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That Lorch happened to be taxiing a player down from the Bronx that day was equally fortuitous for Berry and for Riverside, but not at all unusual. Lorch's commitment to players who have made a commitment to the Hawks is almost boundless, and this in spite of the fact that he has other important professional responsibilities.
Ask the Riverside players what Mr. Lorch does as his regular job, and you discover they have only the vaguest notion. Most know that he is a lawyer. Some will tell you, "He's financial" or "He's all over the world" or "He makes deals." All true in a way. Ernest H. Lorch is in fact president of the Dyson-Kissner-Moran Corporation, an investment firm on Park Avenue with assets of more than $1 billion. In addition, he is a deacon at Riverside Church and past president of its board of trustees.
On a typical day during last winter's season Lorch hosted a 7:30 a.m. business breakfast at the Waldorf-Astoria, put in a full day at his office, met with an NAACP committee at 5 p.m. to establish a prison-release work program, zipped up to Riverside at 6:30 to coach a game and finished things off by driving some of his players up to the Bronx at 10 p.m. to see other Hawks playing in a high school tournament.
As a coach Lorch is almost, but not quite, as good with X's and O's as he is with hearts and minds. Tactically he is sound, especially when teaching defensive positioning and the awesome Riverside full-court press. "X's and O's are fine defensively," he says, "but offensive basketball is primarily an intuitive game, so it's very important not to inhibit the kids too much."
Lorch seems to know when to slap a soft five and when to get sarcastic, although the latter seems to come more naturally. "Go back and pick up your socks, Malcolm," he'll tell a Hawk who has just been burned by a head fake. "Don't bother with him, he's just street trash," Lorch advises a player when an opponent seems bent on starting a fight. The effect is to infuriate the troublemaker and ruin his concentration. And it gives you an inkling of how smart and tough the Park Avenue Lorch can be.
The motive behind Lorch's passionate efforts to improve the lives of his players may be difficult to comprehend until you realize that he is a deeply religious man, demonstrating his convictions in gyms, playgrounds and on the streets of New York, where they can do the most good. Young people respect him because he practices without preaching and has done so for more than a quarter of a century. A revealing gesture, among many others, is his collecting of sweaty uniforms after games. He nonchalantly throws them into the washing machine—a simple act, but one few corporate presidents are in the habit of practicing.
If Ernie Lorch is indeed a basketball saint, he is often an embattled one. Rival coaches and heads of other community youth programs tend to resent his continual success. It is particularly hard for opposing coaches to give even grudging recognition to the man who beats them all the time and does it by drawing players away from their home turfs. Lorch understands that such jealousy comes with the territory; he prefers to accept it as testimony to his effectiveness.
I was a freshman in high school when I heard about Riverside from some of the black kids. I figured if I could play with the guys down there, I could play with anybody. But there was more to it when I got there. I saw Mr. Lorch take kids that came from nothing and teach them how to be successful by using basketball, not letting basketball use them. It seems natural to always call him Mr. Lorch, it shows a little more respect.
If winning attracts talented kids to the vault deep beneath the great Gothic tower, it also draws college coaches like wayward pilgrims. During the winter season, when N.Y. high school students are not permitted to play "outside ball," Riverside's Senior squads are composed mostly of players who have used up their high school eligibility or have failed to make their school teams for a variety of reasons. To a college recruiter, a visit to a Senior scrimmage is like shopping in a bargain basement.
"We get kids high school coaches swear are uncoachable, so it isn't an easy group to control on the court," Lorch explains. "I've seen plenty of 'attitudes' in my time, but if you stick with it, things usually work out." The winter Seniors produce some of Lorch's most satisfying turnarounds.