Roberto Clemente Community Academy men's basketball runs sprints during practice on Sunday.
Luke Elder/The Elder Sportsman
By Luke Elder
Phosphorescent white lights hiss and rattle high above the floor, like Roberto Clemente Community Academy’s players are running on a giant operating table. Sneakers snap and squeak like rubber gloves, and the buzzer’s hum resembles hospital equipment. The buzz makes your heart beat fast – a palpable sense of pressure, as if you’re going under the knife. This suits head coach Greg Fleming, who demands surgical precision from his players. He doesn’t seem to notice the buzz at all.
As I walk into the gym, a player runs around the perimeter of the court.
“Until I tell you to stop,” Fleming says. “Well, he was late.”
To the left of the royal blue bleachers, another is doing pushups and jumping jacks alone, breathing heavily.
“His mind’s not in it today, he doesn’t want to compete,” Fleming said.
Clemente has taken their fair share of hits this season. Coming off a 37-point loss to Perspectives-IIT last Friday, a look of exhaustion paints the faces of Fleming’s players as they spend over three hours in the gym on Sunday during the heat of the NFL postseason. While the Rams’ Matthew Stafford completes a 44-yard completion to Cooper Kupp to set up Matt Gay's 30-yard game-winning field goal, Clemente is running suicides. Many of them.
“It’s been a tough season, but we’re trying to get better,” Clemente junior John Rivera says.
“We get down by a certain amount and guys just start to give up,” Assistant Coach Tony Lumpkin said. “All you can tell ‘em is to keep fighting, that the games are not over until the last buzzer. You have to show some pride and some heart.”
His optimism is heartening, considering the team’s 2-16 record this season. He and Fleming enact a good cop, bad cop coaching style with Lumpkin empathetically translating Fleming’s heated and intense remarks. Lumpkin sources many of the team’s troubles to their youth. A squad with just two seniors, Clemente desperately needs player leadership, someone to step up. They can’t seem to find it anywhere.
“Our seniors have been inconsistent. They’ve had good times where they did excel and were great leaders, but have had times where it gets to them,” Lumpkin said. “They lack mental toughness.”
Women’s varsity assistant Shamarra Simon echoed many of Lumpkin’s thoughts, especially about the team's youth. She added that the players take too much to heart. Complain for too long after a foul, or mumble too often when asked to execute a difficult play. She runs the box on Sunday, keeping track of score and stats to help aid Fleming’s demand for competition. A Clemente Senior stumbles, yet hits a layup. Simon won’t count it, though. She said it was a travel.
“Take it with a grain of salt and move on,” she said.
As a Community Academy, many of Clemente’s students live a long way from campus, and have plenty on their plates when they’re around. They don’t have many opportunities to form strong relationships with their teammates outside of practice. Unlike many cases, where athletes are far more concerned with athletics than their studies, Clemente’s problems are backwards.
“Academically, no. It’s just not a problem for them. They all have good grade points. We don’t have too many guys that are dedicated – Guys that love basketball. We have a couple that like basketball, they like being with their friends. We have very few that actually love it and it’s what they want to do with their life.”
Lumpkin, ‘the good cop’, made one thing crystal clear.
“We’re never going to give up on them.”
The whistle blows sharply, and Clemente players surround assistant coach Brandon “Cheese” Onuselogu, who will run the next drill. Players are shuffled into a single file line, from shortest to tallest. You can hear the team’s murmurs, like they know exactly which drill this is. The whistle blows again, as each player follows the other, jumping to bounce the ball off the glass, sprinting around the court to get back in single file and do it again. This goes on for quite some time, until a mistake is made. The guilty party is brought to half court, where he does pushups and jumping jacks while his teammates run another suicide.
Clemente Head Coach Greg Fleming (Right) and Assistant Tony Lumpkin (Left) look on as their team practices a rebounding drill on Sunday.
Luke Elder/The Elder Sportsman
“We can make excuses,” Cheese says, “or we can get it done. Y’all complaining, fix it then.”
The whistle blows again, and players sprint out of the gym. Where are they going? The drinking fountain, to enjoy the smallest taste of fresh water, savoring each sip as though it’s the last time they’ll ever drink. The failure of Clemente’s season is not for lack of trying. Their effort is obvious, and the players' resolve is strong. This lack of discipline, ‘lack of basketball lovers’, is the primary ailment that curses this team.
In hopes of patching this hole, Fleming has consistently brought in talented, local eighth graders with a love of basketball on Sundays. As an academy, Clemente has the luxury of recruiting, a blessing that Fleming hopes to utilize fully. He not only wants great and passionate players, but young men he can connect with, as his upbringing in Cabrini Green is not dissimilar to the experiences of many recruits.
“I want to build a relationship with them. I come from what they come from, I know their struggle,” Fleming said. “We are building something special. I’m already putting lineups in my head that’ll work”
“The selling point is that we don’t care if you’re a freshman, you have a chance to play varsity,” coach Lumpkin said. “As long as you show us you can compete, you’re gonna get that spot. As long as you compete on that level, then you can come play right away.”
Unwilling to forfeit this season, yet looking towards the future, Clemente inches closer to building a program. The coaching staff possesses all the right qualities, and players have plenty of athleticism. Even the team’s smallest player, standing no more than five-foot-six and measly 100 pounds, Chris Escobar hustles through each drill with intention and desire.
“I’m just waiting for my growth spurt,” He laughs.
The same is true for his team, like a pre-teen vying for adulthood. A guarded optimism surrounds Clemente as if they can see excellence in the distance, but are unsure if it’s worth the struggle. Practice shifts to full-court game simulation, and the gym erupts. John Rivera drives feverishly to the basket and hits a tough layup in traffic. His teammates clap and chirp.
“Let’s go John!”
The ship of Clemente basketball may be off course, but it still has plenty of wind in its sails.