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.
Back in 1926 the architects of the church on 120th Street and Riverside Drive could never have suspected that some of the church's most important work was going to be done in the basement. They were having troubles enough working out a plan to fit a Gothic cathedral on the cramped site John D. Rockefeller Jr. had acquired on fashionable Morning-side Heights. One thing for sure, they did not leave much room below for a basketball court. The one down there now fits so snugly there virtually is no out-of-bounds, except under one basket where matters are made even more perilous by the two huge pillars that support the altar on the floor above.
Nevertheless, to kids in basketball schoolyards and playgrounds all over New York City the true shrine at Riverside is not the altar, it is the court. And its patron saint is Ernie Lorch, a 54-year-old bachelor who has run the basketball program for the past 26 years.
Among those who have worn the uniform of the Riverside Hawks are more than a dozen NBA players, such as Rodney McCray (Houston), Albert King (New Jersey) and Tony Campbell (Detroit); three 1985 first-round draft choices: Chris Mullin (Golden State), Ed Pinckney (Phoenix) and Jerry Reynolds (Milwaukee); and 1986 first-rounder Walter Berry (Portland). There are also Riverside players who are currently starring in college: Kenny Smith (North Carolina), Mark Jackson (St. John's), Bruce Dalrymple (Georgia Tech), Mel Kennedy (Virginia) and Ed Davender (Kentucky). Riverside is where city kids come when they get serious about their basketball. If they stay for a while, it means they're also getting serious about themselves. And it is understood they'll play by Lorch's rules.
December 22, 1986
Riverside really gave me an opportunity to play in tough competition. I got a lot of self-confidence and a lot of exposure. Mr. Lorch really was encouraging for me—a father image almost.
I wasn't a bad kid or anything, but I did need direction and he supplied it just by being himself. I never saw him give up on any kid. When do you have kids listen to any authority figure giving advice? And a white man in a black situation—it boggles my mind.
Lorch recalls the early days with relief, glad they're over. "Up until the late 1950s the neighborhood around the church was mostly academic because of Columbia University and other cultural institutions so close by. When new housing projects went up right around the corner in Harlem the church had to decide how it would respond to a changing constituency. It could either isolate itself or reach out to the community. Fortunately it decided to reach out, and we knew the kids would be particularly important."
As just about the only church member with basketball experience—he had been a 6-foot guard at Middlebury College in Vermont—Lorch was called upon to set up the program. "One day I went over to the Grant Projects with 12 jerseys, rounded up a dozen of the toughest kids and brought them all back to the church." Thus were the Riverside Hawks born.
Success was a while in coming. "It took me about five years to feel that I deserved to be here and to become comfortable around the kids. And it took just about that long to figure out what the kids really needed. Then in the "60s and early '70s, when things got hot up in this neighborhood, the bleeding hearts left. Only one or two of us stayed in community programs. I guess that proved I belonged."
Not everyone who wants to play for Riverside has star potential, but it is Lorch's basic strategy to use a kid's love for the game to help develop his best self. "That's the only reason why winning is important up here," he says. "Not for its own sake—although some of the other rival coaches wouldn't believe that—but as a lure. Once the winning tradition was established, kids began to respect the program here and were willing to meet some of our expectations just to play for Riverside."
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.
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!"
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.
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.
A ball heads out of bounds from a melee under the basket, and a kid dives for it, barely missing a killer pillar. But he picks the ball out of the air with one hand and flips it behind his back to a teammate breaking downcourt for a layup.
"Nice save, Davis," Lorch says quietly as the players run past."
Nice save, Ernie. Excuse me, I mean Mr. Lorch.
Sam Toperoff was a 6'4" "big man" for Hofstra University in the late '50s.