Worst to First: The Anatomy of Basketball Redemption

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New coach Nate Thornhill (wearing hat) has guided the Harry Van Arsdale basketball team to a 12-2 record and a playoff berth a year after the Cardinals finished 4-10. (Evan MacDonald/The Brooklyn Ink)
New coach Nate Thornhill (wearing hat) has guided the Harry Van Arsdale basketball team to a 12-2 record and a playoff berth a year after the Cardinals finished 4-10. (Evan MacDonald/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Evan MacDonald

This is the story of a team that used to stink.

Last year, the Harry Van Arsdale boys’ basketball team in Williamsburg finished a woeful 4-10, nowhere close to a playoff berth. They were a lousy 7-35 over the past three seasons.

Then things began to change.

This year, the Cardinals are 12-2 entering the postseason. Under a new coach and a new understanding of what it means to be part of a team, many of the same players from those losing teams have changed not only the way they play on the court, but also the way they conduct themselves off it. They’ve helped Van Arsdale qualify for the postseason for the first time in years.

This is the story of how it happened.

The Coach

Nathan Thornhill is 25 years old. He’s not quite 6 feet tall, and he’s slender. He wears glasses, and has a neatly trimmed beard. Thornhill looks youthful; he could pass for one of the Cardinals’ players if he wore a uniform. He graduated in 2007 from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, where he was a basketball player and track and field star. He studied abroad in Argentina during his junior year in 2006, where he played semi-pro basketball for Ciudad de Buenos Aires.

Upon graduating, he relocated to Brooklyn, where he became a Spanish teacher and an assistant boys’ varsity basketball coach at Van Arsdale High School. He got a chance to watch those mediocre teams, and he wasn’t impressed. The losses weren’t the worst part, he says; it was what he saw in the team that really bothered him. He saw a group of players who expected to lose.

“The last three years, we just weren’t very confident,” Thornhill says. “You could just see it in the way we played and in our energy. We just expected to lose.”

When the school year began last fall, Thornhill was preparing for another year as an assistant coach. But then he heard that the previous coach, Adam Lustig, was stepping down to pursue a graduate degree, which he couldn’t do while coaching the team. So Thornhill, who was already the coach of the school’s cross country and outdoor track teams, decided to apply for the job. After writing to the school’s athletic director to express a formal interest in the position, he was hired.

In October, Thornhill called a team meeting. He knew it wasn’t going to be just any team meeting. He was making changes, especially to the culture of the team.

“I had the pleasure of playing college basketball,” he says. “So I figured I would coach them like they were a college team.”

It was a dress-for-success approach, so to speak, but it meant things were going to be serious. His goal, he says, was to come off like a jerk and let the players know he meant business. He was stern throughout, and set forth a list of expectations. He strongly encouraged players to join the cross-country team and required them to run three miles each day in order to be in better shape for basketball season. He also let them know he wasn’t limiting his approach to the basketball court; he mandated that they attend study hall every day after school. And then he dropped the biggest bomb of all: He told them that none of the players who were on last year’s team were guaranteed spots on this year’s roster.

To the players, the meeting was a little jarring. Players who knew Thornhill from his time as an assistant said they knew he was stern, but didn’t expect rules like this. Leonel Familia, who had just transferred to the school from nearby Bishop Loughlin High School in Fort Greene, sums up the team’s reactions succinctly.

“We were scared,” he says.

Thornhill was telling his players that they needed to commit themselves to the team or risk being cut. But that meeting would set in motion the events that led to a transformative season.

The Turnaround Season in Sports

Van Arsdale’s task was a difficult one, but hardly unique. Many teams — high school, college, and professional — have experienced quick reversals of their fortunes.

The 1980 Boston Celtics, after drafting Larry Bird, finished 61-21, a 40-game improvement, and advanced to the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. In 1991, the World Series featured the American League’s Minnesota Twins and National League’s Atlanta Braves, two teams that had finished last in their respective divisions the year before. The 1999 St. Louis Rams, after finishing last in football’s NFC West the previous season, rallied behind quarterback Kurt Warner en route to a 13-3 season and an improbable Super Bowl victory.

And the 1969 New York Mets, a perennial doormat in baseball’s National League since their inaugural season in 1962, finished 100-62, a 27-game improvement over their 1968 record, en route to the franchise’s first world championship with an upset victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. That turnaround was credited as much to their starting pitching as it was to their demanding second-year manager, Gil Hodges.

The Seeds of Change

From the moment that initial team meeting ended, Thornhill set about doing what many coaches aspire to do, but very few succeed in doing: He started to change the culture and attitude of Cardinals basketball. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. He wanted to instill order, discipline, and a sense of camaraderie. Not easy with a group of teenage boys.

As a player, Thornhill was a hard worker, and he knew the value of approaching basketball that way. He understood that you couldn’t get by on talent alone, and that the only way to be successful was to have that approach not just on the court, but also in school and in life. Always being in that frame of mind, he says, forces it to become a habit.

“I feel like the success of this team isn’t necessarily basketball-related. It isn’t because we’re talented, as much as we’d like to think that,” he says. “It’s about effort and hard work. Hard work on the basketball court is directly related to hard work in the classroom.”

Once practices began in December, Thornhill surprised the players once again by informing them that minutes would be allotted based on a player’s effort in practice. It didn’t matter if a player was the best scorer on the team, or the tallest player. If that player didn’t want to run and work hard, he simply wouldn’t play.

The relentless internal competition was difficult at first for the players. They now say everyone was practicing even harder to win minutes. Players often came close to blows, and regularly argued with each other.

“We’d be going so hard, pushing each other,” senior guard Joshua Manners says. “At the beginning of the season, people were so competitive that they wanted to fight.”

For the players, though, the transition worked because they were so hungry to play on a winning team. Last season, a player had quit the team, and the attitude was generally less serious. So although Thornhill’s new rules were surprising, there was no fighting back. Players were in such a malaise the past few seasons that they were willing to try anything to be successful.

Thornhill did have one advantage: His team had talent. Familia, a junior forward and one of the team’s captains, played in the post and had a nice shooting touch from the wing. And he could take charge.

“Leo is a very vocal leader,” Thornhill says. “He has the ability to analyze the game. He just sees the game of basketball very well.”

The other captain was point guard Jesus Pacheco, a senior. Thornhill says Pacheco is at his best leading the team through his sometimes-cocky attitude, which is evident in the way he plays and practices. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and never backs down from a challenge.

“Jesus is very, very confident,” Thornhill says. “Sometimes you even have to tell him to tone it down a little bit.”

Others, like Manners, Ayars, junior forward Raheim Lawson, senior guard Malik Clark, and senior guard Korede Griffith gave the team a solid group of scorers.

It did not take long after practices began for the players to sense an improvement. Still, the Cardinals couldn’t be sure they were really getting better. In practice, they were only playing against each other. Without competition they didn’t have a way to measure their progress. They didn’t have games to look to for concrete evidence of their skills.

They finally got the chance in their first two preseason scrimmages in December, the first against Bushwick and the second against traditional power Christ the King. The players were eager to see how much they had progressed, but even they were surprised by how things turned out. The Cardinals crushed Bushwick. Then they beat Christ the King.

“After those two,” Familia says, “we knew we were unstoppable.”

Buoyed by their early success, the team opened the season by running off six straight victories before finally falling to rival Grand Street High School on December 17. It was a loss that didn’t sit well with the Cardinals.

“We’d go home and read posts on Facebook about how we lost to them,” Familia says. “When we fell to 6-1, their crowd started chanting at us. But we beat ourselves that game. We shot 17-for-42 at the free throw line.”

But there were lessons in that loss, and the Cardinals didn’t let it become a major setback. They looked at the things they did wrong — the missed free throws, turnovers, and poor defensive rotations — and improved them in practice. The team became stronger. It was a theme that would define the Cardinals’ entire season.

The Psychology of the Turnaround

For the players, the most important thing about this season has been their relationships with each other. The players responded to Thornhill’s tough practices and stringent rules, and bonded together because of their shared experience. As often happens with teenage boys, fights and struggle brought them closer together.

“We have great team chemistry,” Clark says. “We know how each other plays, and the new kids fit right in.”

Thornhill was instrumental in creating that camaraderie. He took the team out for pizza after good games or scrimmages. He made them work together in the weight room, the cross-country team, and in the study halls. He even had them sleep over at his house before a tournament (with parent’s permission, of course).

One of the things that bonds his players together, he says, is their personalities. He jokingly refers to the team as a “bunch of clowns.”

“They’re always joking around,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll go out for pizza after a game, and you can’t get them to leave. They’re all sitting there ragging on each other, joking around.”

Familia said his team’s sense of humor is one of the things he likes best about being a Cardinal. “In the pizza shop, class, school, everywhere we go,” he says, “we’re always joking on each other.”

But how much does players liking one another actually bear on a team’s success? Basketball isn’t about personalities; it’s about scoring more points than the other team. It’s about execution. It’s about defense, passing, and shooting. How much would friendship really matter? According to one expert, quite a bit.

Dr. William Weiner is a clinical psychologist on New York’s Upper West Side who specializes in sports psychology. He’s been working with athletes for 15 years. He believes the most important factor in a team’s success is often chemistry.

“Chemistry is everything,” he says. “There are endless examples of teams that should be good on paper, but fail. But chemistry is essentially a function of the culture a coach instills.”

Thornhill, to that end, is serious, but he isn’t completely removed from the clowning around. While players shoot free throws at practice, he’s constantly blowing his whistle and hitting the buzzer on the scoreboard, creating loud distractions. And when a player misses, he chides them.

“Uh-oh…Spaghettios,” he says.

The players, in turn, speak of how much they enjoy playing for Thornhill. And, says Weiner, as much as players’ relationships with each other are important, their relationship with their coach can be just as crucial.

“The players need to come to believe there’s something in it for them,” he says. “There’s needs to be something in their interest, so they’re not just horses in the stable, being brought out to work.”

Thornhill has instilled a culture where players and coach care equally about each other, even more than wins and losses. The friendships are crucial. The victories are just a product of those friendships combined with hard work and a disdain for the losing seasons of the past.

“I actually feel like it’s a brotherhood,” Ayars says. “I would honestly fight for every single person on this team.”

The Rematch

After the Grand Street loss, the Cardinals reeled off wins in five of their next six games. By that point, the rest of the school had taken notice. While last year’s team only had a few fans come out to games, this year’s squad regularly plays in front of about 300 spectators in the packed Van Arsdale gymnasium. But the players don’t let it affect them.

“Nobody even takes notice,” Pacheco says of his teammates. “People from the school will come up to us and tell us, but we don’t care.  We just try to stay modest.”

The players also succeeded in keeping their emotions in check, right up into the final regular-season game: a rematch against undefeated Grand Street. For the Cardinals, it was Senior Day, with posters bearing the seniors’ names adorning the Van Arsdale gymnasium. And more importantly, it was a chance for revenge.

The teams were close throughout the first half, but Grand Street took an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. Still, the Cardinals weren’t done. They stormed back to tie the game, and eventually forced the contest into overtime. And through it all, the Cardinals players were as one.

“I was on the bench,” Ayars says. “We all had our arms locked together. We wanted to get that win.”

The Cardinals won that game behind huge shots from Griffith and Pacheco in the overtime. Familia ended it with a pair of free throws in the 60-56 victory.

When the final buzzer sounded, the noise didn’t stop. The Van Arsdale scorekeeper held the buzzer down for 10 seconds in celebration as fans swarmed the players on the court. Players took off their jerseys and swung them above their heads, relishing the moment.

On the Eve of the Playoffs

You can see the bond between the Cardinals when they practice. Practice isn’t just going through motions — Thornhill doesn’t allow slacking off. Every player works.

Throughout the drills — 3-on-2 fast breaks, full court sprints, and defensive formations — the players are lively and talkative. They let each other know when someone isn’t pulling his weight.

“Josh, you need to slide over and help,” Familia yells at Manners, his defensive partner during the 3-on-2 drill, after the two had surrendered another basket.

Thornhill is an active coach at practice. It isn’t enough to tell a player that he messed up. The only way to go about it, he says, is to tell the player how to correct his mistake.

“Yes, Josh should’ve helped, but you keep getting beat,” he tells Familia. “You need to slide down and take away the baseline.”

The approach, he explains, comes from a coach for whom he had played. That coach didn’t bother to try to correct mistakes. He simply sat his players on the bench until they improved. Thornhill is different.

“If a player doesn’t seem confident in himself, I or another coach will talk to him, but not to say that he sucks,” Thornhill said. “Just to let him know what he needs to do in order to get on the court.”

But no drill seems to get the players going more than their boxing-out drill. Thornhill places the ball at mid-court, and divides the players into two teams. The offensive team’s objective is to grab the ball within five seconds. The defensive team is supposed to stop them.

At the whistle, the offensive team’s players rush toward the ball, while the defensive team tries to box them out. Pushing and shoving is key. Plus, the players now know every trick. One offensive player, for instance, will stand behind another, creating confusion for the two defenders. Another player starts more than 15 feet away from the ball, making it easier to run by his defender.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” Pacheco shouts. “Who’s hungry?”

The losing team is forced to run sprints. But even when the Cardinals are divided, they are still together. While half of the players are running sprints, the other half of the team is on the sidelines, loudly cheering them on.

“Everybody is putting in the work,” Pacheco says. “Everybody is sweating bullets.”

The first step in the Cardinal’s transformation is complete. The team is a winner. But the playoffs begin Wednesday night and the players want to play on. They open against Staten Island’s Port Richmond Raiders, who finished 7-7 this season. The game will tip off at 5 p.m at Van Arsdale.

As he enters his first playoffs as a head coach, Thornhill has his sights set high.

“We want a banner,” he says. “There are no basketball banners on the walls here. We want to be the first.”

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