The Rise And Fall of NYC’s Riverside Church AAU Hoops Dynasty
The program’s reign and demise, and its effect on the city’s grassroots circuit.
by Alejandro Danois
It’s an August evening in 1987, and as a blanket of humidity covers the NYC skyline, the epicenter of the amateur basketball universe is Columbia University’s Levien Gym, where the The Daily News Golden Hoops Tournament is ready to tip off.
Typically, this is a quiet Harlem enclave overrun with acne-faced, khaki wearing Ivy League kids.
But not on this night.
Tonight, the streets are crammed with ballers, old timers, hustlers and B-boys with hi-top fades and mouths full of gold teeth. Most of them are trying to squeeze some digits from the stunningly curvaceous honeys sporting jazzy asymmetrical hairstyles and cumbersome earrings.
As the loud music bumps from the Audi 5000′s and topless Jeep Wranglers double-parked on the street, there’s activity galore in the festival-like atmosphere outside. Evidence of the robust crack economy is in full effect.
But the real action is indoors.
Inside, the cozy gym is hotter than fish grease. But those lucky enough to get in don’t seem to mind. Watching the teams representing the gold standard of AAU basketball—the Bronx-based Gauchos, the New Jersey Road Runners and the Riverside Hawks—vie for the championship trophy makes the heat tolerable.
The talent on the court is enough to make John Calipari blush: The Road Runners are repped by Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, Luther Wright, Jerry “Sky” Walker and Chris Jent. The Gauchos feature Arnold “The A-Train” Bernard, Andre McCullough, Dave Edwards and Carlton “Dunkin” Hines. But the A-list headliners are balling for Riverside: St. John’s heralded recruit Malik Sealy, future Syracuse star Adrian “Red” Autrey, future North Carolina starter Brian Reese and the No. 1 high school player in all of the land, Queens native Kenny Anderson.
Riverside rolls in the semis to defeat The Gauchos as Sealy stuffs the stat sheet with 25 points, 13 boards, five steals and four blocks. Anderson hands out more assists than welfare and runs a superb floor game.
Anderson saves his best game for the final as he out-duels Hurley in a classic point-guard match-up.
On this night, New York’s basketball superiority is affirmed. And when the smoke clears, Riverside sits on its accustomed throne.
In 1961, Reverend Robert Polk, the leader of the white, upper-middle class Riverside Church, tapped a young corporate attorney named Ernest Lorch as his point-man to bring in kids from the surrounding Harlem community.
Lorch (pictured on the far right with Ron Artest next to him)—a former college basketball player—started baseball, softball and basketball programs as a means of community outreach for the church located at 120th Street and Riverside Drive, where Manhattan’s Upper West Side begins its transition into Harlem. The stated goal was to use sports to open up opportunities for underprivileged kids.
Contrary to popular opinion—distilled and distorted through the filter of time—Riverside Church was not a trailblazer in NYC amateur hoops. What Riverside did was nearly a model of the Boys of Yesteryear, a club established in 1932 with the intent to make an impact on youth through sports.
The Boys of Yesteryear had a direct link to the Harlem Rens, the first all-black, African-American-owned professional basketball team formed in 1923. Eric Illidge, the longtime president of the Boys of Yesteryear, was once the traveling secretary for the Rens who, for two decades, were one of the nation’s most dominant basketball teams—white or black.
The Boys of Yesteryear, under the guidance of athletic director Ollie Edinboro, was a program that wanted its athletes to be keen on developing organizational and leadership skills. Thus, older players who played in leagues throughout Harlem also worked with boys age 8 to 14 years old who played on midget teams in the Fish League.
“We had to recruit players from our neighborhoods and schools, coach and organize the teams,” said Nathan White, who played with the club in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “We were responsible for running the tournaments, keeping the books, running the clock and sometimes refereeing. Mr. Ollie was concerned with teaching, developing skills as a player and as a human being.”
Ernest Lorch studied the work of Ollie Edinboro and—using the Boys of Yesteryear blueprint—started his own program at Riverside.
“The Boys of Yesteryear was the first real program, the most prestigious,” says Garry D. Howard, the editor-in-chief of Sporting News, who is from New York and was guided by Edinboro. “It was run by strong black men and imbued some serious self-esteem in a lot of young men.”
At the start, Riverside’s basketball program was nothing special, just 12 kids playing against other local churches and recreation centers. But they were incubating on the periphery of the Garden of Eden of organized summer basketball, the Holcombe Rucker League.
In the 1960s, Harlem was ablaze in a great era of basketball as its street corners, barbershops and front stoops were filled with the animated tales from the Rucker Pro-Am—like “Jumpin” Jackie Jackson pinning Wilt Chamberlain’s shit to the backboard, or Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond dropping 60 points on Brooklyn’s young phenom, Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins.
At the perfect intersection of time, location and hoops synergy, Riverside Church basketball blew up. By the early ‘70s, Riverside had over 100 kids, and the best traveled the country playing in tournaments.
And Riverside was not alone. In 1965, Lou d’Almeida founded the Gauchos, and the two programs would eventually push one another to the point where—similar to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s epic battles—each would elevate to rarefied air.
But there was a cost. Off the court, competition for the city’s best players was intense. It was New York street-style free agency, and the numerous inducements and under-the-table deals determined who played where.
That’s why big names like Rod Strickland, Pearl Washington and Lloyd “Swee’ Pea” Daniels could be found suiting up with Riverside at Harlem’s King Towers one week, and then wearing the uniform of the Gauchos in a tournament in Israel the next.
Both clubs were equal in terms of talent and financing. The difference came in perception. The Gauchos were seen as renegades, while the Hawks as prestige with their ties to Riverside Church.
But don’t let the perceptions fool you. Everybody played the same “game.” Riverside and the Gauchos just upped the ante.
As the desire to outdo one another grew, the Shaq vs. Kobe-like animosity increased and the expenditures skyrocketed. Eventually, the Boys of Yesteryear and other programs faded away in the late 1970′s, when men like Ollie Edinboro stepped away from directing their programs.
The stock in Riverside and the Gauchos shot up like dope fiends. And when the Gauchos plucked the great backcourt of Angel “Munchito” Cruz and Henry “Hank” Edwards from the Boys of Yesteryear in the mid-to-late ‘70s, they were considered by many to be equals.
“Riverside and the Gauchos gave birth to a newer generation of NYC player,” says Howard, who occasionally suited up for the Gauchos. “They came along with big money, but there was no love. And the players were young. They were like, ‘I’m gonna get what I can get!’”
In the ‘80s, two unrelated parties joined forces that helped blast Riverside into the stratosphere.
1. College presidents passed legislation that limited recruiting during the school year
2. And Sonny Vacarro, the Nike grassroots basketball czar, began showering cash on elite AAU programs.
Suddenly, college coaches no longer had to scour the country for talent, opting instead for some one-stop shopping at a few premier summer events. The result: The bulk of their recruiting was wrapped up by the tip of the college season.
And as the money flowed, the Hawks’ travel itinerary went international. Young brothers from the NYC housing projects began to rock their colored suede Adidas, Gazelle glasses and Le Tigre shirts on the streets of London and Paris while playing in tournaments overseas.
Tarik “Twin” Campbell, a mercurial young point guard from Harlem, was a first-hand witness to the change.
“I was playing with Kenny Anderson on a rival team (the T.S. Bucks) that competed with Riverside,” Campbell said. “The cats with the most talent wound up filtering toward the church.”
Campbell went to “the church” as well, suiting up for Riverside in 1984 when he was 13. He stepped into an institution with better facilities, top notch coaching and a superior organizational structure—built-in advantages at Riverside that no other teams could compete with.
“When I went to Puerto Rico with the T.S. Bucks, we had to do all kinds of fundraising—selling candy and raffles to make it affordable, and moms still had to struggle to pay,” said Campbell, who later attended Harvard, where he broke the school’s all-time assist record. “With the church, you didn’t worry about travel, airfare, hotels and meals. It was all taken care of. That was the lure, traveling and playing with the best players in the city.”
Campbell’s first trip with the church took him to Scottsdale, Arizona. His teammates included Malik Sealy, Adrian Autry, and Brian Reese.
The power of “the church” led to separate, respectable AAU programs funneling their top players to Riverside like minor league farm teams. Chris Mullin, Albert and Bernard King, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson are just a sample of cats from Brooklyn to the Boogie Down Bronx who, at one time or another, sported the Riverside jacket.
“That Riverside jacket was serious,” Campbell said. “It was a badge of talent.”
Lorch emerged was one of the most influential men in basketball, so powerful that coaches like Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech) made sure to stay close to him. If you wanted any chance of snagging a blue-chip recruit from New York City, you had to have a relationship with him.
He wasn’t hard to find. If you turned on ESPN you saw Lorch, who had amassed a multi-million dollar personal fortune practicing corporate law, seated behind Lou Carnesecca and the St. John’s University bench at Alumni Hall and Madison Square Garden.
At the time, St. John’s was a nationally relevant, perennial top-10 team flushed with the talent that flowed in from the Riverside Church program.
During the ’90s, the Riverside roster was a Who’s Who in basketball: Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest), Erick Barkley, Kareem Reid, Lamar Odom and Elton Brand played together on a Riverside team that obliterated all competitors.
Other great programs like the Gauchos (Rod Strickland, Felipe Lopez, Stephon Marbury, Jamal Mashburn and Lloyd “Sweet Pea” Daniels) and the Long Island Panthers (Lamar Odom also played with them, along with Khalid El-Amin and Charlie Villanueva) had great players.
But Riverside, in terms of ball, was The Notorious BIG.
“It was great,” Campbell said. “It was like playing for the Bulls or the Lakers during the heydays.”
On July 30th, 1999, a Riverside team led by Omar Cook, Willie Shaw, Kyle Cuffe and Andre Sweet was undefeated entering the semifinals of the Nike Summer National Basketball Championship in San Diego. Playing against an Illinois Warriors team, it was a foregone conclusion that Riverside would bring the title home to New York.
Instead, the Hawks got destroyed by Dwyane Wade, Darius Miles and the Illinois Warriors, 84-36.
A few years later, the aura and mystique of the program would be gone for good.
In April 2002, the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau initiated a criminal investigation against Lorch on allegations that he sexually molested Robert Holmes, a former Riverside player during the 1980′s.
In an affidavit, Holmes said the sexual abuse began when he was 12. At the time, Holmes was in prison on a gun-possession charge, and he claimed that the sexual abuse is what led him to a life of crime.
For some, the allegations seemed to add up since many had questioned why Lorch—during Holmes’s gun trial—admitted to giving his former player $2 million as a business investment between 1997 and 2000.
At the time, Holmes, a man with a considerable rap sheet, had no business education or experience. He spent much of the money on luxury cars, a failed record label and a Harlem nightclub.
After two other former players stepped forward with similar stories, the church hierarchy requested that Lorch distance himself from the program during the investigation.
Lorch resigned as the program director but—as he denied the allegations—he hardly disappeared. He was a constant presence at games and appealed to church officials, trying to reassert control over the program.
In the winter of 2004, the church rejected a proposal by Thomas Rizk, a retired real estate executive whose son played at Riverside, which appeared designed to get Lorch back on board.
Lorch broke ties with Riverside and eventually took the program’s top coaches, brain trust and considerable resources to a new club, the Metro Hawks.
And just like that, the Riverside dynasty crumbled.
Walk into Riverside Church now and chances are you’ll still occasionally hear the sounds of basketballs bouncing in the cramped basement gym.
But things have changed.
The program remains. But its fearsome reign is a relic of the past.
And the impact?
Just look at St. John’s, which had its last run at national prominence in 1999 when Riverside alums Ron Artest and Erick Barkley helped the team get within a whisker of the Final Four. The program still hasn’t recovered from the shutdown of its talent pipeline.
Riverside’s biggest New York rival, the Gauchos, had also faced some heat in the 1990′s when founder Lou d’Almeida was accused by a former player of sexual abuse.
Those accusations were never substantiated, and charges were never filed. And the Gauchos rebounded, with alumni like Kemba Walker and Taj Gibson currently on the NBA stage, and with Russ Smith playing a major role in the University of Louisville’s NCAA championship this year.
But the New York AAU scene is now completely different. While the Gauchos have a much diminished presence, the Metro Hawks and Riverside Church Hawks are irrelevant on the national landscape.
Right now, Team Scan, featuring future Syracuse Orangeman Chris McCullough, and the Juice All-Stars, with Lincoln High School’s phenomenal guard Isaiah Whitehead, sit atop of the city’s AAU hierarchy.
The man behind the scandal that shook the foundation of New York’s AAU scene, the Riverside Church Hawks founder Ernest Lorch, died last summer at the age of 80 in an assisted living facility in Yonkers, NY.
On June 17, 2005, the city of New York dedicated the playground on St. Nicholas Avenue, between 140th and 141st Street, to Mr. Ollie Edinboro. Among those in attendance for the ceremony were city officials and many of the Boys of Yesteryear — the forerunners of the Riverside and Gauchos programs.
The aura that once surrounded the Riverside Church program amid that bustle of activity on that August evening in 1987 is long gone, swallowed by a sea change in the city’s AAU basketball scene and Harlem’s transitioning demographics.
But Gary “Twin” Campbell—who went on to play at Dartmouth—remembers, like it was yesterday, when he walked into the church for the first time with his brother, Tarik.
“You were coming into this huge spectacle of a building and practicing your own religion,” Campbell said. “It’s ironic looking back on it now—the rock, the hoop, the hardwood. We worshiped it as feverishly as you could.”
Reflecting on the current state of Riverside basketball, Campbell sighs and shakes his head.
“To see where it once was, and how far it has fallen, is truly sad,” Campbell says. “But to see it and be a part of it in its heyday? Man, it was just a special place during an amazing era of basketball in New York.”