Take a kid like Nate Poindexter, last year's top scorer and a junior college recruiter's dream. At 6'2" he is a deadly long-range shooter and a sylphlike driver. After being cut from his Bronx high school team, he dropped out of school—precisely the pattern of self-destruction Lorch has seen for decades. "But as soon as Mr. Lorch told me there was a place for me at Riverside, I wanted to change my life," Poindexter says.
Lorch arranged a tutoring program for Poindexter, as he does for most dropouts and weak students, and Nate received his State Equivalency Diploma this year. Poindexter is now at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, knowing full well that Division I basketball is a possibility if his classwork goes well.
Success stories like Poindexter's have become fairly standard for Lorch and Riverside. More unusual is the tale of Malcolm Hollensteiner, a Hawk teammate, who came to the church after graduating from prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Hollensteiner's pedigree is not typical Riverside Hawk: His father is a wealthy land developer; his mother writes books about etiquette under her maiden name, Letitia Baldridge, and was Jackie Kennedy's social secretary in the White House.
Hollensteiner wasn't satisfied with how his basketball talent had developed at Deerfield, so he delayed college, took a job in New York City and gave himself a year at Riverside to work on his game. His size—6'10", 220 pounds—was never in question; neither was the size of his heart.
"I just showed up one night and wouldn't take no for an answer," is how he recalls the difficulty he had joining the team and breaking the ice at Riverside. "Mr. Lorch rode me a lot at first, but I needed it because my fundamentals were so bad. Eventually, I found the pride of playing where so many great players preceded me was infectious. And where you don't even think about color once you're accepted."
Even though he had a number of scholarship offers after his year with the Hawks, Hollensteiner chose to go to Harvard, which has never won an Ivy League basketball championship.
The future at Cambridge may be particularly bright. Two other Hawks, Ralph James and Travis McCready, New York Catholic school stars, are interested in going Ivy and have the academic credentials to be accepted at that level. Says Lorch proudly, "Both are inner-city kids who have over 1,300 college boards and are thinking Harvard. With Malcolm already there, the entire frontcourt might be Riverside Hawks in a couple of years. We'd better be careful; we might be losing our reputation."
Although Lorch welcomes college coaches to his gym, he makes it abundantly clear that any shady types, those basketball middlemen who try to peddle players to schools and vice versa, are not. "I've been around long enough to know who they are, and they know how I feel. So they stay away from the gym."
For legitimate coaches who, for one reason or another, can't find their way to Morningside Heights, Riverside teams are showcased in cities all over the continent. Last year, Montreal, Phoenix, Miami, New Haven and Boston were on the itinerary. "The national exposure was important," says Rodney McCray. "But so was the experience of traveling, of dressing and acting properly in strange places. Mr. Lorch gave us all a taste of what it would be like when we went away to college."
So there, night after night, stands Ernie Lorch, directly beneath the altar of the church that John D. Rockefeller built. The top buttons on the vest of his three-piece business suit are open, a whistle is in his mouth. He's running the Juniors through a typically tough scrimmage, stopping play every time he spots a mistake, and by his standards that's often indeed.