by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman
What’s your secret?
That’s the question I pose to Sandy Pyonin as we dig in to the kosher dinner that our waiter has just brought to the table. It’s a simple question, but also the sum of what I want to know and why I’ve made the trip out to Elizabeth, New Jersey, a Central Jersey city located just a few miles south of Newark. Pyonin has spent the last 40 years of his life teaching some of the best athletes to ever call the Garden State home how to dribble a basketball. Anthony Avent, Al Harrington, Randy Foye, Earl Clark, Chris Gattling, Bobby Hurley and Jay Williams, just to name a few. Super sophomore Kyrie Irving is a protégé of Pyonin’s, too; the Cavaliers guard even thanked his former coach by name when he was presented the 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year award.
So yeah, Pyonin knows a thing or two about basketball. Certainly he should be able to tell me something from either a training or X’s and O’s standpoint that I’ve never heard before. Or at the least give me some kind of coaching tip, the type that he’s presumably given to a hundred Jersey kids before. One that I can then pass down to my kids one day or use to up my scoring average at the local JCC.
“How have you been able to be so successful and turn so many players into great ones?” I ask Pyonin. “What’s your secret?”
Pyonin takes a bite of a potato, looks at me and says nothing.
A second goes by and still no answer.
Another second. Pyonin is just staring at me. Chewing his potatoes.
I start to wonder whether I’ve in someway offended him. Perhaps my question was too simple that now this basketball genius is regretting ever agreeing to do the interview. Have I messed the whole thing up? It was hard enough to get in touch with Pyonin. Only after speaking to those in his circle, a group of former players and students so infatuated with the coach that they are trying to turn his story into a Moneyball-style movie, are you given access to Pyonin. No phone number, though. That you have to earn. Instead you’re given an address and a time to show up. The only thing missing is an offer that you can’t refuse.
Finally, after what seems like an hour of silence, Pyonin speaks.
“Sorry,” he says. “My wife gets upset at me if I don’t show manners so I don’t speak when my mouth is full.”
He then begins to answer my question. Sort of.
“Do we really know what planet we’re living on or what’s around us,” Pyonin asks, apparently rhetorically. “No. No one can tell you what life’s really about. You don’t even know where you go after death, so basically what I believe in is worrying about who you can help. That’s it.
“That comes from my mother.”
The Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association of Union, N.J. is not the place you would expect to see some of Jersey’s most gifted athletes honing their skills. Your first reaction when entering the building is that you must be in the wrong place. Surely the gym where Kyrie Irving learned how to manipulate a basketball in ways that few can and where Randy Foye perfected his shooting stroke can’t be located in a place where one of the first things you see as you walk in is a bulletin board with a notice for a Yiddish Vinkl class. Take a walk down the staircase, though, and through the hallway, and things start to make more sense. As the sound of bouncing basketballs gets louder and louder, you pass a wall with pictures upon pictures upon pictures of basketball players. Some of them have shorts that hang past their knees; others’ cut off at the thighs. You can hear Pyonin’s booming voice before you even open the gym doors.
Enter the gym and once again you become a bit confused. Suddenly the voice you hear doesn’t seem quite as loud and intimidating as before. The man doing the yelling looks like a surfer. Rail thin and pale skinned with floppy, curly strawberry blonde hair. About 6 feet tall. Pyonin must be running late, you think.
The players’ eyes, though, tell you all you need to know. At that moment the stare of every single member of the Road Runners—the name of Pyonin’s AAU team—is transfixed on this man. They all appear to be under some sort of spell, the kind that a man who has sent 34 players to the NBA and has helped over 500 kids earn college basketball scholarships can cast over ambitious young basketball players.
“The first time I saw him I didn’t think it was Sandy,” says Tyler Roberson, a senior forward for the Road Runners from Roselle Catholic High School headed to Syracuse next year. “I thought, like, the way my friend (who brought me there to meet him) was explaining him, I thought he’d be, like, a bigger person. But then he started talking to me about the game and I could tell it was him.”
On this afternoon, Pyonin is going through the principles of man-to-man defense. How to hedge above the perimeter and help out on a pick. How to play off the ball on the weak side. How to communicate. Basic stuff, but also required learning for every player hoping for a free college education. Eventually Pyonin lets his players play a four-on-four full court game. Parents and other coaches, each and every one of whom thinks the world on Pyonin, sit on the side and just watch.
“The thing about Sandy is that he’s selfless and he’s like a parent to every kid on the team,” says Charles Naddaff, an assistant coach for the Road Runners who was drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the seventh round of the 1980 NBA Draft (he didn’t make the team). “Whether you’re a superstar or role player or an average player who won’t even play Division III, if you want to work, he’ll work with you and develop you.”
It’s this reputation that has turned Pyonin into a magnet for Jersey kids looking to improve their skills. He doesn’t get paid to coach the Road Runners—he makes a living by teaching and coaching at Golda Och Academy, a Jewish day school and high school in West Orange, NJ, and one that named its gym after Pyonin last September—and only recently did the Road Runners start asking kids to start covering some of the costs that come with playing on an AAU travel team. (Most of the team’s funds come from donations, many of which are given by Pyonin’s former players.) For parents and guardians desperately searching for a coach they can trust, Sandy is a welcomed respite from much of the slime that contaminates AAU basketball.
“Every other team I brought my son to, they all had a ton of talent, but I realized that when you have that, learning takes a back seat because you’re really just beating every other team up” says Eddie Saintil, whose son, Hakim, plays for Pyonin and the Road Runners. “Then I came here and you had about five coaches yelling at the kids, just getting on them. And then in the games, if the kids get to face a challenge and have to learn how to persevere, that makes a difference.” Saintill pauses for a second. Pyonin has just asked Naddaff to come and take Hakim Saintill’s spot on the court. Apparently Eddie’s son wasn’t playing with an effort level up to Pyonin’s liking. Eddie sees this and then continues with his point. No objection is voiced.
“It’s all a mental process and now, yeah, Hakim is definitely more disciplined,” he adds. “You see a lot of guys in the park who can score with anybody, but they never learned how to go up against a tough defensive player or a double team. Here they get to learn those things.”
What things though?
It’s clear that Pyonin cares for his kids and not just because that relationship may one day earn him a shout-out during an NBA press conference. But kindness, while nice, is not what these kids and families are looking for. It’s great that Pyonin drives all over town in his minivan—sometimes into neighborhoods so bad that he won’t get out of the car—to drag his players to practice. But if there weren’t 34 New Jersey natives who attribute their NBA careers to working with Pyonin, no stubborn teenager would ever allow himself to be pulled out of the house or off the street by a strange, older man who was about to spend multiple hours yelling at him.
“He’s not easy to play for,” Naddaff says. “He’s a perfectionist and is always on top of the kids.”
“I’ve almost lost it a few times,” Roberson says. “I don’t think he ever stops yelling and yeah, you get upset. But you just have to know that what he wants is what’s best for you.”
“I used to quit all the time,” says Randy Foye.
So why play for him? What is he able to offer that others aren’t?
“He has a lot of great drills, but really, it’s not the drills that does it; it’s his attention to detail. It’s the way he looks at what the kids are missing and why they are doing something wrong, and he just points it out to them over and over and has them do it over and over,” Naddaff says. “Take Kyrie Irving. When I see a game on, I know his first step and move by heart because of how many times I’ve seen him do it in this gym.”