When it all started, a spirit of service was upon the land. The year was 1961, and it seemed right and natural to say: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Heeding this call to social action, New York's Riverside Church, as part of a larger community service endeavor, initiated a youth basketball program. The team was called the Riverside Hawks. And, behold, it was very good.
Back in 1926 the architects of the church on 120th Street and Riverside Drive could never have suspected that some of the church's most important work was going to be done in the basement. They were having troubles enough working out a plan to fit a Gothic cathedral on the cramped site John D. Rockefeller Jr. had acquired on fashionable Morning-side Heights. One thing for sure, they did not leave much room below for a basketball court. The one down there now fits so snugly there virtually is no out-of-bounds, except under one basket where matters are made even more perilous by the two huge pillars that support the altar on the floor above.
Nevertheless, to kids in basketball schoolyards and playgrounds all over New York City the true shrine at Riverside is not the altar, it is the court. And its patron saint is Ernie Lorch, a 54-year-old bachelor who has run the basketball program for the past 26 years.
Among those who have worn the uniform of the Riverside Hawks are more than a dozen NBA players, such as Rodney McCray (Houston), Albert King (New Jersey) and Tony Campbell (Detroit); three 1985 first-round draft choices: Chris Mullin (Golden State), Ed Pinckney (Phoenix) and Jerry Reynolds (Milwaukee); and 1986 first-rounder Walter Berry (Portland). There are also Riverside players who are currently starring in college: Kenny Smith (North Carolina), Mark Jackson (St. John's), Bruce Dalrymple (Georgia Tech), Mel Kennedy (Virginia) and Ed Davender (Kentucky). Riverside is where city kids come when they get serious about their basketball. If they stay for a while, it means they're also getting serious about themselves. And it is understood they'll play by Lorch's rules.
Riverside really gave me an opportunity to play in tough competition. I got a lot of self-confidence and a lot of exposure. Mr. Lorch really was encouraging for me—a father image almost.
I wasn't a bad kid or anything, but I did need direction and he supplied it just by being himself. I never saw him give up on any kid. When do you have kids listen to any authority figure giving advice? And a white man in a black situation—it boggles my mind.
Lorch recalls the early days with relief, glad they're over. "Up until the late 1950s the neighborhood around the church was mostly academic because of Columbia University and other cultural institutions so close by. When new housing projects went up right around the corner in Harlem the church had to decide how it would respond to a changing constituency. It could either isolate itself or reach out to the community. Fortunately it decided to reach out, and we knew the kids would be particularly important."
As just about the only church member with basketball experience—he had been a 6-foot guard at Middlebury College in Vermont—Lorch was called upon to set up the program. "One day I went over to the Grant Projects with 12 jerseys, rounded up a dozen of the toughest kids and brought them all back to the church." Thus were the Riverside Hawks born.
Success was a while in coming. "It took me about five years to feel that I deserved to be here and to become comfortable around the kids. And it took just about that long to figure out what the kids really needed. Then in the "60s and early '70s, when things got hot up in this neighborhood, the bleeding hearts left. Only one or two of us stayed in community programs. I guess that proved I belonged."
Not everyone who wants to play for Riverside has star potential, but it is Lorch's basic strategy to use a kid's love for the game to help develop his best self. "That's the only reason why winning is important up here," he says. "Not for its own sake—although some of the other rival coaches wouldn't believe that—but as a lure. Once the winning tradition was established, kids began to respect the program here and were willing to meet some of our expectations just to play for Riverside."