For Glen Cove's Fab Five, Sports help break down racial barriers
May 16, 1999
First of five parts
The year, 1998, was like few others at Glen Cove High School: The football team won a county championship, its first in 49 years. A popular coach and teacher, and a well-liked student, died barely one week apart. Residents voted on the school budget for the first time, and voted it down.
Through it all, Newsday reporter Michael Dobie watched as athletes from a multitude of racial and ethnic backgrounds played together in the gyms and on the fields of Glen Cove.
This series, part of Newsday's ongoing look at Race and Sports, is not meant to represent all of the many schools and communities of Long Island. But this diverse high school does offer a window into the experiences, thoughts and perceptions of student-athletes about the complex subject of race and sports.
Like many sports seasons, this one began long before the first game. Like many friendships, theirs began long before they understood what they meant to each other.
They were five football players from Glen Cove High School, and by last summer they were bracing for battle. They had high expectations for the upcoming season, their senior year.
So they took night jobs and joined one another at the high school by 9:30 every morning. They lifted weights. They worked on plays. They ran sprints, ran the bleachers, ran two miles and ran the bleachers again. They went to malls and clubs together. And in the course of preparing for the season of their lives, they discovered something else was happening.
"I didn't think we could get tighter, but we did," Andre Devone said.
They even gave themselves a nickname -- the Fabulous Five.
Dustin Grosso was the quarterback, Matt Capobianco the tailback, Doni Baskin the fullback, Guido Penafiel the slotback and Devone the wide receiver. Manning the five offensive skill positions, they knew their performances would in large measure determine Glen Cove's success or failure.
Their nickname, brewed with a bit of bravado, was meant to reflect those exploits. But it also described something far more important that was happening off the field. The five friends were hurdling the barriers of race.
Devone's mother is white, his father black. Penafiel's father is Hispanic, his mother white. Baskin is black. Grosso and Capobianco are white.
Devone and Penafiel met in first grade and played on the same kickball teams. Capobianco and Grosso cemented an early friendship with games of touch football in the street. Capobianco and Devone played youth baseball together. Devone became closer to Baskin and Grosso after they were teammates in eighth-grade football and basketball. Outside, the five played endless games of pickup football.
By the time they reached high school, they seemed of a piece: Teammates -- plus, as Devone said, "all best friends."
"We think of each other as a family," Grosso said. "I like having that. I like being able to play sports and not having to worry about any racial stuff."
Certainly, sports is no cure-all for racial ills -- well-documented economic, political and social barriers remain on and off the field. For athletes of color, life outside the games is fraught with the same kinds of prejudices and restrictions common throughout society.
But spend a year at one of Long Island's most diverse high schools, visit the locker rooms and playing fields, interview scores of athletes, coaches, fans and parents, and you can see up close the power -- and limitations -- of sports to affect race relations.
Sports at the high school level can provide an undeniable opportunity for some athletes, such as the Fabulous Five, to get to know each other. As they do, the barriers among races often begin to crumble.
It is a message clearly visible at Glen Cove High School, from the moment one enters the front door. Walk down a long hallway and look to the left; there is a showcase for the track and field team. Behind the glass is a photo of a record-setting girls relay: Four smiling faces -- one Hispanic, one Asian, one black, one white.
Continue down the hallway and turn right. Running along the corridor outside the gym is the Wall of Fame, a collection of 8x10 glossies of every Glen Cove athlete who receives all-county honors. There are 119 players on the wall -- 65 white, 36 black, 17 Hispanic, 1 Asian.
But even at a school where so much goes right, athletes discover that sports sometimes can harden racial divisions and perpetuate corrosive stereotypes. There are sports still identified as "white" and "black." There is perplexity when a Hispanic boy plays point guard for the basketball team, or a Chinese girl breaks sprint records on the track team. There are pressures and expectations of boys basketball fans, who together revel and suffer with their team's fortunes, yet often sit separately in black and white sections.
To stand at the intersection of race and sports is to stand at a juncture rife with contradictions. At Glen Cove, students from nearly 35 ethnic backgrounds speak 14 languages. Nearly half of the students are people of color. But all 28 coaches are white.
The same ugly, racial epithets that sometimes are used by the opposition to taunt Glen Cove players are used casually in the locker room by teammates as a sign of camaraderie.
The most gifted athletes of color, many of whom are strong on-the-field leaders, are often the most isolated in the classroom.
And while it is an article of faith among most Glen Cove athletes that through sports they can make friends -- often friends of different races, friends they never would have made in the classroom -- it is equally an article of faith that few know for sure if those friendships will last.
As the Fabulous Five's final season as teammates began to unfold, Penafiel began to wonder: What would happen to them once they did not have sports to bind them?
"Each year we get closer," Penafiel said. "I hope to be friends with all of them for a long time. It's kind of hard, though, you know? After high school, they can go to college and then come back as a different person. You just move apart."
Sometimes kids do go their separate ways. Sometimes being on a team does little to crack the cliques that exist outside sports. And sometimes everything goes gloriously right. Sometimes there is a Fabulous Five.
By the end of September, they were beginning to believe they were on the verge of something special. Penafiel's worries were something to be wrestled with as graduation approached in the spring. In those balmy days of early autumn, it was football first. And there they were, basking in a 2-0 record, a start few at the school imagined would lead to the most memorable November in Glen Cove in nearly half a century. But the Fab Five knew.
Playing in harmony
They were coming off a season in which they had won but a single game, yet they found the bedrock of success in their belief in one another. In football, they shared a single dream; off the field, their personalities were as different as their backgrounds.
Grosso, who shared co-captain duties with Capobianco, lives to play sports. Hard-nosed and highstrung on the field, he wears his athletic pride on his sleeve and cheerfully admits he would play sports and do nothing else if he could get away with it.
Baskin is pragmatic. Affable and easygoing and a man among boys on the field, he hopes for a football scholarship to college. But he takes auto mechanic courses in the afternoon just in case.
Within the group, Penafiel and Devone are best-of-best friends. Both are products of mixed marriages. When the pair are out with Devone's mother, people assume she is Penafiel's mom. Where the soft-featured Devone is earnest in a disarming sort of way, Penafiel is intense -- frighteningly so during games. One of his nicknames is "The Psycho." They want to go to college together.
"We're always hanging out together," Capobianco said. "We're all different races, and I think it's cool that we could all hang out real well like that."
Simultaneously sweet and street-wise, Capobianco has an everyman quality that allows him to relate to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. He is, as one classmate put it, the student in Glen Cove who most easily crosses every racial barrier.
Raised in an atmosphere of openness and tolerance, Capobianco has played with black and Hispanic friends in and out of school for as long as he can remember. His older sister was a member of the high school's African-American Culture Club.
He and his four friends find in their families a similar quality. As Capobianco put it, "They don't care what color you have just as long as you have that nice attitude."
Off the field, they often travel in a pack.
Wander into the cafeteria at lunchtime; chances are the five are sitting together at a table in the middle -- unless they're out cruising Glen Cove in one of their cars. Visit Penafiel or Devone or Capobianco on a Monday night in autumn; the same five will be there, sprawled on couches, watching football together.
When Penafiel's family moved across town last summer, they rented a van and the Fab Five plus two other friends spent a hot July day packing, carrying and ferrying boxes back and forth across Glen Cove.
Their friendships set the tone for a Glen Cove team that thrived on closeness. With help from a core of veterans, including Jason Watson, Angelo Filippone, Ian McCloskey, Dave and Paul Graziosi, Ricky Johnson and kicker Juan Hernandez, the Big Red began the season in impressive fashion.
Capobianco and Baskin tallied two touchdowns apiece and Grosso and Penafiel each added a score as Glen Cove trounced Roslyn, 49-21, in its opener. The first home game was a 17-7 win over Lynbrook. Afterwards, the dreadlocked Johnson held court outside the locker room with a group of white friends as a ragged pickup game broke out on an adjacent practice field between a dozen little kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Week Three brought Roosevelt, a longtime nemesis, and one of Long Island's top running backs in Jerone Pettus. It also brought the victory that began to convert doubters into believers as Glen Cove emerged with a pulsing 33-32 victory. Capobianco scored two touchdowns, Grosso threw for three scores and Filippone forced a fourth-down Pettus fumble that was recovered by Johnson deep inside Glen Cove territory in the final minute.
As the Big Red rumbled off the field, boisterous fans formed an alley of whooping backslappers. Victories followed over Bellmore JFK and West Hempstead -- the latter a 49-30 win that featured three touchdowns apiece by Baskin and Capobianco. Going into Homecoming weekend, Glen Cove had a 5-0 record and was Nassau County's highest-scoring team.
Their surge paralleled that of another local team that profited from the trust shared by its multiracial teammates -- the Yankees, who won the World Series two days before the Homecoming pep rally. Baskin was among those impressed by the postgame celebration.
"It's not about they're white, black, Spanish," Baskin said the day before the Glen Cove pep rally. "It's about how they're celebrating how they won the World Series...We want to celebrate like that and not, like, hey look, I'm hugging a white guy, hey look, I'm hugging a Spanish guy."
They had been friends for so long, Baskin said, that they barely recognized their own diversity -- until, that is, they were seniors.
"Then we started really looking, like, yeah, I never thought about that, because before we looked past each other," Baskin said. "When I'm with them I don't even think about their color. It's just, `He's my friend,' and that's it."
After the whistle
Often, friendships made in sports are neither as simple, nor unconditional.
Rohini Sahni had many friends from her years on Glen Cove's soccer, basketball and softball teams. On bus rides, she said, she and her teammates talked about anything. Sometimes they shared secrets. On occasion, someone would ask about her Sikh religion and the new temple on Lattingtown Road.
"But then once you get off that bus, a lot of times some people just don't mix with other people," Sahni said. "Sometimes it tends to just be, like, oh, that's my soccer friend, you know? Sometimes it happens. It depends on how close you get to a person."
There are clues that stretch out from the past. Some parents and alumni who played ball for Glen Cove in the 1960s and 1970s have kept almost no friends from sports. But many speak reverently of teammates they are tight with to this day. Many were in the stands last fall, sharing handshakes and memories as they watched the team sparked by the Fabulous Five.
"The friendships go on for years," said Albert Granger, who played football and lacrosse and ran track at Glen Cove in the late 1970s. "So many guys, both white and black, are in different circumstances in their lives. Some are working for public works in the city, police department in the city, all different. But when we see each other it's just like it's back in high school. White, black, it doesn't matter."
Chris Thaw finds the process intriguing. A black defensive back and honors student who transferred from Brentwood in 1997, Thaw has made many friends of many races at Glen Cove. But he also wonders how real some of these sports-based relationships are and whether acceptance that is granted in the locker room is genuine or superficial.
"It depends on the person," Thaw said. He spoke softly but forcefully. "It definitely changes their view of a person. I'm not sure if it changes their view of an entire people or group. But in some cases I think it probably . . . opens them up to change. That person might be more willing to give another person a try."
And if that's all there is?
"That's a start," he said.
By late October, the football team was drawing a growing crowd that blurred longstanding racial lines in Glen Cove.
A Gold Coast estate town where waves of immigrants once poured in to work on magnificent properties owned by the Morgans and the Pratts, Glen Cove is a city of staggering but segmented diversity. It is home to the Holocaust Center of Nassau County, a Sikh temple, Lech Walesa Place and the Napoli Soccer Club. There is Christopher Columbus Avenue and Marcus Garvey Mall, the Order of the Sons of Italy in America and Glen Cove Soul Food.
For the most part, the population is separated geographically along racial lines. Most blacks live on The Hill. Most Hispanics live in the Lower Orchard (the Upper Orchard is mostly Italian). The Landing is the most racially-diverse part of the city. Those three neighborhoods -- The Hill, The Orchard, The Landing -- are the three sections with the highest concentration of people of color. Ask kids from the predominantly white sections of town where they live and they invariably name the street since that part of town has no label.
But labels had little relevance by Homecoming Saturday, when the crowd that numbered a scant 400 for the Lynbrook game swelled to nearly 2,000, the largest home crowd in years.
The fans -- mixed and mixing, like the team it had come to cheer -- were rewarded with a 42-6 win over Great Neck North in which Grosso scored three touchdowns and Capobianco, Baskin and Jeff Rudloff all rushed for more than 100 yards. But the victory was costly. Capobianco, the Big Red's leading scorer and ground-gainer, was carried off the field by Baskin and Watson with an ankle injury.
It was an ominous ending to a week infused with energy and an enthusiasm that reached its first climax with Friday's pep rally. That morning, the grounds of the high school were pinstriped with thousands of toilet paper rolls that streamed down from every tree on campus.
Inside the gym, spirit squads entertained an overflow crowd of students, parents and alumni. The football team sat at one end of the gym on a small set of bleachers, the Fabulous Five side by side in the first row. And when the five-boy, five-girl Homecoming Court was announced, four of them were in it -- Capobianco, Devone, Grosso and Penafiel.
Capobianco was elected king. When their selections were announced, each sprang from his seat and raced across the floor to thunderous applause.
Their closeness was obvious as they clowned around with Baskin, bouncing off one another in adolescent frenzy. Capobianco relishes that camaraderie and the fraternity that now comes so naturally to him and his friends.
But he wants more. In the school's popular "Minority Experience" class, Capobianco and other students discuss attitudes toward race and ethnicity with a frankness he finds missing in football. Often, classroom discussions are so intense that students break down and start crying. Sometimes, the class does sociological experiments, as it did when it sent interracial couples to Roosevelt Field Mall and observed people's reactions when those students held hands.
Capobianco thinks some athletes are missing out.
"You really get to know what people are like," Capobianco said of the conversations in class.
He doesn't see that type of dialogue taking place in football -- on the bench, on the bus, or in the locker room. He would like to know, for example, what life really is like for Johnson on The Hill, the most misunderstood neighborhood in Glen Cove. Or what life and sports were like in the Dominican Republic for safety Victor Hidalgo. He calls it a missed opportunity.
"It would be cool if people brought it up more: What's it like over there? You guys have football over there? I don't think people bring it up as much as they could," Capobianco said. "[Sports] has helped out a lot and I think it definitely could do more."
The 'People Club'
While the Fab Five drove through the regular season with its eye on a title, Guillermo Martinez often paced the sidelines, keeping an eye on the quarterbacks and helping refine their technique. A Colombian emigre, Martinez quarterbacked the Big Red until his graduation two years ago. Now a sophomore at Nassau Community College, his closest friends remain a group of white and Hispanic high school teammates.
Sports, Martinez said, is different from the African-American Culture Club or the Spanish Club. He calls sports the "People Club," and said nothing else is like it.
"When you see other groups hanging out, it's mostly Hispanics hanging out with Hispanics, blacks hanging out with blacks, whites hanging out with whites," Martinez said. "When you see it in sports, it's mostly a mix. That's the grand thing about it."
David Boyajian, a running back who played with both Martinez and the Fabulous Five before graduating in 1998, agreed that sports promotes mixing. "But after the season is over people don't say hi to you anymore," said Boyajian, who also was an all-county wrestler. "They don't hang out as much as they used to. It's weird. I don't know. It's like during the football season we all talk to each other and . . . after practice is over everybody goes to the little groups, everybody goes to their branch."
Some athletes do go their separate ways to their separate parts of town. But when the basketball team plays, Penafiel and Capobianco arrive together to watch Grosso, Devone and Johnson. Penafiel often drives Johnson home to the The Hill.
There is no magic involved, Martinez said. It begins with one person making an effort to reach out to another. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes they connect and stay that way.
When that happens, Martinez said, "It's all just one. It's beautiful."
Most athletes buy that -- some only to a point. Sharon Lopez, a former volleyball player and Glen Cove's valedictorian in 1995, believes some sportsrelated friendships can be superficial. Lopez, who is black, gravitated toward people in her classes. She rarely called a teammate to hang out on Friday night.
"That's why I'm saying superficial," Lopez said. "You're friends at the time and even friends later, you talk and say hello, but it's not like a lasting let's-go-out kind of friendship."
Whether or not their friendships last, most of Glen Cove's athletes say sports has done more for interracial bonding than anything else in their lives. Relationships among athletes are better, they say, than those among students in general, and students in general get along better than people in the community. The fact that all their relationships might not last doesn't mean that sports has not had an effect.
"I think it carries over, I do, into their other lives," said Thom Ruckert, a former lacrosse coach who has been teaching English at Glen Cove since 1969. Ruckert also co-teaches the "Minority Experience" course.
"Do they go and have dinner together at each other's houses? Maybe in a couple isolated incidents. Should it be more? Well, of course, it should be . . . To a certain extent I think it works. There's more of a tolerance. I don't think we're all going to love each other. You just have to be understanding."
Playoffs and parades
As November crept in and the postseason approached, the crowds saw that Glen Cove's football team had a chance to make Glen Cove history.
With Capobianco on crutches on the sidelines, the Big Red lost its final two games to Mineola and Wantagh. But its 6-2 record allowed it to sneak into the Nassau County Class III playoffs, where it traveled to Hofstra University to meet longtime rival and perennial power Bethpage.
With his ankle still tender, Capobianco returned to play wide receiver and scored the Big Red's first touchdown. Freshman Zhivargo Simmons scored twice and Dave Graziosi broke a 20-20 tie with a 47-yard interception return. After Bethpage roared back to score, Penafiel knocked down a two-point conversion pass with 21 seconds left to guarantee a shocking 27-26 upset. When the horn sounded moments later, teammates and fans quickly joined in celebration.
Piles of players and followers were everywhere. Carmine Portaro, a white lineman, carried Devone onto the field. Johnson ran along the base of the bleachers, slapping hands with fans of every color. Glen Cove players began hurling themselves up and into the stands. After the postgame handshake with Bethpage, the Big Red gathered at the north end of the stadium and raised their helmets to the sky, their arms a mosaic of white, black and brown.
The following weekend, Glen Cove defeated Floral Park for the school's first county championship in 49 years. Back at tailback, Capobianco ran for two touchdowns, Hernandez kicked a 33-yard field goal and Penafiel forced a critical fourth-quarter fumble in the 17-13 victory, which sparked another raucous celebration. A few days later, the team gathered at Glen Cove City Hall to receive citations from Mayor Thomas Suozzi and the city council.
While the players waited patiently in the back of the room for the ceremony to begin, Capobianco and company gathered over on the side, smiling at a photograph of a youth team some of them had played on as 12-year-olds.
"The best teams are the teams that get along the best, on and off the field, and these guys are an example of that," Suozzi told the audience. "They not only won a football championship, they brought us all together."
Yet for the Fab Five, it was a defeat that seemed to underline the depth of their friendships.
Beyond the wins column
The season's final week was a jarring roller-coaster of joy and sadness. Between classes and practice, Capobianco, Grosso and others rushed off giddily with coach Pete Kopecky to do various radio and cable television talk shows. Baskin was embraced by his mailman one day, emblematic of the hug the team was receiving from all of Glen Cove. There were moments that put it all in perspective, however.
After the City Hall ceremony, the team trooped off to Dodge-Thomas Funeral Home to attend a wake for classmate Felipe Barbagelata, a Glen Cove senior and the team's mascot. Barbagelata, who wore the school's knight costume and patrolled the sidelines brandishing a sword and shield, died the morning of the Floral Park game from a sudden seizure.
"It was a great feeling when we won but when we found out he had died, it was kind of hard to smile," a somber Devone said the morning of the wake. "We wanted to believe it was just another rumor."
Said Grosso: "I bet he had the biggest heart of anybody in the whole school."
The morning of the Long Island championship game against Sayville, the team learned that popular phys ed teacher and boys cross country coach Mark Hasen had died the night before from lung cancer. A moment of silence was requested before kickoff to honor the pair; several Glen Cove players had tears in their eyes.
The somber beginning contrasted starkly to the sense of anticipation the Fab Five had carried with them throughout the season. Way back in September, Penafiel had enunciated what seemed then an impossible dream: The Fab Five wanted to play Sayville for the Long Island championship, a wish born that summer after Glen Cove beat Sayville in a hard-fought and controversial 7-on-7 passing league championship game.
Together for the last time as teammates, the five friends took the field at Hofstra but the team quickly found itself overmatched. Sayville led, 16-0, by the end of the first quarter and kept pouring it on until the lead grew to 51-0 in the fourth quarter. Still, the Big Red fought gamely to the finish and when Grosso finally scored with 21 seconds left to make it 51-6, it was difficult to tell whether anyone had lost.
The team returned to town with a police escort, players perched atop three fire engines, sirens blaring. A crowd of about 800 greeted them with chants and signs as Suozzi welcomed them to a podium.
"This team was special because we were one team and we respected one another," Grosso told the crowd.
And as Nat King Cole's "O Holy Night" wafted overhead, team and crowd dispersed into the dark.
What lingered among a season's worth of images was the sight that night of the five best friends in the center of the group that surrounded Suozzi.
Wins and losses were one thing, friendship another.
"When we first went to fifth grade, [they were] inseparable," said Hilary Dorfman, the senior class president, "and that's how they are now . . . They stayed friends for a long time and I'm sure they'll stay friends throughout."
A brisk breeze blew up School Street as nighttime settled in. The fire trucks were gone now. The crowd had vanished. An occasional shopper strolled past the deserted courtyard. The celebration, so joyous and so vibrant only moments ago, seemed almost a mirage. That was Penafiel's worry -- that the bond they shared so strongly might dissipate with time.
At that moment in another part of town, a party was about to begin. Friends and families celebrating a season, with five teens in the middle again, as youthfully optimistic as they were back in September: Their friendships, like their season, were special.
Would they last?
"Definitely," Capobianco said, "they'll last forever."
At Glen Cove, court can be minefield of ... Expectations
May 17, 1999
Second of five parts
Todd Johnson says he knows the deal. He's a good player. Then again, he has to be.
Because he is black. Because the sport is basketball. Because the Glen Cove High School star knows what would happen if he couldn't cut it on the court. If he lost his starting spot to a white kid, for example.
"I'd be the talk of the town. My teammates, the people who played with me before, would be, like, `Dang, you don't know how to play no more? What happened?' " Johnson said.
Sports can bring kids together. It also can pull them apart by feeding the misconception that race predetermines what athletes can or cannot do.
Blacks are good in basketball. White men can't jump.
Such phrases often are uttered without second thought -- or any thought. For players such as Johnson, these labels can hurt in unexpected ways. Stereotypes create expectations. Expectations create pressure.
Basketball, perhaps more than any sport in the country, is polarized by racial stereotypes that place a burden on both black and white athletes. Images of the predominantly black NBA only reinforce assumptions about race.
The message, Johnson says, is clear:
Excel, or you're a failure.
Whether Johnson would succeed was a question mark in November for a Glen Cove team that graduated three starters, including leading scorer Michael Thurmond. Johnson was the heir apparent, and eagerly awaited his chance at stardom.
The two players differ in personality and style. Johnson is more boisterous and given to a stream-of-consciousness style of speaking; Thurmond was more measured in thought and conversation.
Johnson, who likes to wear do-rags off the court, will hit a shot, then point to opposing fans and put his finger to his lips, as if to shush them; Thurmond, whose concession to style was a left sock he sometimes wore pulled up, played a quieter game.
As it turned out, Johnson did not fail. A starter as a sophomore last year, he blossomed during the 1998-99 season into one of the best players in Nassau County. As the team's leading scorer, Johnson led Glen Cove to the Class B semifinals and was named to the all-county team.
But success did not eliminate the pressure Johnson had felt long before he pulled on a varsity uniform.
Even in gym class, Johnson said, classmates showed what they were thinking when they chose sides for pickup games. "People who don't know me will be, like, `I want to be on your team,' " Johnson said. "Like, you don't know whether I can play or not, but you want to be on my team?"
For Johnson and Thurmond, who also is black, basketball is filled with expectations -- score a lot, dunk when possible, look good doing both.
The flip side is what they are expected to avoid -- getting shown up by an opponent, particularly a white opponent. Even someone such as Brian Bachman, whom Thurmond faced last year when Glen Cove played Jericho in the Class B quarterfinals. Like Thurmond, Bachman was an all-county player. But get beat by Bachman, Thurmond said, and he would be slammed, especially from black fans.
"Yeah, definitely," Thurmond said. "I've seen people in the community say racial things on the courts -- `That white boy bust your ass!' "
As it turned out, both Thurmond and Bachman played well, and the two seniors ended the game with a hug at midcourt.
According to Johnson, being beaten by a white player is "the worst thing" that could happen to a black player -- "except losing."
"And getting dunked on," added senior guard Cliff Davenport, who is black.
For a white player, it is a world turned upside down.
"It would look better if I rebounded over a black guy than a white guy," said Keith Hansen, a 6-8 senior center who is white. "It makes you feel so good. If you can beat the black guy, you must be pretty good, that's what they're saying."
Again, there is the flip side: When less is expected, respect can be harder to earn. Hansen said he knows what would have been said had he beaten out Tad Williams, a black player who also was 6-8, for a starting role on last year's team: "Either I must be pretty good, or it's because we have a white coach."
Turning the tables
The players say they don't buy into stereotypes. It's other people, they say, who believe in them. "Just like they say that white people can't jump, but they say white people can shoot better than black people," Davenport said.
But stereotyping is not that simple. Athletes, for example, often size up opposing teams along racial lines.
"When we look at a white team, we'll be, like, `Oh, we've got to watch out for the shooting. Oh, we have the boards,' " Davenport said. "Watch the picks, because they're going to have the picks because they listen to the coaches. A black game, like you see an all-black team, it's like a fast-paced game, you go up and down the court. It's just all about athletics."
So, stereotypes are tough to shake.
"Yeah," Davenport said.
Johnson and Davenport have seen a difference in some of their teammates before some games -- this year's squad had eight white, four black and two Hispanic players -- depending on the race of the opponent. There are few jitters before playing a predominantly white team.
"If we see an all-black team, the white kids will be, like, `Oh, they're good. Oh, we can't beat them.' White kids tend to do that," Davenport said. "I'm, like, come on, you've got to think positive. They're not all good."
Black opponents, Glen Cove's black players said, sometimes prey on that apprehension and try to intimidate their white Glen Cove teammates. "There's a couple of our guys on our team and the black guys on their team are, like, `If you shoot the ball I'll kick your ass,' and things like that," Thurmond said, "and people will be intimidated."
Donny Seaman, program director at the predominantly black Glen Cove Boys and Girls Club, said black players also can fear black opponents. He schedules certain teams for his club squads with that in mind.
"If we went up against Syosset's ninth-grade team, though Syosset has a solid program, the kids would not shy off as much because they're all white," Seaman said. "Now, if we went up against Roosevelt's ninth-grade team, there would be a little bit of nerves rattling."
Glen Cove varsity coach Jon Dolecki believes things are changing, however. The Big Red could win games 10 or 15 years ago "because we were black," he said. "I don't think that's a factor anymore."
Glen Cove's last game of the 1997-98 season was a playoff matchup against predominantly white Jericho. As one Jericho supporter entered the gym, she spotted Glen Cove warming up, gasped, and said with awe, "Oh, my God!"
Tad Williams thought she was commenting on his height. Virtually everyone else from Glen Cove said she simply was counting heads -- Williams and nearly half his teammates were black.
For many of Glen Cove's black players, the pressure begins at home. That usually means the housing project known as The Hill. Located in the southwest corner of town, the neighborhood is a mix of apartment buildings and townhouses, some well-kept, some run-down. Most blacks in Glen Cove live there.
The Hill is isolated from the rest of Glen Cove. The vast majority of white residents never go there. Ricky Johnson, a reserve on the basketball team, said some white classmates will drive onto The Hill to give him rides; for others, he must walk down to a "certain spot where they can drop me off and pick me up so they don't have to worry about anything."
On an autumn morning, the area is quiet. A woman with a walkie-talkie patrols the grounds around the townhouses known as Kennedy Heights. Workers enter and leave an apartment building across the way. Nights -- at least some nights at some apartment buildings -- are a different story. Ricky Johnson's mother, Cathy Potter, jerks her head disdainfully toward those buildings and calls them "Wild Kingdom" because "they go crazy over there." Youths, she says, hang out in front, drinking and smoking and harassing others. Most of the white people she sees there at night, Potter said, are looking for drugs.
"This side of town," Seaman said sadly, "is almost like a closed door."
Thurmond, like many of the great black players before him, grew up on The Hill. Most of his basketball education took place at the Boys and Girls Club, a low-slung building whose stone facade shows wear from the ravages of time.
The Hill, Seaman said, always has put its athletes on a pedestal, especially its male basketball players. That creates different pressures for black players such as Todd Johnson and Davenport, who do not live on The Hill. When they go to the Boys and Girls Club, they must prove they can play with blacks from The Hill.
"When I show my face there, it's, `What are you doing down here? You come to play ball?' " Davenport said as Johnson laughed, recognizing his tone of mocking dismissal.
Both players said some white classmates expect blacks from The Hill to be better players, too. If he turned out to be as good, Davenport said, "They'll be surprised."
Glen Cove players -- black, white and Hispanic -- say there is a strong sense of ownership of basketball in the black community in general that fosters both pride and pressure on teens.
"They feel like it's their game," Dolecki said.
"It's like a tradition," Thurmond said, and new players are expected to take their place in a line that often resembles a family tree. One of Thurmond's older cousins is former Glen Cove great Anthony Penn. Todd Johnson's older brother and a cousin -- Damon Garner and Michael Grant, respectively -- were both all-county players. Davenport and Thurmond are cousins.
Seaman, whose son Allan is a freshman who was called up from the junior varsity for this year's playoffs, calls himself and other legends of the past the "elders." Young players are expected to test themselves against these veterans, a ritual that usually takes place at the Boys and Girls Club. Taking advice is part of the package. Often during halftime at high school contests, one of the elders will come out of the stands to instruct a player in some finer point of the game. Thurmond, now a freshman at Dean College in Massachusetts, considers Seaman his mentor.
"There is history, he comes from somewhere and we're a part of where he comes from," Seaman said, proudly producing a photo of himself with a 10-year-old Thurmond.
There is no corollary in the white community, nothing analogous to Thurmond having his performances dissected by an assortment of alumni.
"You come home after the game, even if you lost, the older guys are, like, `You should try this move like this next time,' " Thurmond said.
That support system often is not there when they go to college. Separated from their mentors, some Glen Cove alumni have found the going tough and quickly returned. Black athletes know the cynicism that awaits them after high school:
No matter how well you do at Glen Cove, no matter where you go to college, you will fail.
Dolecki said many white players and students in general also struggle and come home. But the sting of this label is felt most keenly by black basketball players, a point Thurmond made clear shortly before heading off to Dean last spring.
"There's a lot of people that went up to college and did really well the first year and they came back and they got into the wrong things, like drugs or whatever," Thurmond said.
He is determined to overcome the skeptics.
"There are people out there who are saying that," Thurmond said, "and I feel I would be just smacking myself in the face if I did that."
Thurmond, who has had a good freshman year on and off the court at Dean, wants to return to Glen Cove with his diploma and become a physical education teacher and coach at his old school. "It's like something you want to prove people so wrong," Thurmond said.
Most people who know him believe he will make it.
"He's different than them," said Vanessa Saavedra, the leading scorer on the girls basketball team. "I think he's going to go far. I don't think he's going to fall into that trap like other people did."
In the stands at Glen Cove, it's blacks to the left, whites to the right.
"I don't know how. I don't know why. But that's how it looks," Davenport said. "It's always been that way."
It happens at every game. Black fans from the community cluster along the left side of the stands. White fans, both Glen Cove's and the opponent's, move to the center and right. There is more mixing among current students, many of whom migrate to the top rows. When the game begins, a group of black fans, mostly young men, keeps up a loud and steady stream of commentary from opening tip to final buzzer -- some of it so outrageous and funny that people sitting nearby can't help but laugh out loud. The fans pepper referees with criticisms and coaches with suggestions. They yell out to individual players until they get their attention, then give the players instructions. They shout goodbye to departing fans of the opposing team, when Glen Cove clearly has the game in hand. White fans, Hansen observed, are more "organized" in their cheering, more likely to produce "one noise."
Former athletic director Sal Travatello said the stands have been split since he arrived in 1960. The players grope for explanations. It's who gets there first. It's who wants to be nearer the concession stand. It's who wants to be at Glen Cove's end in the second half. Some say it's a reflection of the city's cliquishness. No one finds it particularly disturbing.
"I don't think it's really anything racial," Thurmond said. "I just think it's the whites sitting with the whites and the blacks sitting with the blacks."
More important to the players and their coach is whom the crowd cheers for.
"The black community doesn't accept the white basketball player," said Dolecki, who is white. "You get that just being in the stands and just listening to them talk . . . We've seen that over the years because over the years we've had a lot of white point guards and they are unmerciful to them, and I'm talking before Jamie."
Jamie is Dolecki's son, last year's point guard and the only white starter on the team. Jamie was criticized harshly throughout his career, especially by black fans -- something noted by white and black players alike.
"I remember one game," said Ted Caruso, a former player who frequently attends home games. "They were screaming, `Take out the white boy!' "
Jamie Dolecki said such comments began in his sophomore year, but he was reluctant to blame it on race. Jamie said it was due "predominantly" to the fact his father was the coach.
Ashanti Douglas, a black student who graduated last spring, said: "There's definitely a lot of pressure on him. Based on Dolecki, his dad, or whatever . . . The guys, I hear them in the stands."
Thurmond said black fans -- many of whom are former Glen Cove players -- will cheer good performances by white players. "When I was in the crowd yesterday they gave Mike Puckett a lot of props, he was doing really well," Thurmond said after attending a game during Christmas break from Dean. Puckett, a junior, is white.
In truth, Jamie Dolecki's treatment was hopelessly entangled with the fact that his father was the coach. But both Thurmond and Jamie Dolecki said that black fans are less likely to tolerate mistakes made by any white player.
"That's how it is, it's always been like that," Jamie said.
"They don't forgive mistakes as easily, definitely a tough crowd," Thurmond said. "Jamie would do good and the crowd would still dog him. I think they would be harder on the white person. Why, I don't know, but I think they would be."
Thurmond -- whose skill, open personality and engaging smile made him a fan favorite -- said white fans are more likely to accept players of all colors, whether they are playing well or not.
Sometimes, however, it is just about basketball, like it was back in December, as a dispirited crowd watched Glen Cove's junior varsity lose a home game to Chaminade. With the clock winding down, a Chaminade player drove the lane and unexpectedly threw down a forceful dunk.
Instantly, a group of Glen Cove's black fans sprang to their feet in boisterous celebration. The Chaminade player was white.
In the end, perhaps, a dunk is just a dunk.
Balancing Act At Glen Cove, sports, sacrifice go hand-in-hand
May 18, 1999
Third of five parts
The Glen Cove gym, 6 p.m., Oct. 23, 1998:
The game is over and so is the season. Having defeated Great Neck North, Daisy Sanchez and the rest of the Glen Cove High School girls volleyball team begin to disassemble the net for the final time. But first they have to deal with Brandon Villa. Released from the confines of the stands, the 3-year-old dynamo is running amok. He attaches himself to the net, hanging from it as if it were a chin-up bar.
Daisy, Brandon's older sister, finally pries him off and the girls lower the net to the floor. But Brandon attacks again, sprawling across the net, making it impossible to fold. Exasperated yet entertained, Daisy and her teammates laugh and try dragging the net, which gives Brandon a nice ride but does nothing to dislodge him.
And there he lies like a millstone -- which, now that the season has ended, is what he has become to Daisy. She never would choose to see it that way -- this is her brother, after all. But family ties cannot obscure the fact that caring for him and his sister, Cynthia, will keep Daisy tethered to home for the next two seasons.
What she wants to do is join the rifle team in the winter and play softball in the spring. What she has to do is go straight to a job when classes are over in order to help support her family, then go home to take care of Cynthia, 9, and Brandon.
"I feel cheated," she says. "I'm happy . . . to help my family. But I still feel cheated because I still would like to do so many things but I'm not able to do them."
Daisy, a junior, was born in Colombia and arrived in Glen Cove in time for fifth grade. In many respects, her story is not unusual among immigrant Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of Long Island's population. Her experience illustrates the many economic and cultural barriers that stand in the way of participation in high school sports by immigrants in general, and by Hispanics in particular.
Sports can be a powerful tool for newcomers looking for acceptance. But for the burgeoning population of Hispanic immigrants in Glen Cove, many obstacles can lie in the way -- language differences, cultural expectations about the role girls play in family life and, perhaps most powerful of all, economic pressures.
"I saw a lot of kids who had talent who could have helped us, but basically were forced by their parents or had pressures economically to quit," said Eddy Linares, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic and played football and baseball at Glen Cove.
The phenomenon is not unique to Glen Cove.
"The notion of both males and females contributing to put bread on the table continues to be a predominant problem for young immigrant students," said Hector Garza, director of the Office of Minorities in Higher Education at the American Council on Education. "There is a huge economic gap between Hispanic immigrants and other U.S. citizens, so you find the parents often are engaged in two or three jobs . . . So the responsibility falls on young people, high school students, to get home early from school to cook dinner or take care of the children. It's just an expectation, a fact of life."
Hispanics hardly are the only students who forgo sports for after-school jobs. Though there are no statistics relating employment with athletics, Glen Cove officials believe the need to work affects Hispanics in disproportionate numbers.
"Absolutely," said Lori Austin, a Spanish teacher and moderator of Glen Cove's Spanish Club. "That's very common in the Latino families . . . These girls work at every store in town."
Austin said she started a soccer club that met right after school for the many boys unable to try out for the varsity team.
"In some cases, I told the boys, `Let me see if I can get you on the team,' and they said, `No, I absolutely have to work,' " Austin said. "By 3:15 or 3:30, they began to disperse because they had to go to work. It's such a factor. It's so real."
Lonnie Bresnick, boys soccer coach for 19 years, always has a contingent of Hispanic immigrants on his team. Four of this year's group emigrated within the past few years; all four work. One starter, El Salvadoran emigre Antonio Zavala, missed four games because of his job. As Glen Cove advanced to the Nassau County Class B semifinals, Zavala missed two of three playoff games, including the semifinal loss to Jericho.
"He had no choice," Bresnick said. "Family pressure."
A coach's office, 10:15 a.m.:
Daisy plops down on a couch. Always effervescent and bustling, she seems even more so than usual this morning. Daisy careens through life on a normal day, spraying smiles and hellos like a politician on a caffeine rush. This day is special -- Homecoming Friday. A pep rally will take place in a few hours. The volleyball match later this afternoon will feature a ceremony to honor the team's seniors, and figures to attract the largest crowd of the season.
Daisy's mother, brother and sister are coming. She says this is the second time they will see her play. Although she is excited, a hint of sadness creeps into her voice as she admits she longs for the opportunity to be a three-sport athlete like one of her best friends, Carmen Delcid.
Daisy's face is a kaleidoscope of expression and she summons some of those looks now. A wrinkle of her nose, a rolling of her eyes, a twisted mouth all provide insight into what she thinks and feels. The effect is heightened by words that fly from her mouth like pellets from a BB gun.
She says she came close to fulfilling her dream last year, when her mother gave her permission to join the rifle team. At the last minute, her mother, Rosa Bedoya, rescinded her approval. In spring, however, Rosa signed the permission slip for softball and Daisy attended the team's first meeting.
"I was so excited -- softball I wanted to do really bad," Daisy says.
The night before the first practice, everything changed.
"I tell my mom I have practice and she's like, `Oh man, Daisy, but I can't,' " Daisy says. "I was just, like, `But Mom, it already started.' And then she was, like, `I'm so sorry,' and I'm just, `OK, OK,' " says Daisy.
She lets out a little chuckle, bittersweet and filled with chagrin. Daisy uses laughter like a tool. She punctuates the entire account of her near-brushes with rifle and softball with bursts of a soulful staccato that salves the most painful moments.
Those were the ones that came after softball season began.
"Ohhhh, I felt so sad," Daisy says. "I would hear them talking about the game in classes or something . . . And I'd be, like, ohhhhhh God, you know? But then I just don't say anything."
Not all Hispanic girls are burdened in the same way. Vanessa Saavedra, an all-county player in volleyball, also was the leading scorer on the basketball team. Delcid is on the volleyball, rifle and outdoor track teams. Neither Saavedra nor Delcid has younger siblings.
Melissa Castro does. She participated in cross country, cheerleading and track before graduating last June and said proudly, "It's basically Hispanic women have to stay home, go home early, take care of the housework . . . My family does not believe in that. My mom tells me to go out there, push for it, get what you want, get what you deserve, and that's what I'm basically doing right now. I'm breaking that stereotype. I don't go home after school."
But she did go home in middle school, when her sister and brother were too young to care for themselves.
Walle Johanson, who coached both the volleyball and softball teams until retiring in June, often accommodated girls in Daisy's situation by letting them bring younger siblings to volleyball practice. "We'd give them a ball and they'd play on the other side of the gym," he said.
Compounding the economic pressures are Latino cultural mores that root a Hispanic girl in her home. Hispanic parents, Daisy and her peers say, are far more protective of daughters than sons.
"With guys, [parents] don't care," Daisy says. "The girls they protect completely. It's like a flower blooming, and it's like the guys are like a weed."
"Nice simile," Delcid says, laughing.
Alicia Hormaza, a former all-county volleyball player, called home "your sanctuary" and said, "Oh my God, that's been the story of my life . . . It was really, really hard for me to get out there and play volleyball."
Hormaza got permission to play by slipping papers in front of her parents and asking them to sign, not explaining what they were. She covered up staying late for practice by saying she was at club meetings. Sometimes playing sports comes with a price. Castro said although her mother's friends generally approved of her playing, "You can see in their expressions, even though they're happy, it's kind of iffy. Sometimes they criticize: How come I'm not helping my mom as much as I should be?"
The Glen Cove gym, 4:30 p.m.:
Daisy flits about the court before the game begins. She has donned a multicolored bandanna and painted her cheeks -- BIG RED on the right cheek, MEAN GREEN on the left. She runs through drills, smiling all the while. Just short of 5 feet tall, she mixes a good serve with a feisty style and competes with the same infectious joy that marks the summer games she plays with Delcid at Pryibil's Beach. When warmups are over, Daisy joins in the applause as the team's three seniors -- Saavedra, Erin Smith and Notoya Stone -- are recognized.
But her cheerfulness masks the uneasy accommodation she has made with her mother. The family makes arrangements to get through September and October while Daisy plays volleyball, a popular sport among girls from Central and South America. When the season is over, Daisy returns to the fold. This year, that means an after-school job tutoring Hispanic children at the public library. Then she scurries home to Cynthia and Brandon to supervise the evening ritual of homework, dinner, relaxation and bed. On Saturday, she does office work for her uncle.
Rosa, meanwhile, works 12-hour days at a commercial laundry to support her family, then goes to night school to learn English and take a computer class.
Daisy began helping out immediately after being reunited with her mother in Glen Cove six years ago. When Daisy was 4, she moved to New Jersey to live with her grandmother until her mother and Cynthia emigrated to Glen Cove. Brandon was born here. Daisy's father remains in Colombia; the family lives with Cynthia and Brandon's father. At first, helping out was easy for Daisy.
"Then I started to realize it -- that every time I tried to do something I couldn't because I had to go home and be with the kids or I had to go home and help my mom or something," Daisy says. The problems intensified when Daisy joined the junior high volleyball team in seventh grade. Some days, Daisy went to practice without her mother's permission. Some days, Rosa arrived during practice and took her daughter home. Gradually, they came to an understanding -- Daisy loved volleyball, Rosa needed her help.
As the game begins, Rosa settles into her seat in the stands. Like her daughter, she is smiling.
The Glen Cove gym, 6:15 p.m.:
Cynthia Villa, Daisy's sister, watches Daisy and her teammates as they pack up the volleyball equipment. A third-grader, Cynthia looks at her big sister with obvious admiration. Brandon, meanwhile, gambols about the gym. With five years separating Cynthia and Brandon, it is easy to imagine Cynthia someday taking care of her brother.
A few weeks later, on a brisk November evening, the three kids sit around the family's kitchen table. Having just arrived home from her tutoring job, Daisy immediately plunges into the business of checking Brandon's and Cynthia's homework. She alternates speaking English and Spanish because she worries they will lose part of their cultural heritage if she does not. Afterward, Daisy begins her own homework as Cynthia reads a Roald Dahl book and Brandon cavorts about the kitchen. Whenever Daisy reprimands her brother, which is often, he calls out in singsong fashion, "OK, Mommy."
By now, Daisy is tired. That morning, Brandon woke her up at 3:15 and vomited all over her room. At her tutoring session, she had her hands full trying to convince a girl with a loose tooth to stop chewing gum, come up with homonyms for a boy writing a poem for English class, and rummage for a calculator to check another kid's math homework.
Daisy holds her head in her hands as she tries to concentrate. Enrolled in Regents classes, her guidance counselors say she is hard-working and highly motivated. She would like to study marine biology in college and also is contemplating enlisting in the Army. She sits beneath a picture of Jesus and the 12 Apostles that hangs on the wall overlooking the table. Then Brandon misbehaves again. Daisy threatens to take away his television privileges and he quiets down.
Cynthia, who has been sitting quietly in her chair, says she likes to watch Daisy play volleyball. She says volleyball is her favorite sport. She never has been on a team but she plays with her cousin, Christina, who is 10, outside in the yard. In school, they practice with a soccer ball until their arms turn red.
"I like volleyball, basketball and soccer," she says dreamily, and adds that she wants to play those sports in school.
Daisy picks her head up and nods at Brandon. "She'll probably have the same problem I have -- she'll have to take care of him," Daisy says.
Cynthia turns to study Brandon. It's clear she sees him only as a brother.
"Yeah," Cynthia says, "but I think he'll be old enough and he won't be a pain in the butt anymore." * * *
Sometimes language is a barrier to playing sports. Immigrants for whom English is a second language often feel distant from schools and school sports, said Pascual Blanco, executive director of La Fuerza Unida de Glen Cove, a community-based social service agency. It was Blanco who hired Daisy as a tutor and office worker.
Sports teams, Blanco said, are an extension of school and "parents are not involved . . . in many areas of the school that affect the way the children are educated and the way the children might participate in extracurricular activities."
For those Hispanics who do participate, families are rarely in the stands. Bresnick said boys soccer games played at night at Pascucci Field, which is near the predominantly Hispanic section of Glen Cove called The Lower Orchard, will draw Latino fans. Afternoon games up at the high school will not.
"The Spanish kids who were there, their parents weren't there," said David Boyajian, a Venezuelan wrestler and football player who graduated last June. "They're working. They really don't get involved too much with the sports thing."
The Glen Cove gym, 6:30 p.m.:
Daisy and her family are ready to go home. Rosa smiles as Daisy says her goodbyes. Her mother might be pulling her away from sports, but Daisy refuses to blame Rosa.
"I don't think it's her fault," Daisy says. "It's something that happened and we just have to stick by each other and help each other out."
Daisy's athletic future is unclear. She is fairly certain rifle and softball will remain out of the question. She hopes she will be able to play volleyball as a senior. "I was planning to do a lot my senior year, but who knows," she says.
She wishes Brandon was older. "But," she notes with a rueful laugh, "it ain't happening."
So she keeps working -- to earn money for her junior prom, to earn money for her mother and sister and brother. Lately, she has been wondering about whether she will be able to go away to college. She would love to -- and thinks her mother would encourage her -- but says she would feel guilty "because I can't leave them like that."
Then they are gone, out of the gym and into the parking lot. The hallways are nearly empty now. Back in the athletic department office, a piece of paper lies on a shelf just inside the door. It is the signup sheet for the rifle team. There are 13 names on the list.
Daisy's name is nowhere to be found.
Upon Reflection Glen Cove's coaches white, athletes diverse
May 19, 1999
Fourth of five parts
The pitch was seductive. You should be with us, the coach said. I can get the best out of you.
Ashanti Douglas was on the track team at Glen Cove High School. The coach was from a rival school. Douglas never considered leaving Glen Cove, but she listened. Her specialty was the triple jump, an event the coach knew well. She knew she would improve under his tutelage. And there was one other thing: He, like Douglas, was black.
Sitting in a classroom on a quiet spring afternoon, Douglas was firm in her convictions: Color does not matter when it comes to a coach. The best coach was the coach who could teach her the most.
But Douglas hesitated as uncertainty crept in. She stared out the window toward the Glen Cove track and tried to decipher the coach's hidden message: Was he appealing to her because he could have made her better in the triple jump, because they were the same race, or both?
After a long silence, she finally spoke.
"Umm, [it was] not necessarily racial," she said. "I don't think it was that. More or less it was because he saw that I had some talent in the event and he could push me to go so much further. The fact that he's black and I'm black and we're in this together was just another plus."
A plus that does not exist in any sport in Glen Cove. The district is among the most diverse on Long Island -- 55.2 percent of its enrollment is white, according to state Department of Education statistics, 15.0 percent is black, 24.7 percent Hispanic and 5.1 percent Asian and other ethnic groups.
But all of its coaches are white.
Partly, that is because 95 percent of the teaching staff is white: Glen Cove, like most high school districts, must draw its coaches from its faculty first. State regulations require schools to hire certified teachers as coaches; a school can look elsewhere only if no teachers apply for the position. Most districts, including Glen Cove, have additional stipulations in their local teacher contracts that lock them into hiring their own teachers first.
Glen Cove hardly is unique in the racial composition of its faculty. In Nassau County, 94 percent of the teachers are white, compared to 71 percent of the students. Suffolk has a similar disparity -- 96 percent of its teachers are white; 78 percent of the students are white.
Neither county has done a racial breakdown of its coaches. An informal survey produced these results: There is not a single black head coach among the 111 teams that play high school football on Long Island. Approximately 11 percent of the area's public school boys basketball head coaches are black; among their girls basketball counterparts, about 8 percent are black.
Cathy Gallagher, executive director of Section XI, the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk, said when she looks at the number of coaches of color, "It's probably not proportionate to the players who play boys basketball, specifically."
Both Gallagher and her Nassau counterpart, Todd Heimer, said the issue of needing more coaches of color has never been raised at any meeting they have attended.
In Glen Cove, administrators say they have been trying to increase the number of teachers of color by recruiting aggressively. The district is part of a consortium that actively recruits educators of color. Progress, they acknowledge, has been slow. Officials say the pool of potential candidates is small. Athletic director Mary Berhang believes the low percentage of teachers of color at Glen Cove may discourage others from applying.
"People will gravitate to where their own kind is," she said. "It's a comfort level."
Berhang recently had an opening for a physical education teacher and received 30 applications. "Not one," she said, "was a minority."
The lack of results has led to skepticism among some students. Even if Berhang had received applications from teachers of color, senior Theneshia Dixon said, "I don't think the district would probably hire them."
So the gulf remains.
What does it mean for a high school athlete?
"I think it's very important," Douglas said.
A former child model and an accomplished R & B singer who performed at Glen Cove's commencement ceremony last June, Douglas took a year off from school after graduating to travel to Atlanta to finish her first record. In the music business, she does not lack for same-race role models. High school was a different story.
"We need to have some more minority teachers. We need to have some more minority guidance counselors, minority coaches, all of that," Douglas said.
"It would be real beneficial for this school, for the students," said Golnar Nikpour, an Iranian emigre who is the No. 1 singles player on the girls tennis team. "It would bring a new vitality to everything. You can't underestimate what a different viewpoint can bring and that's not only in classrooms. It's in sports, anything."
Their concern, experts say, is understandable. People want to see themselves reflected in their environment. Whites see themselves nearly everywhere, but in many arenas, adults of color are hard to find. And if you've never had something, these psychologists say, you won't know what you're missing.
After looking into their own coaching mirror, several Glen Cove athletes admitted they never realized all of their coaches were white.
Many, on the other hand, are well aware of the composition of the coaching staff. Perhaps it is because they don't see any coaches of color in Glen Cove that so many athletes of color want to return to the high school and coach at their alma mater after graduating from college.
Guillermo Martinez called that "my dream." Martinez, a Colombian emigre who played football and baseball before graduating two years ago, is a student at Nassau Community College. He patrolled the sideline last fall, keeping an eye on the quarterbacks as Glen Cove's football team won the county championship.
Michael Thurmond, star of the 1997-98 boys basketball team, is taking physical education classes at Dean College in Massachusetts in preparation for what he sees as a career teaching gym and coaching in Glen Cove.
"I want to . . . show kids," Thurmond said. "They see this black face teaching gym. I want people to see that, show them they can do that."
Thurmond said many students of color grow up without a father -- as he did. He believes he can offer more than someone who has not been through what he has experienced. "I feel I can get through to a lot of kids rather than some other coaches would, just for being black," he said.
Some of Glen Cove's coaches agree. Walle Johanson taught and coached a variety of sports from 1966 until his retirement last June. Shortly after the bell would ring at the end of each school day, Johanson would migrate to his office outside the gym. In the midst of the traffic swirling through the hallways, he would renew his duties as listener, adviser, and father figure. At times, he said, a different coach might have had more of an influence.
"They need to have some role models in their lives, someone who's been there, someone who can discuss what it's like to go down that road," Johanson said. "I can guide, but there's a different perspective and I think we need that perspective."
Football and wrestling coach Pete Kopecky said he often suggests coaching as a career to athletes of color, as he did with Martinez. "There is a need," he said, "especially in Glen Cove and areas similar."
One of those diverse areas is Freeport. Longtime girls basketball coach Ernie Kight, who is black, does not feel his race has been a benefit or a hindrance in dealing with his players. The best coaches, he said, have something in them as individuals that allows them to cross racial lines.
"I have white girls on my team, I have black girls on my team, I have Hispanic girls on my team, I have Haitian girls on my team," Kight said. "They all just treat me as a coach, Coach Kight, and that's it."
On the other hand, Kight agreed, there is merit to Thurmond's argument that simply being black means that he brings something extra to the table by virtue of shared experience. "He probably does," Kight said. "I'm not going to disagree with that. You have to see what he's been through."
When describing their version of an ideal coach, most of Glen Cove's athletes join Douglas in saying they want, first and foremost, the best coach available.
"Give me a coach who can teach me the game, I don't care about his skin color," said Chris Thaw, a black athlete who plays football and lacrosse. "There's some who need visual stimulus. I don't."
Many students are quick to dismiss the debate that has raged in the professional ranks over the need for more coaches of color. These students see pro coaches as figureheads, not teachers. Pros, they say, need to be motivated, not taught. So having coaches of diverse backgrounds aids in communicating with athletes of similar diversity.
It is only in high school, Glen Cove's athletes say, that real teaching occurs. So their priority in identifying the ideal coach is teaching ability. Complicating the issue for Glen Cove's athletes is that the overwhelming majority -- no matter what race -- give high marks to their coaches for being fair, open-minded, and good teachers and motivators.
But scratch the surface and it becomes clear that kids also are looking for someone to emulate. Sometimes, that someone can be white. Wrestler Joel Bolivar, a Peruvian emigre, and black football players Ricky Johnson and Doni Baskin all said they would love to coach someday; all pointed to Kopecky, who is white, as their inspiration.
But in the search for role models, many athletes of color also said they would love to play for a coach who looks like them.
Martinez believes a coach of color might have made a difference in the lives of several friends whose athletic careers were waylaid by things that took place outside sports.
"The minorities, the blacks, the Hispanics -- they were led the wrong way," Martinez said. "They didn't have that role model. Maybe if they had a black coach or a Hispanic coach they would take the other path."
Nelson Rivera, a Hispanic baseball player, said having coaches of color would be important for symbolic reasons. "I'd like to see it, just like when they broke the barrier in the major leagues," Rivera said. "It opened a lot of doors for a lot of people."
White athletes agree that Glen Cove's teaching staff needs to better reflect the students' diversity. Many believe the presence of coaches of color would draw more athletes of color to tryouts. The absence of such coaches, some say, can harm one's self-esteem.
"When you see the janitors mostly coming from your heritage, the people in the cafeteria from your heritage, and you don't see a teacher or a person with a doctorate, that only can give a kid a negative image of themselves," said Julia Schneider, a white soccer player and cheerleader.
Earnest and concerned, Schneider spoke while sitting in an empty lunchroom. The school day was over. A few feet further down the hallway, a black janitor swept out a classroom.
Some find the view that athletes of color need coaches of color far too limiting. Sharon Lopez, a volleyball player, was Glen Cove's valedictorian in 1995. Lopez, who is black, said white athletes need coaches of color, too, to change their understanding of black people.
"Most people look at it from the perspective that young black people need role models," Lopez said. "But at the same time, in order to change society's perception about what black people can do besides just running and jumping, it's important for everyone to see that."
Sometimes, an experience with a coach can have a profound impact on how an athlete sees herself. That's what happened to Alicia Hormaza, an all-county volleyball player who graduated from Glen Cove in 1995. Hormaza, a native of Peru who moved into Glen Cove before fifth grade, said she always tried to see herself in an "objective manner" during her high school years. She was an athlete, she said to herself, not a Hispanic athlete.
That changed when she went to college, where she had problems with her volleyball coach. Speaking quietly at the kitchen table in her parents' home, Hormaza said the coach, who was white, did not understand her, could not communicate with her, criticized her style of dress and changed her position on the team. Finally, a sympathetic white teammate told Hormaza that she thought the dispute stemmed from the fact Hormaza is Hispanic.
By nature a warm and welcoming person, Hormaza grew more agitated while telling her tale. She said she quit the team at the end of her sophomore season. While continuing her studies, she has spent the last two years as a student coach at another university. She plays club ball on Long Island. In the summer, she plays in pro tournaments in Long Beach and throughout the Northeast. She would like to coach in high school someday. She still does not care what color a coach is, only that the coach is good. But she will never think of herself as "just an athlete" again.
"I've evolved to think of myself as a Latin athlete now because of my experiences in college, because of what that girl said to me," Hormaza said. "I had felt that it was a lot because I was Hispanic but I didn't want to think it was like that until she said that to me and I realized that everyone outside felt that. It wasn't just her. That's when I started seeing myself more as a Latin person."
Hormaza's experience was echoed in other Glen Cove voices. Thurmond, for example, sees himself as a black athlete because he believes that's what others see -- and what they are looking for.
"That's what kids want to see, the younger kids," Thurmond said. "They come to games. They see that black face. It's, like, I can do that. So I see myself as a black athlete. Yes, I do."
More often, Glen Cove's athletes see themselves simply as athletes. Not as black athletes. Not as Hispanic athletes. Not as Asian athletes. Certainly not, ever, as white athletes.
"I don't think of myself as being white," said Nicole Ferrari, a soccer player and member of Glen Cove's track team.
White people rarely do. Color is something to see in other people, and something other people see in themselves.
Some of Glen Cove's white athletes seem to understand this. They know things would change if the tables of race were turned on them. Jamie Dolecki, a three-sport star who graduated last June, said he sees himself as an athlete. But if he was the only white person at an all-black school, Dolecki said, "I'd consider myself the white athlete."
Douglas sees herself as a black athlete. Soon, she will decide whether to continue her career in sports. She hopes to complete post-production on her record soon. She plans to enroll in college in the fall. She might run track. She still says she does not care about the color of her coach but admits, all things being equal, "of course, everyone is going to want to see their own."
And she still thinks about that other coach and his enticing entreaties.
"It's not a bad thing. I see where he's coming from," Douglas said. "He's, like, `If I was coaching you, we could've, would've, should've been.' You know what I mean?"
Alone in Their Success The fellowship black athletes find in sports at Glen Cove is missing from the classroom
May 20, 1999
Last of five parts
Young, gifted and black -- that is Danielle Simmons.
Graceful and athletic, she was on the volleyball and track teams and was named Glen Cove High School's top female athlete. She also was a varsity cheerleader, played softball outside school on a traveling team and acted in drama club productions.
Smart and confident, she took honors and Regents classes before graduating last year.
By either measure -- athletic or academic -- Simmons was a success. But her achievements, by and large, took place in dramatically different worlds: The playing field often looked nothing like the classroom.
In sports, Simmons mingled with kids from a variety of backgrounds, kids who were pulled together by their love of competition. In classes, she often was isolated, the only black student in a sea of white faces. For Simmons, it was an emotional seesaw -- camaraderie on teams, loneliness in the classroom.
"I barely ever talked to anyone in the class, and the only time I became close with people was if we played a sport together," Simmons said about her time as the only black student in an honors math class. "I was really uncomfortable with it . . . I went to class, did what I had to and got out."
Her experience was not unique. Although some black athletes sitting alone in upper-level courses said they do become friendly with white classmates, others suffer a sense of separation. For these athletes who, like Simmons, make friends easily with teammates in the various sports they play, the contrasts between sports and academia could not be drawn more sharply.
Black honors students who do not play sports also can be isolated. But the problem affects athletes in disproportionate numbers: Teachers say the majority of the students of color who take high-level classes are athletes.
"Most of the kids of color in honors and AP [Advanced Placement] classes also play sports," said John Kessler, an AP history teacher who coaches boys and girls tennis and co-teaches Glen Cove's popular "Minority Experience" class.
Choosing to be "the only one" in a classroom takes courage -- the kind of fortitude often possessed by successful athletes. But embracing relative isolation also means dealing with a host of pressures within the classroom.
To basketball player Cliff Davenport, being the only one means feeling that all of the white kids in a Regents class are smarter and that he has to work extra hard just to prove he belongs there -- a reverse of the basketball stereotype that expects blacks to be better than whites.
To football and lacrosse player Chris Thaw, being the only one means having white classmates tell him that he has changed their view of the capabilities and interests of black students in general.
Sharon Lopez, a black volleyball player who was Glen Cove's valedictorian in 1995, said being the only one meant the unwanted role of official black spokesperson.
"It is tough because you feel like you're the voice of every black person when things come up," Lopez said. "You know there's no other voice besides mine."
Sometimes the very material being studied in class exacerbates a black student's sense of difference and reinforces her separateness. Theneshia Dixon, who plays soccer and runs track, takes Regents classes -- usually with only one or two other black students. In American history, Dixon said, whites and blacks often have opposing points of view on topics such as racism.
"A lot of those white people do not feel there's still racism because either they are ignoring it, they're pretending it's not there or something, I don't know," Dixon said. "And then we would think there is and it would be a minority because there's only two or three of us in the class."
The tension is dynamic and reverberates from a simple discovery kids stumble on as early as middle school: Where sports blends kids from different backgrounds, classes sometimes keep them apart.
"Classes definitely have the hugest thing to do with how people separate," said Sarah Bellissimo, a white soccer and softball player who takes Regents and honors classes. "In my classes, it's always the same people."
Glen Cove officials say they do not do statistical breakdowns by race of their honors classes. But, as assistant principal Jim Brennan admitted, "It would be an interesting statistic."
The numbers would show that in Glen Cove, as in high schools across the country, the honors track is heavily white.
"Of course, there's still in a sense tracking here in the high school and tracking, of course, sometimes goes along racial lines where that rare minority individual happens to be in honors classes," said Thom Ruckert, an honors English teacher and former lacrosse coach who co-teaches the "Minority Experience" class with Kessler. "We still, I'm afraid, fall into that trap. Athletics is more of an equalizer than the educational system is. Now if we had all heterogeneous classes, we'd have a whole different story."
Sheryl Godine, one of the few black teachers at the high school and assistant to the coordinator of special education, said there is some hope that new state regulations requiring all students to pass Regents exams eventually will produce classes every bit as diverse as Glen Cove's sports teams. But she punctuated her hope with a sigh.
"Will that split still occur? I'd like to say no, but I believe yes, it will continue," Godine said.
"All you have to do is walk into class."
Ricky Johnson, a football and basketball player, said he is the only black student in his two Advanced Placement classes. Thaw is the only black student in his honors American history, physics and honors English classes; two other black students join him for Spanish and pre-calculus. Simmons had numerous honors classes in which she was the only black student.
Often, a black student joins an honors class composed of white students who have been taking the same classes together since middle school.
"I know they probably have been in class together since the beginning, so me being in there, they probably didn't feel the need to say, `She needs to be a part of us,' " Simmons said.
The bottom line, she said, is either you stay a loner or make friends. Simmons did some of both. Again, athletics provided a point of contrast.
"You can be in a classroom all year, that doesn't mean you're going to be friends with them," Simmons said. "In sports it seems like you go through everything together. It's like a family."
A strong student who began taking honors classes in eighth grade, Simmons also excelled in sports. Though she was short and had small feet, she was fast and fluid with a powerful build. For her, high school athletics was about choices -- spring track over softball, cheerleading over basketball (for her last two years, anyway).
By senior year, Simmons was captain of both the volleyball and track teams. Her shopping trips for team supplies with track co-captain Lauren Jensen approach the stuff of legend. Coaches still marvel at Simmons' work ethic and leadership abilities.
"She was one of the most influential people I've had," former volleyball coach Walle Johanson said. "She had the ability to bring a variety of people together for a common goal. She was able to lead them through deed and through her verbal ability . . . She went the extra step and it influenced a lot of people to do the same thing."
There were awkward moments, as when the captains of the otherwise all-white cheerleading team instructed the team to buy tights of a certain brand and color. They were meant to be skin-tone tights. They were white. To gales of embarrassed laughter, Simmons pointed out that the tights were not going to work for her.
More important to Simmons were her friendships, most notably with fellow cheerleaders and track team members Melissa Castro and Nicole Ferrari. She and Castro, a Peruvian emigre, grew very close -- like sisters, both said. Simmons and Ferrari acted in a school play together. Ferrari, who is of Italian heritage, invited Simmons to her house to hang out before the cast party, a memory Simmons recalled with an exclamatory, "Wow!"
Simmons smiles easily, a big smile that starts in her eyes and blooms outward. That's the smile she was likely to flash on a warm spring afternoon on Glen Cove's asphalt track, as she helped a white teammate with her stance in the starting blocks.
"You kind of draw that friendship on an out-of-school basis, which is better than school," Simmons said. "It's just a whole other level of friendship."
Highly-achieving black students such as Simmons are not the only athletes who find the contrast between sports and academia perplexing. Many of Glen Cove's white athletes agree.
"A lot of these people that I've grown up with, I don't know what they're thinking, I don't know anything about them even though I know who they are," said Julia Schneider, a white AP and honors student who plays soccer and was on the cheerleading squad with Simmons.
Frustrating as the situation might be, the difference for many whites is that the emotional toll on them is minimal.
"It's just the way it is," said Keith Hansen, a senior who plays basketball and baseball. "I don't go in looking like we need more black people in here, we need more Spanish people. I just go in and do what has to be done, and if there's a black person in there, all the better."
Black honors students can be frustrated further by what they sometimes perceive as the unwillingness of their white peers to reach out to them -- a jarring juxtaposition to their experience in sports, where teammates often go out of their way to help one another.
"It's not that hard, if they were to come up to us and just speak to us," Johnson said. "A lot of people judge a book by its cover. People see me, they're like, `Oh, he's a tall black kid with dreads, I'm not speaking to him.' Why? You don't know me not to speak to me."
The converse also can be true. Many students of color who are the only ones in their classes are afraid to ask for extra help or even ask a question for fear of looking stupid and having that attributed to one's color. Godine, who also is moderator of the African-American Culture Club, recalled a meeting last fall in which black students spontaneously formed a tutoring network because they were too embarrassed to talk to their teachers or fellow white students.
"It's very tough," Godine said. "And sometimes that one kid may not have the inner strength to be able to remain in that high-level class because he or she may feel uncomfortable."
Sometimes, sports makes the task easier. For many gifted black students isolated in their classes, it is a way to find common ground with each other.
"For the high-achieving student of color," said Mount Holyoke College psychology professor Beverly Daniel Tatum, "sports is the place where they can connect."
Kim Smith, a junior who is on the basketball and track teams and in honors and Advanced Placement classes, said the only time she sees her friends who are not in her honors classes is during lunch or in the hallways -- unless they are on the same team.
Some highly-achieving black students struggle with a different form of isolation -- the accusation from some fellow black students that they are "acting white."
Black student-athletes easily recite the circumstances that expose them to grief. Nothing, they agree, provokes the charge more readily than taking upper-level classes. But, Thaw said, minefields are everywhere.
"White friends. White music," Thaw said, smiling while shaking his head in frustration. "Walking a certain way. Talking a certain way."
The judgment can condemn or ostracize. Athletes already coping with isolation must now deal with rejection. Others who might join them in honors classes feel compelled to stay away.
Highly-achieving white students can be subject to peer pressure as well. But the charge of "acting white" uniquely affects students of color and can be part and parcel of the high cost of accomplishment, particularly black athletes such as Danielle Simmons.
"There's so much peer pressure and it's like a domino effect that drags the kids down," said Brian Simmons, one of Danielle's older brothers and a Glen Cove city policeman. "It's very frustrating. Extremely frustrating . . . To me, it's a race problem that we haven't yet programmed our children to [reject]."
The dynamic also is infuriating to community leaders such as Albert Granger, the first black city councilman in Glen Cove. "Why are you [accused of] trying to be white? Just because you speak properly and you're doing well in school?" Granger said. "It's the most insidious, disgusting thing. I hate it, hate it, because people will never get better unless they educate themselves."
For the student of color who stands accused, the result is a host of pressures that only adds to the strains that characterize adolescence. "[This] is a very stressful time in their life and a very difficult problem," said Hector Garza, director of the Office of Minorities in Higher Education at the American Council on Education, "because all of a sudden they are having to prove their identity and having to disprove that they are wanting to be white."
Danielle Simmons said she felt that a substantial part of the black community did not like her or respect her accomplishments, an observation she followed with a dismissive shrug.
"I get a lot of positive feedback from the white community, which is awkward," Simmons said. "You would think that more people of my own race . . . would be more or less happy for me."
The criticisms stung, especially those from students she saw as potential peers -- the ones, she said, who "have the brains to be in honors classes but think, `Oh, if I'm in that class they might think that I'm trying to be white.' "
Danielle was not the first member of her family to be singled out. Older brothers Brian Simmons and Michael and Clyde Riggins, all outstanding student-athletes, heard the same remarks. All three knew exactly how Danielle felt -- rejected, by the prejudices of some whites on the one hand and by the judgments of some blacks on the other.
"You're black but you're not accepted. You're not white and you're not accepted. You're down the middle and it hurts like hell," Brian Simmons said, "because you're a person without a race, a person without an identity, no one wants to accept you and that's not a good feeling at all. "
Parents such as Cathy Potter -- whose son, Ricky Johnson, often is castigated for his friendships with white teammates -- encourage their children to put the criticism in perspective.
"There are good black kids but it's the ones that are not doing good that are saying this to him," Potter said. Her advice: "Ignore them."
Potter and others know that is not easily done, especially for athletes whose pursuit of academic excellence jeopardizes not only the acceptance of peers, but also the status that comes from playing sports.
"I don't think they feel that they're role models," said Brennan, the assistant principal. "Instead of other people in the community looking up to them . . . they look at them sometimes as wannabes, and that hurts."
Bucking the tide is difficult, said Godine: "You have to be strong in front of the white folks and you have to be strong in front of the black folks. It takes an indomitable spirit and many of these kids just don't have that."
Simmons has been sorting out these kinds of mixed messages for a long time.
As a child, Simmons would accompany her mother to a housecleaning job in a white neighborhood in Glen Cove. Kids her own age would hurl racial epithets and tell the pair to go back to their own neighborhood, a mixed area known as The Landing. When her mother would not let her hang out on The Hill, the predominantly black section of town, Simmons found some black children began keeping their distance, too.
By the time she reached high school, her antennae were finely tuned. As a member of the track team, Simmons delighted in introducing black runners from other schools to a girl she called her relay squad's "true African-American" -- South African native Amber Abrams, who is white.
Playing certain sports can help mitigate the stigma. "If you are, on the one hand, at risk for being labeled a nerd or an Oreo because of honors classes," said Tatum, the psychologist, "but yet are a good athlete or successful member of the football team or the basketball team, that sort of balances that."
Other sports only make it harder.
Lacrosse, tennis, golf, swimming, hockey -- all are considered "white" sports by many students in Glen Cove. When Thaw tried out for lacrosse, he said some of his black classmates were shocked.
Sometimes it's not the sport but the makeup of the team that matters. Danielle Simmons saw that happen in basketball. She said black players from Glen Cove can be stereotyped by predominantly black opponents simply because they are playing with white teammates.
Simmons took up cheerleading partly because she wanted to destroy the perception in the high school that cheerleading was a white activity. To Simmons' surprise, she said some black classmates expressed respect for her choice.
Last September, she went off to Hampton, a predominantly black college in Virginia. She is majoring in computer science. She twirls a flag for the marching band. She might play softball. She is fiercely proud of what she has accomplished.
Recently, her mother visited, accompanied by three kids from their church. On the way home, the kids said they wanted to be like Danielle and go to Hampton. Danielle finds this encouraging.
So do her brothers. Brian is comforted by the thought of Danielle in the company of many highly-achieving blacks.
A few months before heading off to Hampton, a few minutes before the start of another track practice at Glen Cove, Danielle stopped to reminisce. It was early April, the time of year when darkness still comes too soon and the warm promise of early afternoon turns quickly to evening's chill.
Outside, baseball players laden with equipment trundled across the grass to their diamond. Danielle watched them pass by. She talked about wanting to go to Hampton, about making friends with her teammates at Glen Cove, about trying to get through classes, about being like so many athletes of color who walk a fine line between acceptance and isolation.
She let her thoughts drift back a few years, back to eighth grade, back to the time when she was moved into honors classes.
"I was the only black person in my class at all," Danielle said. "So you're either by yourself, or you make friends."
If only it were that easy.
2000 winners of the ASNE Writing Awards announced