This is the story of a group of high school boys who have given their lives to basketball. They dream of a college scholarship and escape from the neighborhood. What they have is athletic talent, grace, and years of dedication. The Last Shot introduces us to unforgettable characters and the brutal world of college athletic recruitment.
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DARCY FREY is a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Abraham Lincoln High School is a massive yellow brick building of ornate stonework and steel-gated windows at the end of Ocean Parkway, a stately, tree-lined boulevard about a mile from the Coney Island projects. Built in 1930, in the grand style of public architecture, Lincoln once counted itself among the top academic high schools in New York, its student body filled with the sons and daughters of the immigrants who had arrived in the neighborhood at the turn of this century. But as Coney Island has deteriorated over the years, so has Lincoln High. Directly across Ocean Parkway from the school are Brighton Beach and several other Jewish neighborhoods; but the kids from those areas are often sent elsewhere for their education, as Lincoln has become, little by little, a ghetto school for the projects.
Lincoln is by no means the worst or most dangerous of New York's almost two hundred public high schools. That distinction is shared by Thomas Jefferson in Brooklyn, where two students were recently gunned down in the hallway as they walked to class; William Taft in the Bronx, where kids occasionally throw M-80s into crowded classrooms; and the forty-five other schools throughout the five boroughs where metal detectors have been installed at the front doors to separate students from their coat-pocket arsenals. The faculty at Lincoln includes some of the most dedicated teachers in the city, as well as a principal who just retired after twenty-two years of holding the school together through this era of enormous change. Still, a malaise has set in at Lincoln, as it has at so many inner-city schools. Twenty-five hundred students attend Lincoln, packing every inch of its yellow-walled corridors at dismissal time, and it often seems that an equal number of security guards is required to keep them from inflicting grievous bodily harm on one another. The first day I dropped by, in the spring of 1991, there was much commotion in the Lincoln hallway because the locker of a student was found to contain a handgun. On my second visit, the weapon in question was a six-inch knife. After one student was taken by ambulance to Coney Island Hospital with a neck wound requiring forty stitches, even some of the most peaceable kids at the school began carrying X-Acto knives for protection.
Most of the African-American students at Lincoln arrive each morning from the nine subsidized housing complexes that run from West Twenty-first Street in Coney Island to West Thirty-seventh, and between Neptune Avenue and Surf -- a thirty-block grid of streets comprising not much more than project buildings and basketball courts. Many of the students' parents are jobless and support their families with welfare and food stamps. Although the universal teenage fashion of baseball caps and baggy, low-riding jeans provides a certain camouflage, the overwhelming poverty of these families is evident in the Lincoln corridors, where kids sometimes show up for school in midwinter wearing nothing but hooded sweatshirts, huddling close to hallway radiators to keep warm; or at the end of each school year when a handful of seniors who cannot afford the school's $88 cap-and-gown fee apply for special dispensation. A lot of Lincoln kids remain in the neighborhood after they graduate, working as orderlies at Coney Island Hospital or store managers at McDonald's or foremen on construction crews -- jobs not much better than the ones their parents have, if indeed their parents have any jobs at all.
Amid such diminished prospects, the opportunities presented to those kids who make the school's varsity basketball team are stunningly vast -- a door in a constricted room suddenly flung open on the wider world. Filling its rosters with kids who, in a grim bit of humor, call their court the Garden, though they must share it each day with the neighborhood's prostitutes and junkies, the Lincoln team has become the odds-on favorite each year to play for the city championship at the real Madison Square Garden, under television lights and the gaze of six thousand fans. And Lincoln's reputation as New York's best public school team is now drawing invitations to national tournaments, allowing kids who have never lived anywhere but the Coney Island projects to find themselves on week-long, all-expenses-paid trips to Florida, Las Vegas, and San Diego.
But city championships and national tournaments, however thrilling, are transient moments. The ultimate reward of making the varsity squad arrives in the form of the dozens of college coaches who visit Lincoln each year with the promise of full, four-year athletic scholarships to schools like Seton Hall, Providence, Temple, Syracuse, and Villanova. Every year they come -- descending upon this forgotten corner of New York to take the measure of the school's best players. You can always tell when a college coach has entered the crowded Lincoln gym for a game: the long wooden bleachers have already begun to fill -- with hopeful parents, older brothers curious to check out the new crew, kids from the junior varsity studying the moves of the upperclassmen. Everyone in Coney Island reads the high school sports section in New York Newsday to size up Lincoln's competition in the city's Public School Athletic League (the PSAL); and for every crucial home game the neighborhood packs the house, streaming into the Lincoln gym until the door monitors stanch the flood and the refs tell everyone to "take a couple of big steps back from the court now, or we're not gonna start this game." And just at that moment, before the ref walks to center court and the ball goes up, a famous coach -- P. J. Carlesimo from Seton Hall or Rollie Massimino of Villanova -- will appear at the door, and the news will ripple through the raucous crowd, already decked out in Seton Hall caps and Villanova sweatshirts in anticipation of a moment like this.
Out on the court, the players fight the urge not to eyeball the new arrivals; etiquette requires a cool indifference. But the presence of the suits amid the Afros, flattops, and box-and-fades in the Lincoln bleachers is unquestionably momentous. For the prospect of being recruited by a top college coach offers a Lincoln student more than the opportunity to play NCAA ball for four years in front of millions of viewers on ESPN. It promises something substantial and long-lasting: that even if an NBA contract isn't in the cards for any of the players, their talent and tenacity on the court will at least reward them with a free college education, a decent job after graduation, and a one-way ticket out of Coney Island -- a chance, in other words, to liberate themselves from the grinding daily privations of life in the ghetto once and for all.
Coaches were everywhere at Lincoln during the spring following the team's 1991 city championship. Russell, Corey, and Tchaka were finishing their junior year, and Stephon was expected to join them as a freshman in the fall. Winning a championship at any time during his high school career gives a player a tremendous boost toward college recruitment. That Russell, Corey, and Tchaka had won their titles as juniors seemed even more auspicious. Now that the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of college athletics, allows high school players to sign with colleges in the fall of their senior year, most coaches pick the promising juniors and watch them play during July and August, when the nation's best players go head to head at the summer basketball camps. Then the coaches start recruiting as soon as the players return to school in the fall.
It was a fine time to have caught up with the Lincoln varsity. Celebrations of the team's 55-40 victory over South Shore High School at Madison Square Garden kept going off throughout the spring, like intermittent explosions after the Fourth. The New York City Board of Education awarded each Lincoln player a wristwatch with PSAL 1991 and a tiny basketball printed on the dial. Newsday, which had covered the team all season, presented the players with a blue-cloth championship banner, which they hung from the rafters of the Lincoln gym. Rick Barnes, the head coach at Providence College, even made a surprise appearance at the team's end-of-the-year dinner to deliver a speech about pride, discipline, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And that, it seemed, was no exaggeration. The current mania for basketball in this country -- which one sees on NBA broadcasts, during the NCAA's "March Madness" tournament, even on sneaker commercials selling the work ethic along with those $120 high-tops -- has translated into extraordinary opportunities for players like Russell, Corey, Tchaka, and Stephon. In the next eight months, if everything goes as it should, these players will be offered the chance -- so rare under any circumstances, but especially rare in a place like Coney Island -- to change irrevocably the course of their lives just as they are coming into adulthood. And having attached myself to the team as its reporter-in-residence, I will be around to watch the whole thing happen.
A few more weeks now and the 1991 school year will be over. For the past month the air has been thick with a yellow haze, and with the school windows open you can smell the sharp tang of the Atlantic just a few blocks away. To get to Lincoln from the Coney Island projects, you take a bus or walk down Surf Avenue, which runs parallel with the boardwalk. When you hit Ocean Parkway, you hang a left and walk north a few blocks to the school. If you hang a right, however, you end up on the beach. A lot of Lincoln High is on the beach these days. This is the time of year when the indolent weather turns a student's thoughts toward last-minute truancy, and anyone who is contemplating dropping out is advised by his friends to "just do it."
But Russell, Corey, and Tchaka are all in school, and happily so. There is much still to discuss. There is the continuing postgame analysis of the team's championship at the Garden -- more specifically, how Tchaka kept dunkin' on that skinny-ass nigger from South Shore and Russell was hitting his treys like water -- waap, waap, waap...There are those PSAL watches, which are undeniably dorky but do afford the players the pleasure of asking each other, "Yo, what time is it?" so that they can look at their wrists and exclaim, like NBA broadcasters, "It's championship time!"
Now that the PSAL season is over, the players are free to go home right after school. But even after the last class bell rings, disgorging hundreds of students into the school corridors, they always gather outside the gym for some last-minute foolishness and often an impromptu meeting with their coach. And here comes Tchaka Shipp now, considerably more relaxed than he looked the other day out by the projects, loping down the corridor like Magic Johnson -- head and neck stretched forward and the rest of his body in hot pursuit. Tchaka is short for Tchaka Omowale, an African name meaning "the king-child has come home." And one must concede the point: the name is actually beginning to fit. Not yet seventeen and already six feet seven, Tchaka is a majestic-looking kid, with high cheekbones and a long sloping forehead that lend him an Egyptian aspect, though the gold-rimmed glasses he occasionally favors tilt his image more toward Sidney Poitier. Today he is wearing long plaid shorts and a tight-fitting tank top, and with his imposing rack of shoulder muscles straining the seams of his shirt he seems to rise above the noisy crowd in the hallway like a parade float.
"Yo!" Tchaka yells in my direction. "Yo!"
"Couple more weeks I'm outta here!" he cries. "Takin' my six-seven self to Nike!"
This upcoming trip to "Nike" is, not to put too fine a point on it, precisely what Tchaka has been dreaming of every day for the past year. Each summer the Nike sneaker company invites the nation's 120 finest high school basketball players to Indianapolis for a week-long, all-expenses-paid jamboree. Also in attendance is every top Division I college coach in America, there to appraise the talent and reward the best. Ever since he received his invitation, Tchaka has been in an expansive mood, and today is no exception. He walks up to me in the corridor and claps me on the shoulder. But immediately his eyes grow large and he brings his hand to his mouth. "You know what this means, don't you? There are going to be at least thirty guys my size or taller! I'm gonna be the little one!"
That will require no small adjustment on Tchaka's part. For two years now, Tchaka has had his way with the PSAL as he established his front-court game -- maximum use of elbows on the boards and an insatiable appetite for the ball. From time to time last season Tchaka would receive a pass at the foul line, allow himself a single dribble, and with his uncommon leaping ability find himself eye to eye with the rim for an easy lay-up or dunk. But he soon discovered it was also possible to cry out like some herniated weight lifter, ream the ball through the hoop, and then, as he hung from the rim with a fiendish look, listen for the urgent, swelling, seashell roar of the crowd rushing in from the bleachers, howling their delight. "One more second on the rim, young man, and you've got yourself a technical," the ref would warn as soon as Tchaka had landed on the firm earth. But Tchaka would grin and shake his head and point out -- most reasonably, in light of the still-whooping fans -- that monster dunks were precisely what the crowd came to see. Tchaka sometimes concludes his games by collapsing fiat on his back at center court, an expression of spent bliss on his face and his shorts split violently up the seam.
But that was the PSAL and among the Lilliputians. How Tchaka will fare at Nike, against the nation's best and biggest players, remains an open question. Despite his size, Tchaka comes to the game with certain disadvantages, not the least of which is that he grew up in slightly less constricted circumstances than his Coney Island teammates. Unlike Russell, Corey, and Stephon, whose recreational options in the projects were limited to either basketball or basketball, Tchaka's preferred sport until he became a high school freshman was bicycling. But having suddenly elongated to six feet three, Tchaka found his knees scraping the handlebars, and he swapped his bike for his first pair of high-tops. Three years later he was still growing, almost visibly to the naked eye, and playing at times with some awkwardness, as if he had rented his body on game day and got stuck with a size too big. As a sophomore, Tchaka averaged only four points per game; now, as a junior, ten. He has trouble shooting a jumper more than eight feet from the basket and sometimes can't catch a pass unless it hits him squarely in the chest. Walking down the street, Tchaka sometimes dribbles a phantom ball through his legs and behind his back, since the genuine article often ties him up in knots.
Frustrated by this gap between his real and imagined games, these days Tchaka has initiated a rigorous program of self-improvement. When he isn't in school or on the court, he is usually in his bedroom in Jamaica, studying college games on tape. Tchaka has hundreds of them, and most evenings when he gets home from school his first order of business is to fish through the pile for a vintage contest -- UNLV v. Seton Hall, perhaps -- pop it in his VCR, and lie on his bed for the next two hours, analyzing the Running Rebels' power moves to the basket....
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Book Description Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110395597706
Book Description Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0395597706
Book Description Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0395597706