These are the three issues I want to discuss:

  1. The fall and rise of New York from the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties.

  2. The decline of Catholic grade and high schools

  3. The demise of the Big East as we know it.

1. Number one is a big one to take on. There are countless studies on this topic. Growing up in that time and place, I'll simply tell you what I observed. In a way, most big cities, particularly in the East and Midwest, have gone through the same cycles. New York is just way bigger, under a more intense spotlight, and just happens to be the financial center of the world.

Brooklyn was a fun place to grow up in the sixties. There were the long summer nights sitting in beach chairs on the stoop, staying out late with your friends within the safety of your block, and the ginormous number of kids one's age just around the corner. It seemed like every street had its own softball team in the school yard league -- actually one for each age group.

By the late sixties, that child's paradise was ending. It wasn't safe enough to hang out around the block, and our parents were losing their jobs. The remnants of that life are probably out in eastern Long Island now, if it exists at all.

The oil embargo of 1973 was the final nail in the coffin. By 1976, New York was on the brink of bankruptcy, and was asking Washington for help. The New York Daily News had a famous headline on the front page: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Eventually, Jimmy Carter did help, but the damage was done. New York tried to do everything, from cradle to grave, but couldn't sustain the fiscal burden, and the City seemed to implode as services were cut back.

In the summers, I could always count on the "summer camp" at the junior high school a couple of blocks away. Why do I mention this? Not only did I play basketball indoors every day, but this day camp system ran a league using coaches came from the area high schools that were able to earn a little extra dough during the summer. I was shocked to find doors had closed in the summer before my junior year in high school, just as I was preparing to try out for the varsity.

In the summer of 1977, as I was heading off to college, the City was bottoming out. After a days-long power outage, riots broke out City-wide, and the Son of Sam kept teenagers off the streets after dusk.

New York started to bounce back in the early eighties. After the Carter malaise, Wall Street thrived under Reagan as the new Masters of the Universe, the corporate raiders and the investment bankers led by the Michael Milken junk bond machine, ushered in a new era of wealth at the top in New York. Unfortunately, the poor and middle class remained in long-term decline. The trickle-down never happened.

My final chapter in this personal history of New York is the Giuliani Era. Crime and quality of life for all was still a huge problem. Giuliani had the basic idea that if you can curtail even the little crimes, like graffiti and vandalism, eventually you will stop the big crimes. It worked. The city was in a new renaissance period. There is and was a downside: the Manhattanization of the boroughs, especially Brooklyn. Yes, Brooklyn is cool again, but try to find affordable housing.

Therein lies the brain-drain. Coaches were important in New York -- like high school football coaches in Texas, but the drill started in the fourth grade. Grade school and high school coaching was usually not a full-time job, but it became simply not worthwhile given the out-of-sight cost of living City-wide. Existing coaches left the City, and new ones weren't being minted.

Further, the socioeconomic changes broke down the Catholic education system.

2. The Catholic grade school and high school system was immense - especially in Brooklyn and Queens where the number of grade schools was virtually the same as the number of public grade schools. We used to joke that there were more churches than pizza parlors. No game that night? Then walk perhaps six more blocks to the next school gym.

It was an affordable alternative that effectively ran parallel to the deteriorating public schools. I didn't know it at the time, but the peak was in the late Seventies. The decline coincided with New York's flirtation with bankruptcy. Schools closed in every neighborhood: the poor couldn't afford the tuition and the wealthy were fleeing to the suburbs.

In 1984, Power Memorial Academy, made famous by our own Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, closed its doors.

I checked my high school's web site and followed the basketball links. Many of the familiar names from the Catholic High School Athletic Association had disappeared. My high school seemed to be thriving - they had added football and ice hockey teams, and sent the basketball team to the Torrey Pines Invitational near San Diego this past Christmas. However, its historical success on the basketball court (they had won the New York State Championship in the early eighties and had sent every starter from that team to the Big East) was no longer.

I talked to people connected to the program about the basketball drought. The answers: the pipeline of coaching talent had dried up, and recruiting became very difficult as the feeder system from the Catholic grade schools had deteriorated, and the talent that did come from that system was not nearly as prepared to play at the next level as it had been 25 years before.

That resonated with me. The larger Catholic grade school basketball programs, as part of the Catholic Youth organization (CYO) actually carried as many as six boys teams: one for every two year age bracket from age nine through unlimited. My grade school had a twelve game intramural season on top of that! The coaches were parents, current high school players (like me), and the very serious type that were on the coaching career ladder.

How prepared were we to play at the next level? From fifth to eighth grade, we basically used two offenses: a simplified version of the motion offense, and the Wooden Offense. I call it simplified relative to the motion offenses used in college today, including now at UCLA. While still an orchestration of screens, cuts and passes with all five players in constant motion, the offense was rinse and repeat. We weren't required to learn and read the actions of the defense, though the best players took it upon themselves to know when to fake and back cut to the basket Princeton-style. The Wooden Offense, in the half court, was highlighted by the man in the high post. The point guard was, of course, at the top, one forward ran the baseline, and then two wings sat on the perimeter. I personally liked this best because I was often the post on the foul line which made me the prime decision maker: shoot or drive or hit the baseline cutter or dump it to the wings and move down low.

On defense, in addition to M2M, we played three different zones: 3-2 (I liked playing the top which gave me a more important defensive role but still allowed me to rebound), 2-1-2 or box-and-one (many more one-man-shows at that level). Don't get me started about rebounding: by seventh grade, if you didn't box out, you didn't play.

This was the ultimate loyalty system. Of course everyone aspired to play high school, but if you couldn't, there was a place for you as a player or coach as long as you hung around - and people did!

The CYO was easy to recruit from and the players were well-trained. However, by the mid-Seventies, Catholic grade schools were starting to disappear, and the ones that survived curtailed the basketball programs, shut the gyms at night and made do with ragtag coaches who did little more than turn on the lights. This is how the coaching pipeline to the Catholic high schools dried up, and the quality of recruits declined.

3. The Big East was an aspirational conference for the large urban centers of the Northeast. The gritty, sometimes rough, style reflected the physical, defensive style especially of the Catholic high schools. If you haven't seen the ESPN documentary "Requiem for the Big East," check it out on video-on-demand. Launched in 1979, the same year as ESPN, the league had a meteoric rise, but never quite achieved the heights it did during the Patrick Ewing/Chris Mullin era. Of course, UConn and Louisville (and big East pioneer Syracuse) won championships, but top-to-bottom, the league was never the same as it undertook a football-fueled expansion.

In a way, I'm using the fate of the Big East as a proxy for the current problems in college basketball that I wrote about here. The layers below the Big East were fairly solid from the sixties to the mid-eighties. There were schools like Manhattan College that were able to pull in many New York area stars, fill their arenas and even make it into the NCAA tournament with a fair amount of regularity, but ultimately those schools could not compete in the basketball arms war, and some chose to withdraw from that race and accept a slower pace. The result was that New York City high school players had to leave the area, and although they received college scholarships, they mainly wound up at low major and Division II colleges.

So was this simply a lament about the good ole days? Sure - in part. I'm sure there are a million New Yorkers who would say it's better than ever. I'm still amazed at the hip (Dumbo) and family-oriented (Park Slope and Carroll Gardens) neighborhoods that have arisen out of the ashes in Brooklyn. The City is much safer, and there are more and nicer outdoor basketball courts (I used to walk 15 blocks and play in a down parka when there was no official practice).

Further, you could make a legitimate stat-based argument that New York City basketball was never as decorated as you might think I was implying. After all, there is only one NCAA National Champion from within the City limits: CCNY in 1950.

I have to note here too that there was something terribly, terribly wrong with some of the leadership of the Catholic Church and school system.

This essay is really a lament about a system and style of play that is missed. Perhaps you have to be a fan of Pat Riley's 1993 New York Knicks to know what I'm talking about, but I think many of you would agree with me if I could take you back in time to watch the CHSAA City Championships or the St. Thomas Aquinas Holiday Tournament in Brooklyn. I recently watched the California State High School Championship; Mater Dei beat Bishop O'Dowd, coincidentally two Catholic schools, but that's where the similarities end. Mater Dei, even though its roster is celebrated (UCLA is recruiting Michael Cage's son), is a one man team: Stanley Johnson does everything including bringing the ball up on late possessions. I do miss those days, and I think college basketball is worse for the loss.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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