Significant Moments in Black History: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park High makes it to the NYC high school basketball championship game without any good players

OPINION: Good coaching can make all the difference. So can mediocre coaching. And quotes. That’s all it took for one high school to turn its fortunes around.

The team and coach from "Sunset Park." (Courtesy of Tri-Star Pictures)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The year 1996 was a wild time in New York City high school hoops. I have absolutely nothing to back up that assertion — I wasn’t there. But considering that Brooklyn’s Sunset Park High School fielded a championship-caliber basketball team that included, at a minimum, three players who had absolutely no business on a basketball court — much less the basketball team — that played meaningful minutes, anything is possible. For all we know, I was there. That’s the beauty of Black history, we’re writing it right now. 

Look, I’m all for a wonderful turnaround, Cinderella story. I love it when an improbable story unfolds and an underdog blossoms. I’m not sure that’s what we really had with this particular team but that’s what happened. You see, I watched them play basketball, in practice and in games and well, they weren’t that good. In fact, they weren’t even “not that good,” they were plain “not good.” And yet, they managed to make it all the way to the NYC Public School Athletic League championship game in Madison Square Garden. They lost — spoiler alert — but they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. And that’s what makes them significant; the amount of hurdles this team had to overcome is astounding, not to mention there weren’t any actual good players on the team! 

For starters, their coach, Phyllis Saroka, was the gym teacher who only took the job to save money so she could open up a restaurant in St. Croix. Did she know anything about basketball? Not a lick. She was a little bit like Darrin Hill who took over the choir for money in Monte Carlo, Georgia, despite not having any musical talents but became invested. They turned his life story into a movie, “The Fighting Temptation.” Who knows, maybe one day they’ll turn this Sunset Park team into a movie. Again, anything is possible. 

The self-proclaimed best player, Tyrik “Shorty Doo-Wop” Russell was not a good point guard. And definitely not by New York City standards. In 1995, Stephon Marbury took his high school team to the NYC championship game. Marbury was a good NYC point guard; New York City is KNOWN for their point guards. The rest of the players — Busy-Bee, Drano, Butta, Spaceman, Andre, and others — were a rag-tag collection of players who were neither good nor disciplined. At least we never really saw it over the course of the season. But you know what we did see? WINS. This team racked up wins in improbable fashion. 

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They won ONE game the prior season and turned it around, against all odds. What are all the odds that were against them? I’m glad you asked. During the season, Shorty Doo-Wop ended up in jail for allegedly shooting at a kid; he got out on some shady circumstances. Busy-Bee was shot in an attempted robbery of a $300 coat. Spaceman nearly killed his science teacher — despite science being his favorite subject. Two players nearly failed off the team. And remember, these kids weren’t that good to begin with.

But you know what they say; a good coach can get the absolute most out of a group of players who believe in themselves. I’m actually not sure if “they” say that, but if “they don’t, “they” should. And Coach Saroka got these kids to bring in quotes about winning and that helped turn the season around. Butta started to think about the team. Shorty gave his heart and soul when he stopped caring about Cheryl, Drano helped Butta learn to do algebra and Spaceman stopped (kinda) getting high. And when they got to the championship game, despite all that was stacked against them, they nearly pulled off the impossible. David almost slew Goliath. But it wasn’t to be. They lost against Washington Heights when Drano’s last-second shot was blocked as he came off a Steph Curry-style screen-and-roll for a three. It was a valiant effort that came up short.

But they never should have been there and they made it. They lived on in infamy as a team that got to the mountaintop with mediocre coaching and quotes. And without a single player who would be able to play on a college basketball team. Nobody knows for sure what happened to all of the players, but I asked around and got some “I think I heard …” from a few folks. 

Butta might have gone into comedy. Shorty might have gone on to a music and acting career. Busy-Bee moved to Inglewood and joined a gang and ended up doing security for the Los Angeles Independent School District. Spaceman, well, last anybody heard of him he was living pretty well; it turns out he was the son of a hotel magnate and took over the business. So I suppose all’s well that ends well. 

It’s time to get live, it’s time to represent, Sunset Park what time is it!

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

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