Midway through the most successful practice that the fledgling youth basketball program at Taino Towers has held to date, about 20 young boys are casually shooting at the gym’s two hoops, a brief respite after 90 tough minutes of running and drills. Older teenagers, arriving for their own practice session, banter courtside and pound basketballs against the floor. The gym, tucked below the hulking East Harlem subsidized housing complex, had been mostly unused for years until a group of coaches reclaimed it this fall as home court for a nascent basketball team and a haven for the neighborhood’s at-risk youth.
Ikay Henry, one of five volunteer coaches in their late 20s, greets the older players from his folding chair near the gym’s only open entrance. He knows them all by name, along with most of their parents and older brothers and sisters.
“Yo, write your name and your age,” Henry says, handing each teenager a pen and sheet of paper. Only regulars—the players with signed parental consent forms who know how to behave—are allowed in.
Before the youngsters, the six-to-13-year-olds, depart, another coach, Henry’s childhood friend Aris Martin, calls the group together for some parting advice. No talking back to coaches, he reminds them. No teasing your opponents and no showing up late. The week before, the older players’ practice had ended in a fight, followed by a candid meeting of program organizers intent on returning order to practices and imposing structure. Now, Martin emphasizes that using the gym is a privilege, an alternative to whatever awaits young boys in the streets surrounding Taino, plagued this past year by a rising tide of crime.
“Every kid here has a need,” says Henry, a 28-year-old Taino resident and de facto leader of the program’s volunteer coaches. “And they have been aggressive to one another mainly because they don’t have anything to do.”
Martin looks to dismiss the young players on a high note.
“All the kids who are under 13 are out of here, see you next week,” he says, leaning toward the clustered boys to “bring it in” for a huddle. But another coach whispers that near-teen players are allowed to practice with the older group.
“I mean, some of y’all can stay on, the rest head home,” Martin says, correcting himself sheepishly, losing some of the practice’s momentum. The smallest players head for the exit as the older group begins running warm-up laps and coaches bark that latecomers will be running extra laps today.
For the team’s five volunteer coaches, two of whom live at Taino, the past two months have been filled with exactly this juxtaposition: satisfaction when they feel they’re reaching East Harlem kids at risk, alternating with moments of doubt. Can a twice-weekly basketball practice really overcome the violence, poverty and crime that surrounds their young players every day?
Among those betting that it can is William Thomas, an entrepreneur and technology consultant from southern Vermont, whose history of philanthropic work occasionally brings him to East Harlem. An unlikely benefactor, he’s got big plans for turning what started as afternoon pick-up games into an organized team that competes in citywide leagues and eventually the Amateur Athletic Union, the top level of non-scholastic basketball.
Along with Henry and his friends, Thomas intends to add computer classes, tutoring, financial literacy courses and community service projects. Kids who stick with the program will have adult mentors and access to big-name sponsors like BET, the Magic Johnson Foundation and the New York Yankees.
“If we can work together, we can take a city block in Harlem and make a difference,” Thomas says.
The idea is to give young boys at Taino—and eventually young girls— opportunities. But for now, organizers have encountered a prime example of how good intentions, financial backing and genuine concern can’t ensure inner-city youth programs will succeed.
Those personalities include Henry and Martin, who grew up at Taino and attended Harlem’s Rice High School, the renowned Catholic boys’ school. Henry went on to Hampton University, the historically black college in Virginia. The other coaches, Norman Anderson, 28, Calvin Griffin, 30, and Kersey, attended either Rice or Hampton.
The basketball team, still unnamed, dates to an August town hall meeting called to address climbing crime at the complex, with its 678 apartments spread between four large towers built on East 123rd Street in 1979. The first half of this year had brought armed robberies of food deliverymen, menacing brawls between youth crews from Taino and rival housing projects, and gunfights where errant bullets shattered apartment windows and nearby storefronts. Building management increased security and shut down several entrances to the complex to allay residents’ fears.
“When I was coming up there was drug dealing, but the older crowd made sure the younger crowd stayed out of it,” says Juan Cotto, 27, a longtime Taino resident and occasional volunteer basketball coach. “The community raised the kid. You don’t have that anymore.”
Henry and Martin had always wanted to start a basketball team at the Taino gym. At the August meeting, they found an unexpected ally: Taino property manager Maria Cruz had invited Thomas. The group’s ambitious plan to transform Taino youth culture takes advantage of Thomas’ business connections and Henry’s relationships and experience with the kids.
“We didn’t sit around and ask if we could,” says Thomas, who often refers to the team as a “start-up.” “The youth were here and we did it.”
Despite its lofty goals, or perhaps because of them, the basketball program is behind schedule, its organizers admit. The volunteer coaches all work, some at more than one job. They find it difficult to get to the 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. twice-weekly practices, where as many as 40 kids are waiting in the gym to play.
Besides, Henry and Thomas acknowledge a clash in their personalities and visions, despite their good intentions. Thomas, in his late 40s, comes from a upscale background, works in the city on weekdays, staying in a Brooklyn rental*, and drives north to his family on weekends. Henry, a lifelong Taino resident who now works at a midtown YMCA, has known nearly every player personally for years.
“I came in as an outsider, ” says Thomas, a six-footer with a graying beard and an affinity for dress pants and business-casual sweaters. He speaks quickly and, in private conversation, at a volume that suggests an audience larger than one. “Ikay had the turf.”
Yet, the program’s successes to date, ironically, reflect their similarities. Both Henry and Thomas want to provide Taino’s young boys with the opportunities both enjoyed during their own childhoods. In Thomas’ case, that means the mainstays of a prosperous childhood: access to computers, privileged sports like skiing and golf and a stable home life.
In Henry’s case, it’s the opportunity to get out of Taino. As a first grader, he was enrolled in Merrill Lynch’s Scholarship Builders program, which guaranteed full tuition to any child in the class accepted by a college. Along the way, Henry met with a personal mentor, traveled the country on college tours and interned on Wall Street before studying business management at Hampton. Laid off from a city job during the recent budget cuts, he co-founded a nonprofit organization, Harlem Mentors.
Now Henry, about six-foot-three and burly with a soft voice that grows forceful when interacting with players, wants to return the favor. “I want to be that influence in the community,” he says.
Launching the team has taxed its organizers. At times, the team benefits from Henry’s and Thomas’ business acumen, but it’s far from a business. In mid-November, after a particularly unruly practice, Thomas and the five volunteer coaches held an impromptu meeting in the back of the gym.
That evening, after a teenager who made a mistake had been told to run laps, he informed coaches he’d injured his toe. But 15 minutes later, with a spirited five-on-five scrimmage underway, the kid wanted back in the game.
“You just said your toe hurt!” Norman Anderson, one of the coaches, argued from the sidelines.
“I’m cool, man, let me back in,” the teen demanded.
“You can’t be too hurt to run but good enough to play in the game.”
“Man, suck my dick!” the teen shot back, stomping away. Incensed, Anderson was about to follow until Kersey intervened.
Word of the altercation spread quickly. Twenty minutes later, as practice came to a close, a big man in his 30s bounded into the gym — the kid’s relative, on hand to scold him for disrespecting a coach.
When the boy yelled the same insult, his relative grabbed the boy’s shirt and pushed him back towards the nearby wall. The teen fell into a group of plastic chairs.
The teen got off the floor and charged, while the coaches got between them and directed both toward the gym exit.
Afterwards, Thomas, Henry and the other coaches decided to better enforce practice schedules and allow only registered players, who must carry identification cards, to enter the gym. So far, it’s worked: This practice ran flawlessly, with the highest level of full-court play since the team formed.
Several top players were rewarded for this. The following week, as the best of the older players entered the gym, Henry quietly invited them to join a weekly league at the midtown YMCA where he works. It will be their first taste of outside competition since the team formed two months ago and the first step toward Taino’s reaching higher levels of play.
Despite the intervening turmoil, the organizers can see incipient signs of progress. Devon Thomas, Taino Towers’ head of security, says the fall and winter have seen far fewer violent incidents than the treacherous spring and summer months—though a mid-October shooting between rival youth crews, in which no one was hurt, marred that record.
“There are a lot of bad influences, but a lot of kids, once they’re here, I see a big difference. There’s more peace of mind,” says Marilyn Castro. Her 12-year-old son, Justin Rivera, complained in early October he only came to basketball practices because his mother made him; he had no interest in taking classes, even if they were required to play sports. Now, Justin shows up for nearly every practice and has become one of the stronger young players.
“I don’t got nothing to do at home except stay upstairs,” Rivera says.
At the most recent practice, Mikey Estrada, a lanky, fleet-footed eighth-grader with a knack for scoring around the hoop, stomped off the court during a scrimmage, cursing and claiming his opponents were fouling him too much. “They kept hitting me, but you aren’t supposed to call fouls,” Mikey later explained, lamenting the hard-line “street rules” used at practice. Henry intercepted him before the other players noticed the disruption and took him to an empty corner of the gym. His large hand on Mikey’s shoulder, he quietly calmed him down.
Minutes later, casually chatting with friends on the sidelines and waiting to play in the next full-court game, Mikey had put his tantrum aside. At least on this day, in this gym, he was a more patient and thoughtful Mikey.
“It makes me tougher,” he said of the fouls. As for Henry: “He’s a good friend. I listen to him more than other people.”
*An earlier version of this story misstated where Thomas stays while working in New York City.
Next in Team Taino: Players, Mentors and an Entrepreneur
For more information on Harlem Mentors, contact Ikay Henry at 347-756-0742 or visit www.harlem-mentors.org.
For more information about the Taino Towers youth program, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 347-871-6679.