A Wonderful Life
How one math teacher impacted Mount Vernon’s storied basketball program.
by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
For the past 40 years, Mount Vernon, NY, has been the home of one of the greatest high school basketball programs in the country. From its nine New York State Public High School Athletic Association titles to its numerous graduates who have gone onto have prolific NBA careers (with Gus and Ray Williams and Ben Gordon being three of the most prominent), in this time period, the Mount Vernon High School basketball team has consistently played at a level that only a handful of high schools have ever reached.
But how has this happened? How did a public school 30 minutes north of Manhattan in a city with a population of around 67,000 turn its boy’s basketball program into one so exceptional, it could be the focus of a basketball version of Friday Night Lights?
The answer is community. Yes, the Mount Vernon High School boy’s basketball team has had some great coaches and some fantastic players. There is no doubt about it. But if wasn’t for the surrounding community, none of them would have ever had the ability to consistently succeed the way they have.
No individual better represents this community support than Carolyn Walters.
The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” was invented with Carolyn Walters in mind; there aren’t many 65-year-old, 5-5 white women who consider themselves basketball junkies. But that’s exactly what Carolyn Walters, a math teacher who taught at Mount Vernon High School from 1970-2004, is. Talking to her about the history of the Mount Vernon basketball team is like talking about American history with Matt Damon’s character from Good Will Hunting. She has stories upon stories about the Knights of Mount Vernon, and, after attending hundreds of Mount Vernon games during her 34-year tenure, seems to remember everything about them.
Have just one half-hour conversation with Walters and you’ll know the staring lineup of the Gus Williams-led 1971 team that Walters says “put Mount Vernon on the map,” nearly every Mount Vernon graduate who went on to play Division I basketball and what college they played at, and how Gus Williams played his first varsity game with an injured finger that apparently was so serious, it prevented the future NBA champion from being able to attend his math class with Walters earlier that same day.
“Towards the end of the season, the varsity team used to always bring up a player from the JV team, and the day Gus was called up for the first time. That day he came into my class and said, ‘My finger is hurting, I need to go to the nurse,’” Walters says as she rattles off memory after memory and fact after fact about Williams. “Later that afternoon, I went to the gym to watch the game and I saw Gus on the floor. I said to him, ‘I guess your finger is OK.’ The nurse must have fixed it.”
During her time at Mount Vernon, Walters has formed life-lasting relationships with many of her students, every one of which she is grateful for. None, however, appear to touch the special bond that she and Williams formed. When Williams had his No. 1 jersey retired by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2004, Walters was there. When USC inducted the two-time NBA All-Star into its Athletic Hall of Fame, Walters was there. When Gus faced his younger brother Ray in the NBA, Walters brought a cake to the family’s post-game party and gave the winner the honor of cutting it.
“Gus and I are very good friends,” Walters says with a smile. “When I first had him [as a student], he wasn’t a great student, but then he got on to the basketball team and realized he had to do well in order go to college. And when the 1971 team started playing really well, well going to college kind of became a reality and he realized he had to work.”
Skeptics will often hear about a character like Walters and think the worst. They’ll conjure up images of the shady history teacher or the sleazy car dealership general manager who seem to be a little too interested in the athletic careers of a bunch of 16-year-olds. And unfortunately, in most cases, they would probably be right. But with Walters, these comparisons couldn’t be any farther from the truth.