Game Time in Babylon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Say all you want about his controversial, harsh methods — they’re effective.
By Constance C. R. White
Jerome “Jerry” Powell turns his back and swiftly, without warning, pulls his T-shirt over his head and stands naked from the waist up. He reveals the kind of broad, powerful shoulders that a boxer might envy. But what he wants to show you is the thick, raised scar on his upper spine, the result of a long-ago surgery to remove a tumor caused by sarcoidosis, a chronic immune-system illness.
For him, the wound is both real and metaphorical: Along with his medical condition, Powell, who worked for years in a sanitation department, describes a difficult childhood. Of his surgery, he says, “I could have died.”
Dramatic, perhaps, but today, some 14 years later, there’s a long roster of people who are grateful he lived. Like King James, as in, yes, LeBron, the basketball great. Or for that matter, a host of other NBA stars from Kevin Durant to Paul George to Danny Green, who praises Powell’s ability to adapt to different players’ styles “and break down their strengths and weaknesses.” Though he’s not a household name, Powell is a big deal in the ranks of both men’s and women’s professional basketball leagues — the power behind the power — and one of just a handful of truly elite basketball trainers. No, they didn’t take bows during the NBA’s annual All-Star Game, but they are the ones who know how to push the best through hours of footwork and sprints and shots so that the public can be awed by these stars’ graceful three-pointers and gleaming deltoids.
Forty-five, compact and with a shaved head, Powell looks something like a Marine sergeant crossed with a hip-hop star. He’s known for his rough, tough, in-your-face training philosophy, which can stretch even giants to new heights. But while most elite trainers have their heads in the NBA, Powell is just as immersed in the players who are far from the spotlight of everyone except … a breed of intense parents. We’re talking about kids, of course, ages 4 and up, whom Powell trains just as hard as he does the pros — so they might be pros themselves one day. Powell’s method is controversial but apparently effective: Whether he’s training a 7-year-old peewee or a 25-year-old all-star, Powell tries to stimulate game-time intensity, curses usually included.
Powell’s mantra? “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Other than that, he insists, “there is no Jerry Powell way. There is the right way and the wrong way.”
It’s an icebox of a Saturday morning in North Babylon, New York, and Powell is in his gym putting a teenager through a drill. On the wall is one of his many Powell-isms. “Everyone wants to be Kobe Bryant. What are you prepared to do to be Kobe Bryant?” Another verbal grenade he tosses at high school stars: “Just because you were good at 13 doesn’t mean you’re good at 16.” Today, Powell’s student is missing too many shots as he moves around the three-point line, Powell feeding him the ball. Powell puts it this way: “Tick, tock. Tick, tock. You’re in 10th grade, right?” The dozen or so parents sitting in the bleachers shake their heads or laugh nervously at the implicit message — that time could be running out for their kids.
Little kids sometimes cry. Big ones vomit. Grown men zone out in apparent agony.
Among the group is Bruce Zambrotta. He has been bringing his three daughters to Powell for 12 years, and his middle child, Sydney, is one of the top players in New York for powerhouse Christ the King High School. “Jerry’s the truth,” says Zambrotta. “There’s no better place to go, because he’s the truth. He sets up everything game speed with real game scenarios.”
Evidence of Powell’s track record is in the arenas. Powell has been teaching Green, of the San Antonio Spurs, since the player was a kid in Manhasset, New York; they worked together most summers, including the one before the Spurs clinched the NBA title last year. Powell’s tactics “help with certain people,” Green says. “Powell knows how to get the best out of them.” To keep up with his athletes, Powell shoots 3,000 shots a week on the shotgun machine. “Pros, you have to teach them something new; otherwise you’re wasting their time,” he says.
Amateurs are another matter. Every weekend and at 2 p.m. each weekday, kids with backpacks trickle into the North Babylon Town Annex, where Powell’s business, Basketball Results, is based. (Full disclosure: My teenage son is among them.) They’re here for group training with Powell or one of the team of five trainers. Group lessons cost $1,200 for 30, and private sessions are $1,200 for 20. For the money, parents will get tough players. Powell’s training wears the kids out the way a high-level game wears players out. You learn to shoot when you’re dead tired, is the theory. You repeat drills and plays over and over again “until,” as Zambrotta puts it, “you do it the correct way.”
The first session is the hardest. Little kids sometimes cry. Big ones vomit. Grown men zone out in apparent agony. Having trained hundreds of children, Powell says the main goal is to get them to believe in themselves as players. And so, kids as young as 5 learn to dribble two balls up and down the court. They are told why they need to move this way or that to be an effective defender. Powell’s arsenal is endless. Dribbling with two balls, dribbling with heavy balls, dribbling with gloves on both hands. And in the toolbox of every sports coach: pushups as punishment, or just a reminder to stay focused. “I can make a kid better in 45 minutes,” boasts Powell.
Just as the hunger for private academic tutoring has ballooned in the past decade, so too it seems has the number of parents willing to pay for the type of private sports training once reserved for pros and elite amateurs. But as the dads (mostly) and moms at Powell’s workout pay for and approve of this demanding training, an observer might wonder if this is trophy-kids culture taken too far.
Normally when I yell, the kids get it right.
“Do that again, and I’ll throw you out the gym,” Powell is saying to a student. “You’re not list-en-ing,” he shouts. Watching a 9-year-old get chewed out for handling the ball incorrectly can be uncomfortable. Powell is well aware that people knock him for being confrontational: “There are crazy rumors,” he says. “Like I hit people. Not true. I’m a thug. I’m mean. It’s all racist stuff. I know how to talk.”
Powell doesn’t “start out yelling,” he says, but yelling results in attention and focus. “Normally when I yell, the kids get it right.” To some extent, Powell stokes his myth himself, but then, what are sports without some mythmaking? “Sometimes I play dumb with white people,” says Powell, who is black.
Coaches with gentler methods concede that yelling, cursing and toughness can lead to improvement, but they question the costs. “It can lead to burnout,” says Brian Gearity, an assistant coaching professor at the University of Denver. “It can crumble someone” and cause low self-esteem, even injuries from pushing themselves too hard to please the coach. Besides, Gearity maintains, such methods are unnecessary: “There’s enough evidence that you can be effective without being abusive.”
Not for Powell’s acolytes. The forcefulness is all part of the realism, says Everton Marcus, an amateur athletic coach and the president of the Baldwin, New York, Police Athletic League. “His approach is no different from what kids will face in college,” says Marcus, who was a Division 1 baseball recruit for Florida A&M University back in the day. “A lot of people tend not to go to him because of his mouth, but that’s how it is at the higher level” — including the need to tune out abrasiveness. After 15 minutes of watching the Powell workout in Babylon, Marcus says, he was in. He has brought his teenage son and his Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams.
As a child, Powell arrived in Babylon in heartbreaking fashion. Born in Harlem to a 15-year-old mother, the future basketball guru came home one day to see strangers waiting to take him away in a van. “My mother said, ‘This is the best thing for you,’” he says. “I cried like a baby. I felt like she betrayed me.” The van took Powell to a Long Island home, called Little Flower, for orphans and kids in need of care. “It wasn’t prison,” Powell says, recalling the bucolic grounds and small cottages where he lived for two years. “But it was structured.”
He never returned to his biological parents, who are now deceased, but instead became a foster child to a white Babylon couple. His foster dad was an avid sportsman, and he and his friends would take young Jerry to watch the Pro Am basketball tournament, where he recalls he got to see “some of the best players in the world.” He attended Lindenhurst, New York, schools and earned a scholarship to Southern Connecticut only after, he says, he secretly worked on his game several evenings a week in the gym. It’s the same gym in Babylon where he now runs his business.
Powell earned a degree in physical therapy, but even then he didn’t immediately go into basketball training; instead, he worked for the New York City sanitation department from 1996 to 2002. The idea for the business came to him when he wondered why there’s a karate school in every community but few places to learn basketball, which is far more popular. While there, he began picking up clients on the side. As word spread, the demand for his training services became so great, he says, that “I couldn’t do both.”
Basketball has become his all, a lifeline and a refuge from bleakness. He has converted his garage into a giant shoe house for the more than 7,500 pairs of sneakers he has collected. (Yes, that’s two zeros: 7,500.) Powell’s children both play basketball — daughter Jalen is a freshman at Ole Miss, and Sabrina plays for her high school. He met his fiancée, Dana Mazes, when she brought her son in for basketball training. (Off the court, says Mazes, Powell doesn’t curse or shout: “He’s mushy.”) And in his downtime, Powell watches films about basketball. “It keeps me out of trouble,” he says.
“The world loves tragedy,” explains Powell. “I don’t. Who wants to see people doing bad? I don’t like tragedy. I like to write poetry sometimes.” Presumably about basketball. But then again, with the enigmatic Powell, maybe not.
Photography by Rich Villa for OZY.