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At Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy, basketball coach Pat Mangan ’84 has built a legendary program by making sure his players have their priorities straight. Family first. School second. Then hoops.
Classes are over one October afternoon at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, but the day is long from done for basketball coach Pat Mangan ’84. While practice for the hoops season won’t start for three weeks, his players are staying after school to work on homework to maintain a grade average of 80 so that they’ll be eligible to play.
Before Mangan can make it upstairs to help out, a parent stops by his office to ask about his son, who yearned to make the team. Mangan shakes his head. Basketball prospects need to attend at least 23 of 36 tutoring sessions in the spring to qualify for fall tryouts. He breaks the news kindly to the father that his son fell far short.
“Showing up is everything, and the kid didn’t show up,” Mangan says after the parent leaves. “Not enough adults are strict with our kids. We are. We hold the line. And our kids do better in college because of this tough love.”
Having a winning season is not the top priority for the Frederick Douglass basketball program, though the team made it to the final four in the NYC championship in 2005 and holds its own in the city’s most competitive high school league, and plays against top schools in holiday tournaments around the country. Mangan sees basketball as the pivot point to motivate inner-city athletes to excel academically in high school, so that they can earn scholarships and graduate from four-year colleges.
While Mangan is proud of his occasional stars, it’s the rank-and-file players who go on to earn a college degree that truly excite him. Since 1997, the school’s first graduating class, 64 student athletes have gone to four-year colleges, and 39 of those have made college teams.
In 2007, 11 of his players received college scholarships, with five getting full rides to four-year schools, including one at Carnegie Mellon University. Mangan boils his program down to a simple algebraic equation, with two variables:
Academics plus Basketball equals College Degree.
Many of Mangan’s recruits will be the first generation in their family to study at the university level.
“It’s not about winning, it’s about getting kids into college,” says Mangan, who lives on Manhattan’s West Side with his wife, Delinda, a preschool teacher, and children Kevin, 10, and Kathleen, 9. “Frankly, our team this year is the weakest I’ve ever had. But I’ll make it a great year. We’ll have fun. I need to emphasize that losses and learning both begin with L. There’s lots of opportunity there.”
As he makes his way through the crowded hallway to the homework session, Mangan greets Corey Hepburn, a burly 6-foot-8-inch teacher who graduated from Frederick Douglass in 2000, played basketball while earning a degree at St. John Fisher College in upstate New York, and then returned to his alma mater.
He recalls the power of Mangan’s caring during his high school years.
“I was very temperamental back then,” says Hepburn, who now assists Mangan with the team. “This place set the standard for how to act. I learned what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.”
Make the grades . . . or else
Named after America’s foremost 19th-century black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass Academy works to fulfill the legacy of a man who fought to abolish slavery and then worked for equal rights for blacks during the Reconstruction period. The school, which is the Academy’s third reincarnation since it began as an all-boys middle school decades ago, is now co-ed and takes pride in its famous African-American alumni, who include author James Baldwin, Olympic track star John Carlos, and U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel.
Bridging the achievement gap between minority and white students is the civil-rights struggle of the 21st century. Mangan, who is white, says he likes the challenge of working in Harlem, a neighborhood he competed in scores of times as a high school tennis player. Students, he says, quickly get beyond his complexion when they see his dedication to the craft of teaching and commitment to helping them succeed. That caring can be shown when Mangan, a trim, lanky teacher with close-cropped gray hair, comforts a teen who has troubles at home, or when he raises his voice at a basketball player who misses his assignment on the court. “The kids can sense if you are with them or against them,” says Mangan. “It doesn’t really matter what you look like. If you are good and hardworking, the kids will give you a level of respect. They respect adults who care and are going to help them. It’s that simple.”
Getting kids into college is serious business at Frederick Douglass, one of New York City’s 400 high schools. Boys wear a white shirt and tie each day to school, some 2,200 students applied for 320 ninth-grade seats in 2007, and corporate sponsors such as HBO and The Gap provide added support. Students must abide by the FDA Student Creed, pledging to practice personal and academic integrity, respect the rights and property of others, discourage bigotry, and demonstrate a concern for others.
You can sense the student dedication this afternoon at the after-school homework session. Basketball players Thay Brown, Bubah Conteh, and Earl Donaldson are studying for tests the next day. They know the drill: Your average slips below 80 and you don’t dress for the next four games.
Brown recalls the game two years ago when so many team members had poor grades that only five suited up for the game. The quintet played the entire 32 minutes without a substitution and rallied to tie the game at the end of regulation. By the second overtime, two FDA Lions had fouled out, leaving them with only three on the court. What was left of the team ran out of gas, and they lost.
“After that game, everybody decided to get their grades right,” says Brown, who attends Mangan’s Saturday morning extra-help sessions as well. “Mr. Mangan makes sure we get our work done first.”
These boys know firsthand how Mangan is working on their behalf. Earlier that day, Conteh met with a recruiter from St. Bonaventure University. A week earlier, Brown and Donaldson were among 100 high school basketball players invited to a showcase at Purchase College, where 60 college basketball coaches had a chance to see the teens show their stuff on the hardwood.
It’s a showcase designed for players from the wealthy suburbs of Westchester County, but Mangan volunteers at the camp, which gives him entrée to invite his top players. During the past 15 years, players from Frederick Douglass attending Division I, II, and III schools have excelled both on the court and in the classroom. So coaches are confident that Frederick Douglass graduates can cut it academically on the college level.
“We’ve had a good track record,” says Mangan. “Our kids have the study skills to get good grades, and they do.”
Frederick Douglass basketball under Mangan has a family feel. Thelma Owens, an elderly Harlem grandmother, travels with the team to its holiday tournaments. Then there’s Adrianna Buckman, the mother of a point guard who graduated from Frederick Douglass in 2002 and went on to earn a degree at American International College in Springfield, Mass. She too travels with the team and welcomes Mangan and his family to summer visits at her clan’s home in South Carolina.
“I just fell in love with him,” she says. “It’s a family thing here.”
A visit to Mangan’s first-floor office provides a glimpse into the life, and heart, of a coach focused on getting his players to succeed both on and off the court.
On a high shelf along one wall stand 32 trophies, a sign that Mangan has coached a fair number of winning teams since he started the basketball program here 15 years ago. But down below, at eye level, are status reports on basketball players’ grades; 14 had at least an 80 average in February. There are newspaper clippings tacked on a bulletin board lauding the basketball team’s academic prowess. There are words of inspiration for teens who might be discouraged one day. “Make an effort, not an excuse,” exhorts one poster. On another, students are encouraged to set priorities in their life in the following order: Family, school, basketball, girls.
Beat the drum
The coaching job at Frederick Douglass Academy has provided Mangan with a solid professional career in the city where he attended Fordham Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school in the Bronx. Though he had his heart set on Santa Clara University, his parents balked; he says they wanted him to attend a higher-profile school instead.
So Mangan traveled west to attend the University of Southern California and made the basketball team there as a walk-on. During his freshman year, however, Mangan made connections with Pat Malley, Santa Clara’s legendary athletic director, who was interested in the Bronx native’s tennis prowess. Malley told Mangan that if he enrolled at Santa Clara, he’d have a shot at one of six tennis scholarships that went annually to the school’s top players. Mangan enrolled, played his way into a scholarship, and was the team’s captain in his junior and senior years.
A history major, Mangan then set off for three years on the professional Satellite tennis circuit. There wasn’t much money in it, though he traveled the world, chasing his dream. His biggest match came in 1987 when he played in the qualifying tournament for the Wimbledon doubles championship.
Mangan’s partner was an Australian ranked far higher than him, in the top 100. But the Aussie showed up late for the match, hung over from a night of revelry at a London pub. They lost in straight sets.
That match helped convince Mangan that his future was not to be found on the tennis court. But he thought that the basketball court held some promise. Back in New York, he landed a job at Rice High School in Harlem, a parochial school that was a perennial basketball powerhouse.
Mangan served as an assistant coach for seven years while teaching history and English. At night, he earned his master’s in education at Fordham University. In 1994, Rice won both the city and state championships. That fall, Mangan left Rice to start his program at Frederick Douglass, a New York City public school.
To maintain the academy’s reputation as one of Harlem’s top academic high schools, Mangan helps recruit promising middleschoolers in New York’s open-enrollment system. Students select their top choices, and a sophisticated computer model makes final assignments.
As Mangan walks a visitor to the door, he spots three girls who have agreed to accompany him to an early-morning session with middleschool students in Brooklyn. He encourages a girl who travels by subway from Brooklyn to talk about the manageable commute. He tells another to talk up the high-level Advanced Placement courses they are taking in hopes of attracting top students and building the Frederick Douglass program.
“It never stops,” Mangan says. “You’ve got to keep beating the drum.”