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A PILLAR AND BACKBOARD OF THE RIVERSIDE CHURCH
Sam Toperoff
December 22, 1986
When it all started, a spirit of service was upon the land. The year was 1961, and it seemed right and natural to say: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Heeding this call to social action, New York's Riverside Church, as part of a larger community service endeavor, initiated a youth basketball program. The team was called the Riverside Hawks. And, behold, it was very good.
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December 22, 1986

A Pillar And Backboard Of The Riverside Church

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Because so many young people are written off in the urban wasteland, or, far worse, learn to write themselves off, what Lorch expects of them, off the court as well as on, has been chiefly responsible for his success.

"There isn't a lot that's reliable in their lives, so we supply consistency above all," Lorch says. "But if you can earn a kid's respect, make him respect himself and at the same time show him you care, it's so easy to turn a kid around. We have high and firm expectations for how kids are to behave themselves in school and on the streets."

Very matter-of-factly Lorch will tell a talented player trying out for one of the Hawks teams, "Unless I get word that you're back in school and going to class, you're not playing here." The athlete can count on three things: First, Lorch means it; second, the responsibility is the player's; third, if he meets the coach's expectations, Lorch will provide almost any support—academic tutoring, especially—the kid may require to have a shot at a college basketball scholarship at some level. And the commitment won't end there: Ernie Lorch stays in touch from the moment someone becomes a Hawk until he has established himself in the world.

The Riverside program has four age groups—Biddy (11-13), Midget (13-15), Junior (15-17) and Senior (17-19). During the long winter season (October-April) there is usually enough player demand for Riverside to field two teams at each of the four levels. In late spring and summer, so many Riverside teams play in leagues and tournaments around New York that it is almost impossible to keep track of their schedules. Typically, about 300 players, girls included, wear the Riverside uniform each year. Lorch is coach of the Junior and Senior teams, and he needs a staff of eight coaches and assistants to make sure things run smoothly during 11 months of full-time activity.

Not all of Lorch's attempted turnarounds are successful. Olden Polynice, the former center for the University of Virginia, was one who looked as if he had made it until he was caught shoplifting over the summer and kicked off the Cavalier team. He left school and is now playing in Italy. Other Lorch projects have futures that are already behind them. The odds against them succeeding are sometimes too great from the tip-off. Failure stings, nonetheless. "Some of these kids," he says with defensive detachment, "have already been programmed to self-destruct from the moment they get here. And there's not much you can do about it, even though you try your best."

Lorch makes regular late-night phone calls, for example, to David Edwards, a 16-year-old sophomore with a rare basketball talent, trying by constant encouragement to make the crucial difference in a destructive home environment. "David has struggled academically, but now he's beginning to understand how important it is, especially when he sees other Hawks being successful." Except when he's coaching, Lorch's manner tends to be tightly controlled, even during those emotional moments when the one concern is salvaging—or losing—an individual life.

One of the most successful of Lorch's projects has been Kenny Anderson, point guard for Archbishop Molloy High School, the New York City Catholic school champs. Only a sophomore, Anderson is already considered a blue-chipper in college coaching circles. "Kenny is really stressing his studies this year and has pulled his average above 80," says Lorch. That success is the latest addition to a continuing Riverside tradition.

I saw Mr. Lorch help guys who weren't such great ballplayers, like with getting them jobs and all sorts of things like that. What he did for me was unbelievable; that's why I gave him the ball I scored my 1,000th point with at St. John 's. Because it meant so much to me, and without him I would never have had the chance.
—WALTER BERRY

Ernie Lorch's normal deadpan cracks when he recalls the first moment he laid eyes on Berry. "I went up to the Bronx to pick up one of our kids, to take him to a game. While I was waiting I noticed this awkward kid shooting around by himself, and he's throwing everything in. So when my player showed up I asked him to introduce me to Walter. We were having tryouts for the Juniors that day, so I put Walter in the car." Berry was a Hawk by nightfall.

"The best thing we did for Walter right away was to get him to go back to school—he had dropped out. At least that way he had a chance to play junior college ball, if he stuck with school. The worst thing I did was try to change his release. It looked so strange. When I finally realized that was the only way Walter could shoot the ball I wised up. Some coaching!"

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