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American Dream
Gary Smith
August 10, 1998
A young Bosnian with NBA hopes found an unlikely refuge—a private school in Manhattan—where a zealous fitness guru and a fallen playground legend drove him to excel. But first they almost drove him crazy
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August 10, 1998

American Dream

A young Bosnian with NBA hopes found an unlikely refuge—a private school in Manhattan—where a zealous fitness guru and a fallen playground legend drove him to excel. But first they almost drove him crazy

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This is a song. I warn you: It's a long song, and it whoops and wails and washes all over the place. It's a song about a boy with a dream: to escape a war and to play in the NBA. The dream has legs as long as his, and it carries him across an ocean, across a city, through a school gate, up a flight of stairs and into a corridor. It might have been any ordinary school, with a decent coach who would give the boy a safe, solid place to land and hold on, amid all the upheaval and confusion of his life. But instead he has come to this school, this corridor and these two doors: a gray door and a blue door. Behind the doors gust entirely different forces—forces of will and yearning and pain waiting to surge out and sweep him to a place even farther away than the place from which he has come. Behind one door stands a three-time Olympian. Behind the other, a two-time convict. Behind both doors, somehow, lies what the song is really about.

The boy looks at the doors. If he opens them, his war will only be starting. If he opens them, the song will begin....

The boy's eyes rise. Above the gray door, in large letters, is a sign: TWENTY-FOUR HOURS IS ALL WE HAVE. On the door, in small letters, another sign: ADVANCED PHYSICAL TRAINING. Thumps—ba-boom, ba-boom. Faintly, the song is beginning. Heartbeat is music too.

The boy opens the gray door. Inside is a workout room, but it's not like any he's ever known. Dreamy music blown through wooden pipes wafts from speakers. A shiver runs through the boy's bare arms and legs. A window is open, and it's freezing, but none of his new teammates moves to shut it.

His eyes rove. Large, heavy balls lie in one corner, a thick tree stump in another. Ba-boom, ba-boom. Just above the shoulder-high gray padding, the walls are covered by sayings unlike any he has ever seen:

I SEE NO VIRTUE WHERE I SMELL NO SWEAT.

NEVER GIVE A SWORD TO A MAN WHO CAN'T DANCE.

IGNORANCE IS THE ROOT OF ALL HUMAN SUFFERING.

ACHIEVEMENT IS THE STORY OF A FLAMING HEART.

A man appears. No, not a man—a land formation of flesh, Appalachian shoulders and neck sloping up to a massive boulder of a head. His whistle blasts. His voice booms off the walls: "Let's go forward!" Suddenly the basketball players at The Dwight School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan are scurrying to a dozen workout stations. One boy squats with a barbell behind his neck, leaps and spins 360 degrees before landing. Another pushes himself into a handstand as his feet spider-walk up the padded wall. Another shadowboxes with dumbbells in his hands. Two boys, the sides of their right feet pressed together, grasp each other's right hand and pull with all their might.

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