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Hoop Dreams: How one Harlem coach pushes his players off the court

The Douglass Panthers spend the last half-hour of their Saturday afternoon basketball practice working on executing and breaking a full court press. It’s an exhausting exercise, and the last thing the team wants to do after three hours of drills and sprints.

The Panthers hustle, as sounds of squeaky sneakers and loud chatter bounce off the bare walls of the small, stifling gym. This group of 14-and 15-year-old girls looks as ferocious and polished as a team competing for a collegiate national championship. Just about all of them hope this hard work will lead them there one day, or even further, to careers as professional athletes.

It’s unlikely to happen. That’s why when practice ends they drill just as hard off the court. Of the 100 or more youth sports groups in the city, few do as much to mentor athletes as the Douglass Panthers. The Panthers’ on-the-court dedication is secondary to the work they do in the classroom. It all starts with the coach, Marvin Stevens. He monitors report cards, places kids in one-on-one tutoring sessions and offers specialized classes in standardized test preparation.

After practice, Stevens leads his players to a classroom in the Frederick Douglass Community Center in Morningside Heights, where he asks them what subjects are giving them trouble in school. Then he talks about the importance of the SAT, because he’s found that the test often stands between his players and Division I basketball. He urges them to take the exam seriously and begin preparation for success.

“The kids cannot come in the gym unless they go to tutoring class,” Stevens said.

The team operates under the auspices of the Children’s Aid Society, a non-profit organization that serves more than 150,000 children and families across the country each year. The program offers something different for athletes who come to play for Stevens—an emphatic emphasis on education.

It hasn’t always been that way. Stevens has been coaching the Douglass Panthers for 19 years. At first, his league was like most other youth programs in the city.

“I really didn’t think about it in the beginning,” he said. But it didn’t take long before Stevens realized he was doing something wrong. “I had players that were superb athletes but I couldn’t get them into major universities. I knew we needed to add education into the mix.”

So, the once-voluntary tutoring sessions at the Frederick Douglas Community Center became mandatory.

Today, Stevens produces basketball players who shine on the court and make the grade in the classroom. More than 15 of his former players over the last several years currently play women’s basketball at Division I colleges. Two of them, Epiphanny Prince of Rutgers and Shannon Bobbitt of Tennessee, faced off recently in the women’s NCAA tournament championship game. None of his players has jumped to the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Stevens knows how tough it is for them to get there.

Bobbitt, a junior at Tennessee, hopes to be the first of Stevens’ former players to make it to the pros. But she almost didn’t get her shot at Division I basketball. Low SAT scores forced her to go the junior college route before she was accepted at Tennessee. Bobbitt can’t recall what she got on the SAT’s, nor does she remember how many times she took them. But she insists her inadequate scores were not due to a lack of preparation.

“They had workshops about SAT tutoring and you couldn’t go to any of the tournaments unless you went,” Bobbitt said. “He always put school as the priority. He’s the perfect combination of basketball and academics.”

Stevens invites Bobbitt back when she’s in the city to talk to his current players about what they need to do athletically and academically to get to the next level. He feels lectures from former players like Bobbitt can strongly influence current players’ attitudes toward school.

“I feel like a role model,” Bobbitt said. “I tell the girls to set their standards high.”

Some experts argue that youth sports across the country need more programs like Stevens’.

“Our main coaching philosophy supports the double-goal coach,” said Jason Sacks of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the culture of youth sports. “The first one is winning and the second is to teach life lessons through sports. Academics are a very important piece. That’s what coaches should be doing.”

Stevens handles the basketball, but he needs help with the teaching. The organization uses student volunteers from Manhattan Community College as tutors, available every day after school and on weekends. The unpaid staff also includes some high school educators.

“Not only does this program keep kids off the streets but it keeps their minds engaged,” said Winston Heywood, a volunteer and teacher at Bronx Academy High School. “Right now, we are using old tests to help them prepare for math standardized tests.”

Most of the players come from low-income, single-parent households where their parents pay little attention to school work and have little hope of affording a college education. Stevens knows what that’s like. Growing up in Harlem, he used basketball as a way to get an education by playing for Georgia Southern University in 1967, and then as a transfer student at Western New England College. Stevens wasn’t quite good enough for the NBA, and he says his own experience has taught him that his players need good grades to back them up off the court.

“They don’t have any kind of educational support,” Stevens said. “The main thing should be to help them obtain a free education, and we use basketball as a tool to get there.”

Stevens said he’s actually lost some kids to other leagues because they don’t want to be bothered with tutors or tests. These leagues are based out of other neighborhoods in Manhattan that can afford to give players sneakers, gym bags or fund trips across the country. Stevens says the Douglass Panthers are also now considered “the poor program,” because they can’t afford that stuff.

What the Children’s Aid Society offers is restricted to academics and other recreational activities. There’s a computer lab, a book club and an occasional field trip.

Despite the attention to grades and the limited funding, the Douglass Panthers have still evolved into one of the most formidable AAU teams in the area. In April, they went 4-0 during a national tournament in Fairfax, Virginia. But Stevens knows basketball will only take them so far, so he tries to send them to school equipped with the skills to excel on and off the court.