Johnny Mathis sprawls across the bright red bleachers, his six-foot-seven frame spilling over the narrow gymnasium seats. He’s at home here in “Gym no. 2” of the John F. Kennedy Educational Campus in the Bronx, but it’s not just because he’s been the boys varsity basketball coach for the championship-winning Kennedy Knights for the last 27 years.
It’s because his name is up there on the wall as well, alongside the banners and flags awarded to Kennedy’s many sports teams over the decades. It’s because the Coach Mathis Arena, as it was renamed last year, is a place where the 67-year-old knows the faces and shakes the hands of countless students from the campus’ 2,000-strong student body, and where he still musters enthusiasm for each year’s new crop.
“He’s a legend,” says one of his players, junior Freya Luis.
And the Kennedy name is known around New York City, thanks in part to Mathis’ players whose achievements over the years have included a dozen borough championships, two citywide championships and a shot at the state title. In his time there, Mathis has seen what was once the huge John F. Kennedy High partitioned off into five different, smaller schools – Marble Hill School for International Studies, Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, Bronx School of Law and Finance and Bronx Theater School. John F Kennedy High also stuck around, in name at least, albeit in a smaller form.
But the sporting dominance he and other coaches helped foster belies deeper problems at Kennedy– the only one of the smaller schools to keep the name after the 2002 reorganization. After a slide in graduation rates and poor overall report cards, late last year the Department of Education proposed a phase out plan of the high school over four years, stating it could not be turned around and “cannot provide a high-quality education to its students.” In February 2011, the Panel for Education Policy voted to go ahead with the closure. Kennedy will not have a ninth grade class next year.
The decision leaves Coach Mathis, who’s been named coach of the year by Newsday, the Daily News and the New York Post, and his esteemed basketball program in an uncertain place. While he takes players from all the schools housed on the campus, more than half of the returning team come from Kennedy High. Kennedy seems to have drawn those most interested in his sport, he says, and he and his coaches pride themselves on nurturing talent from the junior varsity level – including the ninth grade players they’ll now be missing. Furthermore, he says there was some initial confusion among students and parents over whether the school’s closure would also close the athletics department.
“I think over the years we have established that reputation and quite a few players have come in because of our reputation,” he says. “Some students think that we are closing down our sports department entirely. It’s going to take two or three years for people to realize we are still Kennedy.”
Among those who’d been drawn to Kennedy because of Mathis and the strength of his basketball team was David Hardy. Hardy, now 38, played for Kennedy from 1989 until his graduation in 1992 and when it came to enroll his son, also named David, into a high school he didn’t think twice about where to send him.
“I talk to my coach like he’s my second father; I hug this man,” Hardy says. “This is a place that I grew up in and it’s the same for my son. It’s a second family.”
Hardy says it’s difficult to believe the school he considered one of the best in the Bronx will be shut down. His son will be a senior next year and, like him, is destined for college and a career. But he concedes not all Kennedy’s students – or their parents – are as focused on such goals.
“I was there for four years, I did good, I went off to college but I’ll say it again, the kids have to want it,” he says.
But the future is not entirely bleak. In Kennedy’s place will come two charter schools, New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities and the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science. Both will open at the end of the summer with new ninth grade classes and will share space until the closure of Kennedy is complete in 2014. New Visions already manages the other four schools on the campus, although these would be the first charters to be housed in the building.
Mathis is optimistic about the incoming schools. He says that one of his biggest challenges as a coach is to keep his players academically eligible under Public Schools Athletics League rules and it’s why each afternoon he can be found pacing the halls of the sprawling campus, making sure his boys are in study hall, even in the off-season.
“The thing about being a high school coach a lot of people don’t realize is you become not only their coach, you’re the social worker, you’re the psychiatrist, you’re the trainer,” he says. “Even if you want to be the bad guy, you got to be the good guy too, you got to know them.”
His best seasons, he says, have been the ones where the players are also academically strong because it’s meant he can coach them together as a team and not risk losing players because of poor grades. The New Visions charter schools, with extended school days and promises of rigorous academic programs, may help him out on that score.
Lewis Black, incoming principal at New Vision’s Charter High School for the Humanities, says all new students will be encouraged to take part in Kennedy’s diverse athletics program, which not only includes basketball but also football, gymnastics, volleyball and tennis teams.
“We believe that those kinds of activities can only be good for a young person’s growth and development,” he says, adding sports would also help promote interaction between the charter and public school students.
Opportunities to play sport were often brought up by parents at information sessions leading up to New Visions’ April 15 enrolment lottery, Black says, although he also won’t know until June whether those children whose numbers were called out were the same ones who showed an interest.
But how many kids drawn to the charter schools will want to play basketball? And how long will it take for people to realize that it’s not the Knights that are disappearing but merely the school that gave them their name? These are the questions playing on Mathis’ mind and are ones that could dictate the future for him and his players, as well as define the legacy of the team.