Sometimes the Greatest Strides Are Made on the Basketball Court

Mark Gerson had a unique experience teaching at a tough inner-city Catholic school, St. Luke's in Jersey City, N.J., that largely serves Hispanic and African-American students. For one thing, Gerson is Jewish and hails from a privileged background. He found that the Catholic school model succeeds with flying colors in serving the underprivileged. Gerson chronicled his experiences in a book, Dispatches From an Inner-City School That Works, (New York: Free Press, $23). The Register is pleased to present excerpts from it in three installments, beginning this week.

IT IS OBVIOUS that high disciplinary hurdles—fights, drugs, an environment where students can get beaten up for wearing their school uniforms to school—will choke the learning process. And it is only a bit less obvious that students cannot learn in a classroom where talking in class, passing notes, sleeping, and more subtle manifestations of disrespect for the teacher are tolerated. In other words, before learning can begin, there needs to be discipline. And before there can be discipline, there needs to be a capacity for receiving it.

How can this capacity be acquired? At St. Luke, in one of two ways: The first was through fear—fear of being sent to Mr. Murphy, fear of having one's parent called in, fear of being kicked out of school. As soon as the fear is lifted—if students know that they can get away with wrongdoing—discipline is gone. A far more lasting source of effective discipline is trust. When students trust their teachers and administrators and are confident that strictly enforced rules advance a valuable learning process, discipline becomes natural, even the norm.

The acquisition of trust is a gradual process that escapes easy articulation. Trust is a sharp instrument. The students who came to trust me and their other teachers did so one by one, for unique reasons and in different ways. Basketball helped me acquire the trust of several students right at the beginning. Early on I told the students that I would sponsor after-school games of pickup basketball in which I would play. I stressed that everyone was welcome to participate but they had best be aware that my team would win and that I could whip any one of them in one-on-one if so challenged.

I set the first game two weeks in advance so that the students could get psyched about it and brag about how they would destroy me. And boast they did. “You ain't got no game, Mr. Gerson. You be playin'with those white boys in Short Hills who don't run to the hoop when a black man steps on the court; they run home to Mommy and Daddy,” Jamal said.

“All right, tough guy,” I replied. “We'll see next Tuesday.”

Tuesday came, and we all changed in the locker room, which was really a small and narrow hallway with benches. There were no showers; players apparently had to clean up when they got home. After changing, we climbed a few steps to the gym. A few guys had balls they were shooting. When they saw me, the trash talking started: “Mr. Gerson ain't got nothin'!” “White boy can't even shoot!” And so on. It was so merciless that I wondered if my own team would try to show me up as well. After a few minutes I said that we had had enough warming up and should get started. We shot for teams: the first five to hit a foul shot were on one team, the next five were on the other, and whoever missed sat out the first game. My team took the ball out two minutes later.

As soon as the game started, I immediately saw my students playing a style of basketball I detested. I like a controlled, passing team game, but that was not what was being played here. My students would grab a rebound and race the length of the court only to miss on a wild, though sometimes acrobatic, drive to the hoop. I hit a couple of threes early on, but they were unimpressed. Shooting in playground ball is déclassé; one is supposed to beat his man off the dribble and go strong to the hoop for a lay-up on preferably, a slam dunk. Fine. Walt had decided to guard me and took full advantage of this opportunity: ‘Mr. Gerson, you ain't got nothin’. You can't beat me…. You ain't got nothin'. Go back and play with the white boys.”

I was growing rather annoyed at Walt's rudeness, but I could not give him a detention in this circumstance. Instead, I grabbed a defensive rebound and drib-bled down the court, stopping only to tell Walt that I would fake right at the top of the key, cross over, and pass him on my way to the hoop. He grunted an indication that he did not take me seriously. So I approached the top of the key, dribbling with my left. I made a quick move to the right, and Walt went with it. Just as quickly I went back to the left and drove to the hoop for an easy lay-up.

Walt was obviously embarrassed as his teammates began to shout that he had been beaten by a white boy. Walt said that he was going to get me the same way. That would be impossible, I knew. Walt wore the scarlet letter of the undisciplined player: he dribbled too high. Every time the ball bounced off his fingers and onto the floor, it sent the same signal that a slumbering bank guard must have sent to Willie Sutton. After I scored on the layup, Walt took the ball up the floor, meeting me midway between halfcourt and the three-point arc. He was dribbling with his right hand and tried an acceleration move to his left. I stuck out my left hand and knocked the ball loose, recovering it in the next move. Jamal, who was on my team, saw what I was doing a play ahead and took off, streaking down the court. One bounce pass later, Jamal slammed the ball home for an uncontested dunk.

When word circulated that “Mr. Gerson got game,” I had passed the first test necessary to begin earning the trust of many of my students. Having successfully challenged them at their game, I could not be dismissed easily—on the court, in the classroom, or out of school altogether. I continued to use basketball as a way to continually accumulate trust. Throughout the fall, I instituted a game that a well-behaved class could play at the end of the period: stump Mr. Gerson on the NBA. The rules were simple: If any student could stump me on a question relating to the NBAand I could not stump him back, the student would earn an A on the next test. But if any detentions were given during the class, there would be no game. This strategy was effective, for students often told a classmate whose conduct might have canceled the game to behave.

The students came in with obscure questions I could not answer: for example, they would ask me how many points Patrick Ewing scored on a particular game in 1989. But their sense of basketball history was poor; no one knew, for instance, that Oscar Robertson went to the University of Cincinnati or that Wilt Chamberlain played his first professional ball with the Harlem Globetrotters. So no one ever won the contest, but this was not for lack of trying—the students asked fathers and uncles and any other knowledgeable adults about basketball history, hoping to be prepared for my question. But basketball is a broad subject, and I was secure in assuming that I could stump them by asking “Who was selected over Bill Russell in the 1959 NBA draft?” or “Who is the only Jewish player in the NBA?” Sihugo Green and Danny Schayes did not have many fans among the sophomores of St. Luke.

Two of my students, Walt and Jamal, played junior varsity basketball and loved the NBA as much as I do! So before the season started, I lent them my copy of John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are, the classic book about Bill Bradley's senior season at Princeton. We knew about Sen. Bradley from our discussions of current events, so Walt and Jamal were able to place the subject of the book in perspective. I instructed them to read the book carefully and to study how Bradley—perhaps the greatest college player of all time—developed his game. As McPhee exquisitely demonstrates, Bradley excelled by virtue of being the quintessentially disciplined player; he used an impeccable command of the game's fundamentals to dominate his far more athletic opponents. The test of Walt's and Jamal's understanding of McPhee's point was given on the court.

After school one day during the middle of the season Walt, Jamal, and I went to the gym, and I told them to shoot like Bradley. … We kept practicing until I was convinced they had it right.

By now Walt and Jamal trusted me; they would have let me teach them anything from jump shooting to proper grammar. Though each of them tried to maintain a tough guy attitude in different ways, the process of trust had begun early in the year and was cemented by basketball. But this was not the case with all students. After the Christmas break, a new student from South America, Rosa, entered my freshman homeroom. She spoke not a word of English. I saw her wandering around the third floor after lunch looking lost and terrified. She had her schedule with her but it was in English and she could not make sense of it. This problem was easy enough to solve. I turned to a Spanish-speaking sophomore who was nearby. “Anna, help that girl over there. She is new and does not speak any English. Her name is Rosa and she is lost.” One short conversation in Spanish later, the problem was solved. Later that day I gave a quiz to Anna's class. Anna finished early and came to my desk. “Mr. Gerson, if I get a B, I'll really get an A, right?”

Confused, I responded, “No, Anna, if you earn a B, you'll get a B. What are you talking about?”

“Don't I get extra credit for helping that girl?”

“What girl, Anna?”

“The girl who was lost. You asked me to help her understand her schedule, remember?”

“Anna,” I said, understanding what she was talking about, “Sit down.”

This incident stayed with me all day. Anna and I had not been close; she often slept or talked through class, did little homework, and never came to see me outside of class. I talked with her repeatedly about her school performance and called her home, but nothing could rid her of the notion that the goal of school was to graduate having done as little work as possible. Though I was initially surprised by its apparent callousness, her demand for a reward for performing the simplest human kindness was really not so odd. Anna thought of me as nothing more than a service provider and expected compensation for any expenditure of effort on her part. Without trust, everything had to be accounted for.