They sit in a Harlem church basement or a south Brooklyn deli, at an elite high school in Queens or a failing middle school on the Lower East Side, near Madison Square Garden or the Cage or the Rucker or some other calcified shrine, and they explain what their city has lost.
Once, New York was home to more basketball talent than any other city on the planet. No more. As for what changed, theories vary. An older scout says it’s all about attitude. A younger coach says they only lack muscle. Some of the NBA’s remaining New Yorkers blame the city’s emphasis on skills of dwindling value to today’s teams. Others cite greed, poverty, overcrowding, or — why not? — video games, social media, and YouTube. It’s all flailing guesswork aimed at making sense of a decline no one saw coming but everyone watched happen. And though the explanations differ, on the central point, they all agree.
New York is no longer the greatest basketball city on earth. Right now, it’s not even close.
When we talk about the decline of New York City basketball, we’re not talking about the Knicks’ interminable incompetence or the Nets’ lavish and misguided efforts to build a contender. We’re talking about the city’s footprint in the NBA: Years ago, New York’s playgrounds and high schools served as the most fertile breeding ground for the game’s elite. Today, you’re just as likely to become a star if you’re born in Los Angeles, Toronto, or Raleigh.
In the 1970s, eight different New Yorkers made All-Star teams. That was more than the states of Texas, New Jersey, Florida, and Georgia combined.1 When Julius Erving wanted to test himself, he rode the train into Manhattan from Long Island. When Wilt Chamberlain wanted to prove he stood above the best in the world, he made his way north from Philly.
Football has always belonged to the Midwest and the South, baseball to America’s suburbs. Those sports were for places with manicured lawns and summers that stretched until Halloween. “Basketball belongs to the cities,” Pete Axthelm wrote in his 1970 classic The City Game. And for decades, no city played it better than New York.
New York’s personalities have long been legion; it’s a magnet for artists and bankers, immigrants and tourists; it’s home to Donald Trump and Louis Farrakhan and all permutations in between. New York has never been inextricably associated with basketball, the way Indiana or Kentucky are. Yet that’s part of what made New York hoops so great. The city was the best at basketball simply because it was the best at everything. To be great at something, the flyover states had to give a damn. New York just had to exist.
The notion that New York produced the best basketball talent was so indisputable, so self-perpetuating, that it became one of those opinions that hardened into fact. From 1971 to 1978, a New Yorker was inducted into the Hall of Fame every year but one. They called the city the Mecca because, over the years, pilgrims arrived by the thousands. Guards from across the country trekked to New York playgrounds to study moves from the world’s best ball handlers. Basketball-loving creatives flocked to the city, making films and writing books that aimed to capture the soul of the game.
Yet by the ’80s, the city’s dominance had already begun to fade. New York produced six All-Stars in that decade,2 no more than Chicago. In the ’90s and 2000s, Bernard King and Chris Mullin retired, leaving no New York–bred Hall of Famers to replace them. It’s tricky to determine precisely who counts as a New Yorker, but for the purposes of this story, here are some rules: Long Island doesn’t count. Neither does Westchester, and definitely not Newark or any other part of New Jersey. New Yorkers come from the five boroughs — nowhere else. But beyond that, it gets complicated. Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn but raised in North Carolina. Same goes for Carmelo Anthony and Baltimore. Despite the homecoming narrative that surrounded Melo’s signing with the Knicks, no one in the city feels much hometown pride over his career. But what about players who grow up in New York and then leave to play high school in another state? What about those who go to a prep school for their senior year? It’s tough to decide who spent enough time in the city to be considered a true New York product. For our purposes, we’ll label as a New Yorker any player who spent at least one year at a New York City high school. By that definition, there are 12 New Yorkers who played at least one NBA game this season.3 Forty years ago, there were 16. And back then, the NBA had only 17 teams.
Regardless of whom you consider a true New York product, you won’t have a hard time finding evidence to show the five boroughs’ decline. How about this: North Carolina’s Research Triangle region has produced the same number of McDonald’s All Americans in the last six years as New York. Not to mention that in the last decade, the Toronto suburb of Brampton has yielded more top-five NBA draft picks. It’s not only an issue of elite talent. According to Mode Analytics, New York state ranked 27th per capita this past season in supplying players for Division I men’s college basketball programs. If you want to play D-I ball, the raw chances of making it are better if you’re raised in Delaware or Wyoming than in New York. There are more Californians than New Yorkers in the ACC right now, and more Indianans in the Big East.
We can keep going. Not a single New Yorker was taken in the first round of June’s NBA draft. And before last season, the Student Sports high school basketball poll had only one New York team (Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln) in its top 25. The same poll had two top-25 teams from Jacksonville.
But cities are judged by their stars. Los Angeles has Russell Westbrook and Paul Pierce; Chicago has Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. “Let’s think about this for a minute,” says Macky Bergman, a New York native who runs a youth basketball program in lower Manhattan. “Who’s the best player to come out of New York in the last 25 years? I mean, you’ve got Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Joakim Noah. The fact that we’re even talking about those guys lets you know it’s a problem.”
If there’s any type of player the city has been known for producing over the last 25 years, it would probably be the overhyped, catastrophic bust. Lloyd Daniels went from being compared to Magic Johnson to being caught in a Las Vegas crack house to being shot and nearly killed back home in Queens in 1989 — and he still had enough talent to somehow scrap his way into the NBA. In 1993, Felipe Lopez wasn’t just an All-American — he was the subject of a 10,000-word profile in The New Yorker. A decade later, his career ended when Lopez couldn’t find a spot at the end of an NBA bench. In 2000, Andre Barrett, Taliek Brown, and Omar Cook were all McDonald’s All Americans, representing the supposed renaissance of the New York City point guard. Altogether, the “Holy Trinity,” as they were known in high school, went on to score 256 total points in the NBA.
A couple years later, Lenny Cooke tumbled from his perch as the top-ranked high school player in the nation all the way out of the NBA draft; he’s now one of the great cautionary tales of the NBA’s prep-to-pro era. Next came Sebastian Telfair, who shared the cover of Slam with LeBron James in 2002, when both were still in high school; as a senior, Telfair landed solo on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Now 29, he spent last season playing in China and recently signed a deal to be a backup point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. And if it weren’t for Lance Stephenson’s recent emergence as a nearly All-Star-caliber player on the Indiana Pacers over the past two seasons, the Coney Island native would likely occupy a spot on his city’s roster of underachievers who never quite made it.
Which brings us back to Bergman’s question. Who’s the best New York product of the last 25 years? “If you really think about [it],” he says, “the best one is probably Stephon Marbury. Stephon Marbury! I mean, good player and everything — even better than people give him credit for — but really? That’s the best we can do? And we’re supposed to be OK with that?”
So this is what we’re left with. The home to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Cousy, the largest city in the most talent-rich country in the world, is now hanging its hat on the second-leading scorer for the Beijing Ducks.4
How did this happen? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Tom Konchalski remembers the moment he realized it was all falling apart. It was 1989, he thinks, maybe 1990, when he took the Long Island Railroad out to see St. John the Baptist in West Islip. A lifelong New Yorker, Konchalski has likely seen more of the city’s games than any man or woman alive. He has obsessively followed the public and Catholic leagues for more than half a century, and for the last 35 years he has worked full time as a talent scout. Several hundred college coaches subscribe to his newsletter, which tips them off to players around the city who may be worth recruiting.
Among scouts, only Konchalski can remember, firsthand, both the way Connie Hawkins lit up the playgrounds in 1959 and the way Lance Stephenson carried the Lincoln Railsplitters 50 years later. It’s hard to think of anyone else who witnessed the moment when Lew Alcindor reached over the top of the basket to block a reverse layup and who can also recall the crowd’s crescendo every time a freshman named Kenny Anderson entered the game — always at the start of the second quarter, per legendary coach Jack Curran’s preference — for Archbishop Molloy.
Konchalski is New York’s chief basketball curator and historian, someone who has long celebrated the city’s excellence, but on that afternoon, riding out to Long Island, he looked out at the playground courts and felt troubled by what he saw. For decades, those courts had been filled with ballplayers, kids shoveling the snow or stumbling through the heat so they could go 1-on-15 in overcrowded games of 21.5 Courts like these had molded players like Cousy and King and Mullin into stars; these blacktops had turned playground savants like Earl “The Goat” Manigault and Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond into city legends. But now, out the window, he saw skateboards. Not basketballs. Skateboards.
That moment foreshadowed New York’s current talent shortage. “Today,” Konchalski says, “the playgrounds are basically empty. You see a few immigrant kids, that’s it. Everyone else is inside doing who knows what.” He’s sitting at a corner table in a deli just off Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, talking between sips of soup from a Styrofoam cup. He stopped in on his way to Midwood High School, where he’ll watch a kid he’s heard might possibly be a low D-I prospect. These days, in New York, that’s often as good as it gets.
Konchalski says there are myriad reasons for the city’s decline. No. 1: “Kids today just aren’t proud to play New York City basketball. Before, there was a sense of pride. Now, they still mouth the words, but it’s not really there. They don’t believe it. If they did believe it, they wouldn’t cross the river and go play in Jersey.”
He says it like a curse word: Jersey. Just across the Hudson River, New York’s less sophisticated neighbor is home to The Sopranos, Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate, and, for quite some time now, the best high school basketball in the tristate area. It’s New Jersey that features Karl Towns, a top-10 prospect in the class of 2014 who’ll play for John Calipari at the University of Kentucky next season; it’s New Jersey that produced Kyrie Irving, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kenneth Faried; it’s New Jersey that further developed New York City talents like Joakim Noah and Charlie Villanueva. “It used to be, New Jersey schools had to come play us if they wanted to get respect,” says Konchalski. “Now we have to go play them.”
All this, Konchalski says, boils down to pride. If New York kids thought there was value in representing New York City, they would never cross the river. They would never go to South Kent, in Connecticut, where Orlando Magic forward and Queens native Maurice Harkless transferred after his junior year at Forest Hills High, and they damn sure wouldn’t go to South Florida’s IMG Academy, where ESPN’s second-ranked New Yorker in this year’s high school class, Chris McCullough, just finished his senior year. They would stay. They would develop. And then they would go to college and the NBA, and they would make sure the words “New York City” were shown every time their bio flashed across a television screen.
Konchalski leaves the deli and heads down Flatbush to Bedford Avenue, which leads to Midwood High. He walks in to find a cramped, crowded gym, with layup lines formed on both ends of the court. In the far corner, a bald, muscled lava rock of a man marches up and down the bleachers, parting a sea of intermittently screaming teenagers. He greets the students who are waiting to be greeted, and he screams “Get out!” at the ones unruly enough to draw his ire. He wears a T-shirt and gym shorts, tattoos stretching down his arms. His name is Victor Gjecaj. He is collecting money for tickets. And in a moment, he will descend from the bleachers, walk to the sideline, and coach a basketball game.
“Look at this,” Konchalski says. “Do you think the head coaches have to walk around collecting money in New Jersey?” He smiles. Maybe it’s not just a lack of pride that compels kids to cross the river. Maybe they’re wise to get away.
New York has never produced football talent. Same for baseball. The reason, cited for decades: no space. Today, you’re starting to hear the same argument come up with regard to basketball. Other places have space, and space can be filled with regulation-size courts and hangarlike weight rooms, few of which can be found in New York.
“We go play the tournament in Vegas,” says Ted Smith, executive director of New Heights, one of New York’s top AAU programs. “We pull up into the school that hosts, we walk inside, and you see the kids’ eyes go wide. They’re looking all around, taking it all in. They’re like, ‘This is a high school gym? Are you serious?’”
That school, Rancho High, recently underwent a $75 million reconstruction of its entire campus. In suburban Philadelphia, Bensalem High just dropped $15 million on a 1,700-seat gym. More than 7,500 people can fit into the field house at Indiana’s Marion High, alma mater of Zach Randolph. IMG Academy features an on-campus spa, a cluster of team meeting rooms, and something called the “Gatorade Sports Science Institute.” Compare that with New York’s schools, where dumbbells are often found stacked in corners of cafeterias and locker rooms, and overhead track balconies above gym floors make practicing the corner 3 impossible.
But basketball was supposed to be immune to space restrictions. Just a hoop and a few square yards of concrete — that had always been enough. If anything, the city’s crowded parks have been traditionally seen as a contributing factor to players’ success. “When you grow up playing 21 on the playground and you’re out there with 20 guys guarding you, you better learn how to handle the ball,” says Smith. “That was our advantage. That’s why we’ve always had such good point guards — tough point guards — because that’s where they learned the game.”
Only now, the parks are less crowded. Instead of seeing one kid evade a couple dozen defenders, you can walk by without seeing anyone at all. “Now they’re playing video games,” says Maurice Hicks, who coached Kemba Walker at the onetime Harlem powerhouse Rice High School, now defunct. “They’re on Twitter and Instagram.”
Fine, yes, kids like technology. But that sounds less like a New York issue and more like someone bemoaning how things have changed, right? It’s not like Texans don’t have access to Snapchat, and they’ve still managed to produce five of ESPN’s top-15 prospects in the country this year. “But if I’m in Texas,” says Hicks, “and it’s January and I want to work on my game, I get in the car and drive to the park, where it’s 60 degrees outside. Or I go to one of the gyms where I can get some shots in. I’ve got options. If I’m in Harlem, maybe I gotta go outside and shovel snow. Or I gotta go to a gym that’s not top-notch. You know what? Maybe I’ll just sit here and play NBA 2K instead.”
Hicks pauses. He’s sitting in an office in Spanish Harlem, leaning forward in his chair. His eyes scan the room. “You know, there’s also YouTube,” he says. “They used to call it the Mecca because if you wanted to know the game, you had to come here to learn it. If you wanted to really see what the best ball handlers were doing, if you wanted to copy them, you had to come to the New York City playgrounds. You don’t have to do that today. You can just find it on YouTube. You can be Ricky Rubio or Jeremy Lin, you’re sitting at home, and it’s all right there. Anyone in the world can learn how to handle now.”
It may sound like a stretch, but Hicks is getting at something. Decades ago, New York dominated only inasmuch as the rest of the country — hell, the rest of the world — failed to reach the city’s standard. But it may not be New York’s fault that the balance of power has shifted. “Other places are just catching up,” says Mark Jerome, who runs the Riverside Church Hawks AAU program. “I don’t even think the level of talent in New York is dropping off. They’re just better.”
In 1973-74, one of every 15.9 players in the NBA graduated from a New York City high school. (That’s if you assume 15 players per team. Obviously, rosters fluctuate over the course of a season.) By 1983-84, the number had dropped to one of every 17.25, and in 1993-94, it was one in 25.31. The numbers for this past season? One in 90. That’s partly because so many New Yorkers leave the city during high school, but if you change the formula to account for players who spent at least one season at a New York City school, then it’s one of every 37.7. One out of every 37.5 Americans lives in New York. The city was once vastly overrepresented in the NBA. Now it seems to have regressed almost exactly to the mean.
Forty years ago, the NBA lagged far behind the NFL and MLB in popularity. Basketball was a regional game, important to the major East Coast cities and a handful of hotbeds elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, baseball was ubiquitous and football was growing. Sure, kids in Brooklyn wanted to be the next Connie Hawkins, but a football-obsessed Alabaman might have never even seen the Hawk play. “Basketball was always our sport, and it still is,” says Jerome. “But whether it’s the way the NBA has marketed itself, or it’s all the college games on TV, or whatever else — there are just more kids in more parts of the country playing now. They’re athletes. They were always athletes, but now they’re playing basketball instead of other sports. I mean, the South is supposed to be a football region, but look at the [basketball] talent coming out of there. It’s unreal.”
Suburbia and Southern cities always had built-in advantages — better weather in the winter, easier access to top facilities. Before, they used those advantages to gain an edge in baseball and football. Now they’re doing the same with hoops.
Macky Bergman has another theory. He’s sitting on a bench at Cascades High School on the Lower East Side, a few minutes before his Steady Buckets youth team arrives for practice. Just in front of him is a court that’s maybe 50 feet long and 35 feet wide (standard is 84 by 50), a gym with ceilings so low he advises his players not to shoot. “You shoot a jumper in here, you’re either scraping the ceiling with it, or you’re shooting a line drive and messing up your form. So we just do a lot of ballhandling.”
But that stuff doesn’t really matter, he says. Sure, it would be nice if their court were state-of-the-art, if the kids could hop in their cars and get up a few shots on a rainy day, but they should be fine with what they’ve got. No, the key, Bergman says, is not resources and not space, but culture. And not even basketball culture. Football culture.
Hear him out. “So where are the best players coming from?” he asks. “They’re coming from the South. They’re coming from Florida, Texas, Georgia, California. And what do they do in those states? They play football. I mean, all you have to do is look at Jersey. In Jersey, high school football matters. In New York, it doesn’t. And who’s got the best basketball players? Jersey.”
He’s not done: “Let’s just keep it in New York. Most of the best basketball teams are at Catholic schools. Catholic schools play football. Who’s the best public school for football? Lincoln. Who’s the best public school for basketball? Lincoln.”
The correlation is undeniable. The states that produce the most football players also produce the most basketball players.6 And that leads Bergman to his point. “It’s all about the weights,” he says. “Football schools have weight rooms. They have coaches who understand that lifting is important. They have parents who understand that lifting is important. The kids themselves get it. Everyone gets it. Here, no one gets it.”
On the AAU circuit, players see the difference. “There’s this reputation,” says Hicks. “It’s always, ‘You gotta watch out for those kids from Florida or those kids from Texas. They grow ’em bigger down there.’” Several coaches say that many New York parents voice concerns about weightlifting stunting their children’s growth. (It won’t.) “In parts of the country with football,” says Bergman, “I think that stereotype doesn’t exist for the most part. Here, it’s everywhere.”
Up on 120th Street, just a block away from Columbia University, there rise the neo-Gothic spires of Riverside Church, the site of Jackie Robinson’s funeral and long a hub of leftist activism. Walk into the sanctuary and you’ll find a 60-year-old organ and a pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Roam the hallways and you may encounter locals on their way to the church’s food bank or waiting to be tested for HIV/AIDS. But as you keep walking, eventually you’ll wind your way toward a flight of stairs descending to the basement. Down there, closed off from the rest of the church, you’ll find a basketball court.
It doesn’t look like much. It’s too narrow to shoot corner 3s, too short for a proper set of bleachers. But this is the home of the Riverside Hawks, AAU alma mater of Mullin, Odom, and Artest, to name a few, and once one of the best youth basketball teams in the nation.
From the ’60s to the ’90s, Riverside and its Bronx-based rival, the New York Gauchos, attracted the best talent from the five boroughs and beyond. “If you could really play,” says Jerome, Riverside’s executive director, “it was either us or them. There were no other options.” Adds Hicks, who spent a number of years with the Gauchos: “Those programs were part of what made New York City great. You take the best players in the city, you put them on these two teams, and from April to October they’re going at it. They’re getting coached. They’re competing with each other for minutes. You had big-time Division I prospects coming off the bench. That meant the most talented players spent their whole summers just getting better and better.”
In 1996, the New York Post reported that former Gauchos tutors told investigators they saw team founder Lou d’Almeida perform sexual acts on an underage boy. In 2002, Riverside basketball director Ernie Lorch, once the subject of a glowing Sports Illustrated profile, was investigated for alleged sexual abuse of one of his players. D’Almeida was never charged. Lorch was indicted by a grand jury in Massachusetts in 2010, but deemed unfit to stand trial. He died in 2012.
Around the time the allegations surfaced, younger coaches broke off from Riverside and the Gauchos to start their own programs. “It became the Wild West,” says Bergman. “All of a sudden there’s a team on every block.” Today, the Riverside-Gauchos reign is no more. The teams still exist, but their influence has evaporated. Now talented New Yorkers can play with Smith and Hicks at New Heights, or they can join Bronx-based Team Scan or the Long Island Lightning, to name just a few.
So New York’s elite players no longer spend their summers locked in battles for playing time. “That grass is always greener,” says Hicks. “If I’m coming off the bench, I’m gone. I’m finding a team that will let me start. If I have a coach who isn’t telling me I’m the greatest thing he’s ever seen, then there’s 10 other coaches out there willing to tell me whatever I want to hear.” Many other cities remain one- or two-team towns. Atlanta has the Celtics; Oakland, the Soldiers. The eastern half of Canada is run by Toronto’s CIA Bounce. Those teams serve the role in their cities that Riverside and the Gauchos once served in New York. Says Hicks: “At all the summer tournaments, there used to be a fear of New York teams. Now, when you see a New York team on your schedule, you don’t think a thing of it. The fear is gone.”
These debates aren’t confined to the five boroughs. On a Tuesday morning in Atlanta, Chicago Bulls big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson sit in the Hawks’ visiting locker room and float a few theories of their own. “It’s the distractions,” says Noah. “That’s what gets people. You can do anything in New York — anything. It’s so easy to do anything other than play basketball.”
Gibson thinks the city’s obsession with developing guards hinders the growth of big men like himself and Noah. “It’s impossible to find a team — AAU, school, whatever — that’s not completely guard-oriented,” says Gibson. “Every practice is about ballhandling. In every game, every play keeps the ball in the guards’ hands.” Both Gibson and Noah left the city — Gibson for Southern California, Noah for New Jersey. Orlando’s Maurice Harkless did the same, leaving home in Queens to finish high school in Connecticut. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” Harkless says by phone. “It’s so easy to get caught up in your own hype in New York. So many people want a piece of you. If you get away from that, you can focus on basketball.”
In Connecticut, Harkless says, “If I wanted to go to the gym by myself and get some shots up, I could do that. That’s not something I could do before I left.” Those factors make sense. But for his final point in favor of the move, Harkless makes a statement that would have sounded like sacrilege a few decades ago. “I needed better competition,” he says. Playing in New York’s PSAL, he admits, “I wasn’t getting challenged. The competition just wasn’t that good.”
Not every New Yorker is ready to concede the throne. Of the 12 NBA players who spent at least one season at a New York City high school, Lance Stephenson is one of only five who actually stayed in the city, at Lincoln, for all four years. “I never wanted to leave,” he says. “I wanted my jersey in the rafters. I wanted to be that guy. I didn’t want to do it anywhere else.”
He continues: “Everyone wants to say New York fell off, it’s not what it used to be, this and that, but we’re still on the map. I’m trying to hold on to that legacy, keep it going. A few guys around the league are doing the same thing.
“You got to look at the kids coming up. I know we at Lincoln got another kid coming to help keep it going.”
Who is it? I ask.
“Isaiah Whitehead,” he says. “Remember that name.”
Whitehead is a bullying, hard-dribbling, fully detonated 2-guard — a 6-4 McDonald’s All American who’s bound for Seton Hall. I went to see him play one January afternoon at George Westinghouse, the downtown Brooklyn high school once attended by Jay Z and the Notorious B.I.G. The game was held inside a large, cafeteria-size room that maybe, if you squinted, you might be willing to call a “gym.” I cannot tell you what the floor was made of — possibly tile, perhaps concrete, but most assuredly not hardwood. I can only tell you it was overlaid with interlocking tiles that appeared to be made of plastic, and that by locking enough of these tiles together and painting on 3-point and free throw lines, it formed something resembling a basketball court. And I can tell you that Whitehead marauded his way up and down that composite surface, sprinting past or jumping over anyone who stood in his way until, finally, with the game not quite in the bag, Lincoln coach Tiny Morton pulled his star from the game.
This, Morton later explained, was not a basketball decision. No, the choice to bench the next potential savior of New York City hoops was much simpler than that. “We just had to make sure we got out of here healthy,” he said.
So it will be nice for Morton, the city’s most accomplished high school coach, to be joining Whitehead at Seton Hall next season, where Morton has landed an assistant coach position. New York’s best player is leaving town because it’s time to graduate and take the next step toward the NBA. His coach is leaving because he can.
“This place,” Morton said, gesturing to the court, “this place is not conducive to playing basketball.”
He shook his head. “Not at all.”