Where boys become men
Small, suburban N.Y. gym draws big basketball talent
PORT CHESTER, N.Y. -- When Sylven Landesberg, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound Virginia signee, strolled into the second floor gym at Our Lady of Mercy School last Wednesday, he wore Cavalier navy blue and orange and carried a McDonald's All-American bag on his back. Two hours later, after leading the Metro Hawks AAU team to a CYP tournament title, he moved more slowly, holding the game's MVP trophy in his right hand and wearing a nascent bruise with a drop of blood under his right eye. "This is jail ball in here," says Landesberg, a three-year veteran of the single-elimination challenge who scored 30 points in the final. "Nothing comes easy."
Free to play in spacious college arenas now, Landesberg left the happy meal-sized gym, body intact, not that the facility -- which measures 20 feet shorter and 5-10 feet thinner than an NBA court -- and its inhabitants, did not try to break him. "You're soft!" yelled one fan as Landesberg was leveled on a left-handed lay up attempt.
Another said, "If you can't take the mugging, get out of the gym!"
For 62 years, locals here in this New York City suburb near the Connecticut border have come to witness an annual urban flight of talent. From Connie Hawkins and Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham to Bobby Hurley and current Kansas point guard Russell Robinson, the area's top prep prospects have come to tighten their games. "We have youth-league parents who come in and say the gym is too small for the children," says Lou Larizza, a homebuilder who has attended the tournament since he was a youth. "I tell them to come back in late March, early April and see who squeezes in here."
Admission at the door is $5 for adults and $2 for children, but all who enter quickly realize there is more bang-for-your-buck. One night in 1966, the tourney, which uses the funds raised to run the native Catholic Youth Program, had its best night. On the court, Calvin Murphy played for the Stamford All-State Extinguishers and Dean "The Dream" Memminger for the Bronx Stars. Charging $1 for children and $2 for adults, organizers almost had to lock the doors.
"People were all over the place, including sitting along the basket stanchions," says Joe Bellofatto, the tournament organizer of 22 years, who keeps both the game and gate books. This year, in front of a semi-packed house, first-time participant, Mookie Jones, a 6-6, 190-pound shooter from Peekskill, N.Y. who will matriculate to Syracuse next season, took his first lumps on early layups. "After the first four times up and down, I was like, 'OK, this is going to be some Big East style banging up here'," Jones says.
The preferred defense in the gym is a turn-the-screws pressing attack, which takes advantage of the seemingly closing walls. Both team benches and the single row of courtside seats are actually in bounds. Whether playing inside the red line or outlying green line, the inbounds-out-of-bounds dynamic grays as the games grow more heated. "If it hits a fan, you keep it playing unless there is a bad ricochet and causes a disadvantage," says Kevin Donohue, who has been a referee for 25 years. "There are no nickel-dimers called here, either."
In order for ball handlers to negotiate the taut straits, a certain tack is needed. Not to be lost in the tales of "Half-court" Ernie Kobb, who would pull up and drain shots with ease from center court or Hawkins' looping dunks is the fact that there has never been a three-point shot taken from any of the courts four corners. The green three-point line runs into the sideline just under the foul line, requiring an adept skill set to maneuver in such constriction. "Taking the corner on a defender is like dribbling in a phone booth," says recruiting guru Tom Konchalski, who has attended games since 1973.
To the old guard and new guard alike, the tight quarters are a testing ground. Upon entering the second floor, green books greet all comers with lists of former MVPs. From Hawkins to Jamal Mashburn and Elton Brand, their performances correctly portended future success. "The Rucker gets a lot more ink," says Willie Worsley, who played in the tourney before being a part of Texas Western's 1966 NCAA championship team. "But playing in that indoor gym was something that was prestigious to us."
While guards enjoy the run of the gym, some big men shrink their games to compete and others establish their own pace. Louisville signee Samardo Samuels, a 6-9, 235-pound Jamaican bruiser who was also a McDonald's All-American, returned for the fourth straight year last week. "It's so small, you can get 40 even when you're not in the best shape," says Samuels. "Less running works."
Three years ago, Landesberg, then a rail-thin budding talent playing alongside the likes of Louisville forward Derrick Caracter, was held scoreless in his CYP debut. Each spring since, he returned, taking the ride north from the Flushing section of Queens. A week removed from playing on the biggest stage of his career in the McDonald's game at Milwaukee's Bradley Center, Landesberg was back once more to the smallest, beating a team led by West Virginia-signee Kevin Jones. By the time he had dressed and readied to leave last Wednesday, he was asked if he was happy not to have to play again in the gym. "Yes," he said.
After a moment's pause, he added, "The points don't come easy, but you don't outgrow this place."