Central Jersey’s basketball whisperer never played the game in the pros or even in college. In fact, Pyonin never even played in high school. Athletics, though, always came easy to him; he played lacrosse and soccer at Kean University, a Division III school. After graduating college about 35 years ago (Pyonin won’t give his age. “Age can be deceptive,” he says.) Pyonin started spending a lot of time at the Union Y. There he taught himself how to play basketball by watching others and by playing as many games of one-on-one as he could. One of his frequent opponents was Al Lifson, an Elizabeth, NJ native who played for North Carolina from 1952-1955.
Eventually Pyonin started training some of the players he would see around the gym. That led to random coaching offers, every one of which he accepted. The thing that’s a bit strange, though, is that Pyonin rose so quickly despite being more of a trainer than a coach. “I think I’m the best trainer, not the best coach,” he says. “I think I’m good as a coach, but when it comes to training and developing a kid, I train not only your physical attributes, but also your mental attributes. Most people don’t.”
Pyonin’s training method of choice, and the one he’s most known for, is a full-court game of one-on-one to 100. No water breaks. Ask any Pyonin player about Sandy and these games will be the first thing they’ll mention. They also get at the heart of Pyonin’s method. To him, a full-court game to some outlandish score is the great equalizer, the way a player with his skill level, one who never even played college basketball, is able to beat an NBA player on the court. (I’m told All Harrington was one of Pyonin’s conquests.) Talent is great, but, if you’re going to break down before your talent has handed you a victory, well, what’s the point? Stamina and toughness and pushing through when your body is screaming for a break, those are the things that Pyonin believes separate the Kyrie Irvings and Randy Foyes and Al Harringtons from the rest.
They are also what have separated him from every other wanna-be coach, and turned Pyonin into a coaching version of the classic sports movie cliche. The man who wasn’t born with the most talent but through hard work turned himself into one of the best. That he’s grown a bit of an ego along the way—”I was teaching a lot of things before the guys in the NBA were,” he says— is understandable.
After having dinner with Pyonin and watching him conduct a two-hour practice, the most astute basketball points I hear—“tricks of the trade” are what he calls them—are that NBA players are bad free throw shooters because they don’t practice enough and something about jumping horizontally and not vertically when taking a layup. When I ask Pyonin to elaborate on the latter, he refuses and says, “I’m going to let you figure that out.”
I spend my entire 70-minute drive home to Westchester trying to. I never do. At one point, however, while trying to solve this riddle, along with numerous others that Pyonin presented me, I do figure out the answer to my original question: I figure our what his secret is. That is, how a—for lack or a better word—goofy man with no traditional basketball background has become one of the nation’s best AAU coaches.
The answer is by simply caring. By being loyal, so much so that he’s turned down numerous offers to coach in the NBA and in college. By showing his players that he’s willing to work just as hard as them by spending countless hours serving as their chauffeurs, and, of course, playing them one-on-one. By telling kids like Randy Foye that, despite what they might be hearing from friends and family and teachers, a high school diploma and a college degree is something that they could one day earn. By demanding hard work. By recognizing what exactly it is that separates one gifted 16-year-old from another.
“It’s just his approach to the game and to coaching and to life,” Foye says. “You can see that in how he’s been able to build and keep relationships with so many of guys. It’s all about loyalty. It’s about having those values.”
By realizing that sometimes it’s the most simple of things that make all the difference.