Back in February, 2011 we ranked the all-time best high school basketball programs in America. Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall came in 20th. The person considered most responsible for the program’s success is long-time coach Bernie Kirsner, who will be honored tomorrow around 1 pm (halftime of the Erasmus Hall-Lincoln football game) at Erasmus Hall’s football field (McDonald Avenue between Bay Parkway and Avenue M). There will also be a gathering in Coach Kirsner’s honor after the game at Junior’s Restaurant (386 Flatbush Avenue Extension).
Wondering who this guy is that his former players are so eager to celebrate? Bernie Kirsner was a head boys basketball coach for a total of 25 years, compiling a won-loss record of 482-141. A five-time New York City Coach of the Year, he sent scores of players to college, and several to the NBA. His most famous product was Billy “The Kangaroo Kid” Cunningham, who went on to star at the University of North Carolina, and in the NBA as both a player and a coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. The relationship between Cunningham, who would become one of the founding co-owners of the Miami Heat, and Kirsner, who settled in South Florida after his retirement, was detailed in this 1990 story in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. An excerpt is below:
“He had a great impact on me as a basketball player. He was an excellent basketball mind,” Cunningham said. “He stressed fundamentals. It seemed like we worked weeks on a couple of phases of the game. Later on in my career, they became second nature and I realized where I’d gotten them from.”
In 14 seasons at Erasmus Hall, Kirsner’s teams were 261-36 and won 10 Brooklyn and four city championships.
“When we played in Madison Square Garden, the NIT finals were in the afternoon and we played at night,” Kirsner said. “You couldn’t get in our gym.”
While the victories were gratifying, so were the opportunities Kirsner had to influence his players.
“I happened to be a tough coach, very demanding,” he said. “The kids seemed to come through and we had very good teams and very good kids.”
Said Cunningham: “He knew what he wanted from his players and wouldn’t accept anything less. Somehow he found the right buttons to push. He’d throw everybody off the team at least twice a year. But everybody understood what he was after. He was outstanding.”