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It ought to be just a game, but basketball on the playgrounds of Coney Island represents the only hope of escape from a life of crime, poverty, and despair for many young men. Here is the intimately-told story of dreams and cynicism--of the often painfully naive hopes of youth played out against the realities of SATs, the NCAA, and the brutal world of college recruitment.
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 itsyellow-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 L