Pounding the Rock: Basketball Dreams and Real Life in a Bronx High School

Pounding the Rock: Basketball Dreams and Real Life in a Bronx High School

by Marc Skelton

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Overview

Welcome to Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, in a working-class corner of the Bronx, where a driven coach inspires his teams to win games and championships—and learn Russian history and graduate and go on to college.

In 2006, the Fannie Lou Hamer Panthers basketball team was 0-18. Since 2007, the year Marc Skelton, a New Hampshire native, took over as head coach, the Panthers' record has been 228-68, and they've won three Public School Athletic League championships and one statewide championship. This tiny 400-student school has become a powerhouse on the basketball court, as well as a public education success story and a symbol of the regeneration of its once blighted neighborhood.
In Pounding the Rock, Marc Skelton tells the thrilling story of the 2016-2017 season, as the Panthers seek to redeem an early exit from the playoffs the year before. But this is far more than a basketball story. It's a profile of a school that, against the odds, educates kids from the poorest congressional district in the country and sends the majority of them to college; of an unusual coach who studies the game with Talmudic intensity, demands as much of himself as he does of his players (a lot), and finds inspiration as much from Melville, Gogol, and Jacob Riis as from John Wooden; and of a squad of young men who battle against difficulties in life every day, and who don't know how to quit.
In a world of all too many downers, Pounding the Rock is one big up, on the court and off. All fans of basketball and of life will rise up and applaud.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385542654
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 596,475
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Marc Skelton is a former all-state basketball guard from Derry, New Hampshire. He graduated from Northeastern University, served two years in the Peace Corps in Moldova, and holds a master's degree in education and Russian studies from Columbia University. He teaches history at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx and has coached the boys' basketball team there since 2007, winning two citywide championships and one statewide championship.

Read an Excerpt

Part 1: The Preseason

Walfri

 
Walfri Restitulo has a white towel around his neck and securely tucked into his red practice jersey, and he’s bent over, madly pounding the rock against the wood floor. The towel is wet. He’s in his fourth year of high school and he’s working towards his first championship in his final season. Two years ago, if you had asked me what was the likelihood of Walfri being a starter or the captain, I’m not sure I would have said anything. He had a lot of work to do. And he has done that work, the necessary work, to become a very good player. He was cut his freshman year. His sophomore year he played in only a handful of games. His junior year he displayed a brief but dominating excellence that faded right before the playoffs. All these ups and downs seemed to drive him to show everyone that he was a very good basketball player and he was determined to play consistently. He was the player who learned more in a loss than a victory. He was at times outwardly resistant. But inwardly he was disciplined and self-critical. He was always searching for ways to improve himself. As a six-foot two-inch power forward, Walfri used his intelligence to gather rebounds. He wasn’t able to inhale rebounds off the rim like Charles. Instead he was physical. He wore guys down. He loved to play chess and he played basketball with a grandmaster’s mind. There’s no doubt in my mind when Walfri is in his forties, he will be the best player in the Over 40 League. He has a toolbox full of gambits and post moves.

When I think about Walfri’s improvement, he may be like no other player I have ever coached. He is now working on his post moves. Up and under. Baby hook. Reverse layup. Now he was averaging close to double digits in points and rebounds. The towel now resembles a yoke.

At this point Walfri is looking like a character in Ilya Repin’s painting Barge Haulers on the Volga. Walfri starts at the baseline dribbling two basketballs. Charles is behind him, holding onto Walfri’s hips for added resistance. Charles gets dragged as if he’s in an invisible sled past the free throw line all the way to half court. They switch roles. Now Charles has to dribble two balls simultaneously while Walfri crouches down and pretends to be an anchor.

At seventeen, sometime next season Charles will leave Fannie Lou as the all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks, and games played. He’s known for his dunks and quiet demeanor. If you were going to go to the beach, you would want to invite Charles. He would carry the coolers, the pails and shovels, inflatable rafts, chaise longues if necessary. Without a doubt, he is the foundation of our defense and offense. Now he is getting a lesson about hard work from Walfri. It seems Walfri carries the success of the team on his back like the towel around his neck. He is his own biggest critic. He works like this all season.

Fatigue has set in. They do this at least a dozen times. Their toil in this gym is laudable. They enjoy the hard work. After the practice was over Walfri said, “We have a lot of work to do.” Only then did I know he could lead us to a championship. He somehow knew that even after a grueling two-hour practice, there was more work to be done. He was like Mr. Bob Moses in that sense. Just because you had gone down to Mississippi and forced the Democrats to include the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the convention as delegates, the work was not done.

Walfri was impeccably cool. Sometimes too cool for school. More than once he had been seen playing cards or dice in school. He retained some habits he had picked up from his block. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he would always declare. “I finished my work.”

He was right. He always finished his work. He had an above-90 average. Walfri would stop by my room when he felt stressed-out by another teacher. One time he clearly wanted to see if could tell me his side of the story before an email or phone call could be made. He’d rushed into my room and said, “Coach, you wouldn’t believe what happened.” It was always something minor. He cajoled his teachers or used his phone in class. Never anything sordid, but his responses were defensive, not offensive.

Usually it was a case of Walfri wanting to see what boundaries he could push. He felt like he was always respectful until someone disrespected him. Then a verbal confrontation might happen. He was a gentleman until he was pushed, poked, and prodded into something he didn’t want to do, like fight. Yet he liked to argue. He was competitive. He wanted to know what you were thinking.

His first two years on the team were about Walfri pushing boundaries with me. Once, when he was a sophomore, he kept asking me why he didn’t play. I explained to him he practiced slow, so games would be like if he was on a tricycle at the Indy 500. While he had a smooth jumper it took him some time to release it, and I said it would be something we could work on in the offseason. He didn’t buy it. Therefore he continued to sit on the bench during games.

In the second quarter of a close game during his sophomore year, he went into a game.

We were on the road and it was a lively crowd. On the first possession, Walfri caught the ball near half court and, before he could turn around, was jumped by two defenders who ripped the ball from him and scored a layup. We made eye contact after the play. He knew I was right. After that moment, Walfri and I had a better understanding of each other. He needed to trust me, and I also needed him to play through mistakes.

“I took strides every day to get better — I practiced any chance I could, morning, noon and night,” Walfri once told me his senior year. I believed him. He became an essential part of the team. I didn’t intentionally minimize his playing time his sophomore year to maximize his desire to improve and reap the benefits of his heady play his senior year, but it did seem to work out that way.

He lives with his older brother, younger sister and mother. His mom is from the Dominican Republic. I never asked about his dad, and Walfri never told me anything about him. He never revealed much of his hardscrabble life in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. He did share an essay with me that he had written. In it were the things he wanted me to know: how much his mom valued education, how much basketball gave him discipline and a drive to improve himself. But it was the first line that stuck me like a pin. “Have you ever had negative influences everywhere you go?” The second line was even more illuminating. “Or having to be worried that there are dangerous people almost everywhere you go?” I was moved by the absolutes in his questions. Everywhere? In the second line he qualifies it with the adverb “almost,” and I would like to think that school, home, and basketball are where he can feel safe.

“You see and hear things you aren’t supposed to at a young age,” Walfri declared in a text once. The Bronx makes you grow up faster. Fifteen-year-olds mask their real age. Seventeen-year-olds act and function better than most adults I know; they have jobs, cars, some even have children. By nineteen some are already to retire, having lived a tumultuous life. When you regularly hear about twenty-one-year-olds being murdered, you cannot take your teenage life for granted. Why should it surprise me that when Walfri sees an eighty-two-year-old Bob Moses, he is most impressed that he’s eighty-two? He has seen too many young lives cut short.

Walfri plays through pain. His knees hurt after practice, but he never complains. During his junior year he caught an elbow at practice that left a large gash near his left eyebrow. He wears a scar there now. He wore a facemask to practice the next day. In the three years he’s played for me, he didn’t miss one practice. He played sick. He played when things weren’t going right at home. He showed the younger kids what it meant to be dedicated. Basketball is where Walfri went to escape the streets and to avoid trouble. The team all followed his lead and worked hard in practice because of him. Every championship teams needs a leader like Walfri.

Table of Contents

Preface xiii

Warm-Up 1

Part 1 The Preseason 9

Walfri

Let's Go!

School and Schoolmasters

Tryouts: October 5, 2016

Coach C

The Bronx

First Year: 2003

The Trojan Horse

Theory of Basketball

The Tale of Two Forwards

Brian Is Missing

Part 2 Regular Season 65

November

The 2016 Election

Game One Versus DeWitt Clinton

Our School

Home Opener

The Albatross

Werner Herzog Gets Me Through

Game Theory

Prince Don't Miss

The Castaway

The Death Star

Tyree Rising

The Jelly

Spies Like Us

Frankie's Leg

Apoplectic

The Shark Massacre: South Bronx Prep, Game Number One

Fannie Lou Hamer

Seven to Go

Have a Good Practice

"My Foe Outstretched Beneath the Tree"

A Second Chance

Frankie's Return

Federalists

Gogol in the Bronx

Harpoon

Part 3 Playoffs 185

NYC Hoops

The Grand Armada

Wagner

Townsend Harris

The Great Transition

Quarterfinals

The Adams Chronicles

The Rematch

Headwinds

Epilogue 229

Acknowledgments 235

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