July 22, 2015

Bronx high school basketball coach uses Melville to inspire his players


The 2013 boys basketball team at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, coached by Marc Skelton. Image via the school's website.

The 2013 boys basketball team at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, coached by Marc Skelton. Image via the school’s website.

Sunday’s New York Times includes a long, very good story by Michael Powell about Marc Skelton, the basketball coach at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx. Skelton, as portrayed in “A Long Hardwood Journey,” is intense (“’Fellas, you are in the lion’s den,’ Skelton yelled into the din, with another flourish of profanity. “’Now you have to kill the lion!’”), compassionate, and cerebral, and his players often come to think of him as a parental figure.

One of the most successful public school coaches in New York City, he places emphasis less on athleticism than on chesslike analysis, film study and team play. He digs deep into the psyches of his players, to the point that some talk of him — to his discomfort — as being akin to a father.

Skelton’s credentials are imposing – he has masters degrees in Russian studies, science education and political science -and he appreciates Fannie Lou’s educational philosophy.

“Its leaders refuse to install metal detectors, and the security guards know every student by first name. The school has a partnership with the Children’s Aid Society, and together they tutor students and counsel families. They help families overrun by poverty construct budgets and assist students in applying for financial aid for college.

Few Fannie Lou students score high on the standardized tests that prematurely define too many lives. Fannie Lou relies on portfolios rather than tests. Teenagers write, edit and rewrite. The school has won national awards for its ability to electrify lives.

But even within the school’s impressive framework, Skelton’s basketball team can boast extraordinary accomplishments. They are successful (“Last year, Fannie Lou, a small school of 386 students, came within a missed shot of a city championship. The previous year, Fannie Lou went 29-4 and won the championship.”), and while none of his players has gone on to play at a top-tier college program, there is another statistic that Skelton can wear with pride: “In this poor and working-class corner of the South Bronx, Skelton’s teams have amassed a 100 percent graduation rate.”

Skelton makes liberal use of literary metaphors, particularly those from Melville, even if the students don’t always understand them.

“One of the thrills of coaching is trying to rebuild the boat while in the middle of the sea with the ballast shifting,” he said, smiling at his overwrought metaphor. “The other possibility is the crew gets rickets and we capsize.”

Skelton has turned the corner on 40 years old. A social studies teacher, he learned Russian while with the Peace Corps in Moldova. He adores Dostoyevsky and Gogol and teaches a spring class at Fannie Lou in Russian history: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and all that.

He also loves Herman Melville, from whose port his nautical metaphors take sail. To pursue the championships is to “harpoon the whale,” Skelton said.

His teenage players don’t always understand him. They do drink in his passion and vow to achieve playoff glory.

They are so young. As Melville wrote of such voyages, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

The whole story is well worth reading, along with the truly wonderful photos by Todd Heisler. In addition to obsessing over basketball this summer, Skelton plans to read the Russian writer Vasily Grossman’s “An Armenian Sketchbook.” He has a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for jerseys, the athletic prescription glasses many of his players can’t afford, and other supplies. He writes, “Basketball is an engine that helps these young men stay in school, graduate and attend college.”

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.