The Taino Towers housing complex in East Harlem is, in many ways, its own self-contained community. Nearly 3,000 people live in the federally-subsidized apartments of the complex’s four towers; dozens more work in its charter school, office space and retail operations. It stands tall in East Harlem, offering its residents, mostly Hispanic and African-American, beautiful views of the East River and the bustle of El Barrio.
Taino’s gym hosts a community within the community. It’s home to a nascent basketball team aimed at rehabilitating the teenage culture at Taino, after a rise in youth crime over the past year. Basketball is the bait to draw Taino boys into a broader program that could include classes in finance and graphic design, trips abroad and additional sports.
“I’m not the person who talks and talks and doesn’t do anything,” says Maria Cruz, Taino’s ubiquitous property manager and its de facto mayor. She called two town hall meetings last summer to discuss growing crime concerns; those meetings led to Team Taino.
In addition to managing the property, Cruz manages its many personalities, including those in the basketball program. About 40 boys gather in the gym Tuesday and Thursday nights. For some, their only apparent alternative is a life caught up in the street violence, gangs and other perils that plague East Harlem. At some practices fights break out; at others, heated arguments emerge between the boys and the team’s volunteer coaches. The program’s organizers—take five childhood friends in their late 20s, add a middle-aged technology entrepreneur from Vermont and stir—have found their own personalities clashing.
Aris and Ikay
Aris Martin and Ikay Henry, best friends since childhood, both grew up in Taino Towers and attended Harlem’s Rice High School, the renowned Catholic boys’ school and basketball powerhouse. Then their lives diverged. Henry, miraculously plucked in first grade for Merrill Lynch’s Scholarship Builders program, which guaranteed full tuition to any child accepted by a college, interned on Wall Street and went on to graduate from Hampton University in Virginia.
Martin lagged behind. “At Rice, I didn’t know how to play the right lane,” Martin says during a recent basketball practice last week. “I went left.”
He didn’t go off to a university like his friend. He now works for Arco Management, Taino’s property manager, doing maintenance work. But the boyhood friends are again equals in coaching Taino’s basketball team. Martin and Henry always wanted to start their own league and this summer’s meetings presented an opportunity.
“If we could do what we are doing full-time, we would,” Henry says. After the gym reopened, Henry and Martin recruited former classmates Norman Anderson, Sherrod Kersey and Calvin Griffin to coach.
Unlike those in school or nonprofit youth programs, these coaches already have a history with the players and their families. They also know what each boy lacks in his family life and move to fill that void, although it’s been more difficult than many thought.
“It’s a lot different being a mentor and disciplining someone than being a parent and disciplining someone,” Griffin says.
One practice ended in a minor brawl; others are disrupted by players’ back-talking and profanity. Because all five coaches work at least one job, practices have fallen victim to disorganization or couldn’t draw enough coaches to supervise 40 young, and sometimes unruly, boys. At times, both Martin and Henry have doubted whether or not to continue with the program. But after they rededicated themselves to their players’ welfare, practices became more structured and disciplined.
That can be humbling. During a mid-November practice, Martin ran a drill in which teams of two faced off against each other. As a participant, he found himself in a rivalry with one of the better young players, Solomon, who relished the opportunity to show up his coach. The boy darted out to play defense in a low crouch, ready to pounce. Everyone in the gym watched, hooting and hollering.
Not one to back down, Martin made a quick crossover dribble, jetted past the teen and strolled toward the hoop for a lay-up, already laughing. But the fleet-footed teen recovered and blocked Martin’s attempt, sending him to the floor, regaining the basketball and laying it in himself. Pandemonium. Solomon had toppled the coach. Martin got up with a smile, joined the drill against the same player and, uncharacteristically, waved his arms up and down, egging on the watching players.
“When I think about these kids, I have to think about every move I make,” Martin says. “No matter where I am I might see one of these kids.” But by letting down his guard down from time to time, Martin says, he allows the kids into his own life.
As he advises his young players on how to find a better life outside Taino Towers, Martin is still trying to achieve that for himself. For him, too, this is a learning experience.
“When I see them I don’t see myself, I see them doing better than me,” he says.
A few weeks ago, William Thomas invited some of his business associates to a basketball practice at Taino. Dressed in suits and ties, the men sat around a folding table in the corner of the gym, discussing their own matters—Thomas runs a technology consulting firm; his associates were small business lenders—as the practice unfolded.
Their meeting was interrupted when one of the teen players tangled with a coach about playing time, the teen cursing him out in language not typically found in a boardroom. When a relative entered the gym to scold the kid for disrespecting a coach, the two scuffled and had to be separated by coaches.
After practice, Thomas immediately convened a discussion with the program’s coaches about how to prevent future disruptions. The following week’s practice ran without a hitch.
“I’m not a basketball coach, but I know how to manage,” says Thomas, a tall gregarious man in his late 40s, who works in the city during the week, sleeping at a friend’s place in Brooklyn and returning to his family in Vermont on the weekends.
Along with his wife, Thomas has a long history in philanthropy and community service. He had done previous work at Taino and developed a friendship with Cruz, the property manager. When he heard about the basketball program, he saw a springboard to a more comprehensive youth program, including fishing and golf lessons, ski trips, graphic design classes, a theater program for girls and Skype meetings between Taino kids and business leaders.
Most of those plans rely on Thomas’ wide business network of potential sponsors. He is establishing a board of directors for the team and working with Cruz to secure private donations. Before Christmas, he hopes to open a lounge where kids in the basketball program can hang out and use computers before and after practice.
“Even though this is being tagged as basketball, that’s not what this is about,” Thomas says.
His background contrasts with those of the team’s coaches, he admits. They represent more familiar faces to the boys.
“We want what’s best for the kids,” Henry says of Thomas. “What differentiates me is my relationship with the kids.”
But Thomas sees familiarity as a “huge benefit and asset, but I don’t think it’s necessary.” He often speaks of his efforts in grandiose terms, at times quoting Martin Luther King Jr. or overstating the risks some of the players face. “People don’t invest in themselves, because when they look in the mirror in the morning they give up,” he says. But despite his outsider status, he is intent on providing Taino’s youth with opportunities for an entirely different life than most of their parents—and coaches—have had.
“Most of the people in this room are used to fail,” Thomas said at an early practice. “If you are on East 123rd Street, you can still view the world globally.”
For his first 18 years, Devin Johnson never played in an organized basketball game. His sport of choice is football, with good reason. He is an imposing figure, not tall but broad with natural strength.
But football requires a level of investment—pads, helmets, a field, 11 players to a side—and Johnson was kicked out of his high school for reasons he won’t discuss. Basketball requires just a hoop and a ball. So Johnson is now a basketball player.
In addition to lacking basketball experience, Johnson initially didn’t show the attitude needed to stick with the team, Henry and Martin admit. But the team has given him structure, something to do besides getting caught up in the many distractions surrounding Taino.
“They take their time to come here and they don’t really get paid for it,” Johnson says of the volunteer coaches, whom he calls “role models,” men not much older than he is now. “Whatever they do, they put it to the side to come here. They don’t do it for money, they do it because they are dedicated.”
Now Johnson is perhaps the most frequent presence in the Taino gym, never missing a session, often arriving early to help coach the younger kids that play from 5 to 6:30 p.m. He hopes to return to school and recently had a job interview to work at a grocery store.
And he’s quickly improving in basketball. On the court, he’s shown a knack for barreling toward the hoop and scoring over larger opponents. In Team Taino’s first game as part of a youth league at the Vanderbilt YMCA in midtown, Johnson went from its least experienced player to its star, at least for one game. He led all scorers with 18 points, using his strength to score around the rim when the opponent’s defense sagged.
“It was the first time I ever played basketball” in an organized setting, he says with a sudden wide smile. “After the game I wished I could go back in history and rewrite it.”
Johnson, raised at Taino, says he’s noticed a difference since the basketball team began. Around the complex, discussions that used to focus on crime now include other subjects.
“Residents around here, they ask about the game,” Johnson says.
Next: Team Taino hits the road. (VIDEO)