A nylon curtain splits the gymnasium along the half-court line at the YM-YWHA of Union County, N.J. Fathers and sons wearing yarmulkes walk to the far side of the court, basketballs tucked under their elbows, ready for a light shoot-around. On the other side, Coach Sandy Pyonin is deep into a five-hour workout with Tyler Roberson, a 6’8″ senior power forward at Roselle Catholic High School, and the 27th-best basketball recruit in America for the Class of 2013, according to ESPN.
Roberson, his shirt soaked with sweat, finishes off a dribbling drill with a powerful one-handed dunk—one of those plays that only truly gifted athletes can complete, where gravity slows down for an extra tick. Nevertheless, the dribbling is sloppy. Pyonin steps onto the court, with his arms folded: “I don’t need the dunks or all that other garbage,” he explains matter-of-factly. Without a word, Roberson jogs back to the top of the key to repeat the drill. This time, he doesn’t dunk.
Roberson is Pyonin’s prized prospect. They’ve been training together for four years, and they make an odd couple. Sandy is short, blond, white, talkative, and Jewish; Roberson is tall, black, quiet, and goes to a Catholic school.
It’s Nov. 23, and late fall is the calm before the storm of the high-school basketball calendar, a short period before tryouts when players typically rest their bodies to prepare for the grueling early-morning practices to come. Roberson, however, is spending most of his time at the Y with Pyonin. Once the season starts, Roberson, who recently committed to Syracuse University after fielding offers from Kansas and Villanova, will go back to Roselle Catholic and Pyonin will return to Golda Och Academy, the private Conservative Jewish day school where he teaches phys. ed. and runs the basketball program. Sandy may train Roberson on off days, but their regular workouts won’t resume until March.
Like other top high-school coaches, Pyonin has racked up impressive career achievements in his 40 years as a coach, including three National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships, two New Jersey Prep B State Championships, two International Maccabiah Gold Medals, more than 2,300 AAU victories, and more than 570 varsity wins at Golda Och Academy.
But with Pyonin, legacy comes down to one number: 34. That’s the number of his players who have made it to the NBA.
It’s one of the most accomplished high-school coaching résumés of all time. And yet outside of the AAU basketball community, Pyonin is virtually unknown. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. What this coach from a small yeshiva does have, though, is a legion of fans in some of the best basketball players to emerge from New Jersey in the last 40 years.
“Anything I could do for Sandy, it’s not enough,” Edgar Jones, Pyonin’s first prospect to make the NBA in 1980, told me. “He’s touched so many lives, not just the ballplayers, but the people around the ballplayers, the families of the ballplayers.”
Pyonin grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., during the ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative Jewish household. He was always athletic and went on to play soccer and lacrosse at Kean University, but basketball was the sport he focused on the most, regardless of his aptitude. “When I was in 6th grade,” he recalls, “I got kicked out of the gym, because I couldn’t really reach the basket. The coach told me to play baseball.”
His coaching origin is Jordanesque, a story built on obsessive hard work meant to prove people wrong. After getting cut from his high-school team in his sophomore and junior years, Sandy trained harder, practicing 10 hours a day on a backyard hoop, studying games on television. He served as player-coach on teams with his friends and taught the game to himself until he received coaching offers at age 19.
“I had better knowledge of the game than the NBA coaches, in my perspective,” he told me. “They didn’t know how to screen around the foul line, they didn’t know how to screen on the jump ball … they still don’t know how to do that in the NBA today, to get that extra inch. I guess they don’t think it’s that important.”
When you watch Pyonin coach his players on a basketball court, you realize everything is important. Every inch, every dribble, every movement has a purpose. And with the proper guidance, every player can improve.
My father was one of those players, a 12-year-old shooting at the Y in 1968, when they met. Pyonin was just out of high school, getting serious about coaching. “I’d never spoken to him before,” my father remembered. “He just came up to me and asked, ‘Do you want to become better?’ ”
Their relationship continued as Sandy began developing his philosophy with the YMHA Roadrunners, a squad of Jewish high-schoolers who played on weekends in the early 1970s. “Sandy stressed the conditioning. He always wanted you to play hard, to play smart, and play as a team. If guys didn’t focus, they had to run laps.”
Forty years later, Pyonin maintains excellence with the same gritty philosophy even as basketball has evolved into a sport full of flashy highlights. His approach has paid off: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard and 2011 NBA Rookie of the Year, trained with Sandy for four years. Orlando Magic forward Al Harrington, a 14-year NBA veteran, spent his high-school summers with Sandy. Utah Jazz guard Randy Foye started with Sandy as a 7th grader, and Sandy still calls him after every game. Remarkably, none of Pyonin’s elite players were charged for the years of training sessions and mentoring. “I never charge any player who can’t afford it. I believe in the Robin Hood philosophy—steal from the rich and give to the poor.”
“Without Sandy in my life and without Sandy helping me through college, through high school … I wouldn’t be here now,” Randy Foye has said. “After every game I play in the NBA, no matter if I have 30 points or if I have five points, Sandy’s calling. And he’s saying … ‘I just want you to know that I love the way you played D, I loved the way you passed.’ ”