When Ted Gustus was a boy, he found his mother dead, lying on the floor of their railroad flat in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. In the background, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” was playing.
Both of them, mother and child, were affected by her alcohol abuse. But Gustus was no victim. Simultaneously, he experienced a death and a birth of sorts.
That adverse circumstance, Gustus said was what pushed him toward a lifelong commitment to bettering his community, eventually becoming one of New York’s most legendary high school basketball coaches, youth mentors and educators. Among those who have been under his tutelage are Detroit Pistons’ champion John Salley, Dallas Mavericks’ All-Star Rolando Blackmon, and actor Duane Martin among many others.
I met Gustus, 61, whose coaching resume stretches back 43 years from John Jay College of Criminal Justice to several NYC high schools, at a youth event in Brooklyn and later had a chat with him. He told me about his experiences which he chronicles in his book “Confessions of a M.A.D. Black Coach.” He explained to me why breathing the same life into the world around him — particularly with the African American boys he has coached — is important.
NewsOne: Coming from your background and the things you’ve had to face, what led you in this direction?
Coach Gustus: That last breath my mother took, it actually was her breath to transcend into another whole eternal life, but it also was the breath that was breathed into me and it just totally changed my life from that point on. We all have an opportunities to breathe life into our communities, as individuals, as a people. So just as we lose life, we can also breathe life into them. My whole goal has been to get out and do that.
NewsOne: So what got you involved in athletics?
Coach Gustus: I played basketball starting in ninth grade. I was introduced to basketball by a schoolteacher at Junior High School 57 and that was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me because I needed some structure, I needed some discipline. I needed all those things because I didn’t have my father around, and sports was able to provide that for me. From there, I went on to Canarsie High School where I played ball and went to city championships. But at around 17 years old, I started forming my own basketball teams and my whole goal was to improve the quality of life for young men. That was the start of me empowering young men.
NewsOne: Yes, you’ve said you started forming your own teams as an alternative to gang violence.
Coach Gustus: Exactly. In fact, when I started the teams the gangs back then were the Jolly Stompers and all the other different types of gangs. Basically I said I’m not getting involved with that. In junior high school I was around gang activity, but once I got introduced to basketball, I saw a team as similar to a gang. So I created these basketball teams. I created the Ditmars All-Stars Basketball Team back in 1973 and in a park I grabbed some guys and started coaching and mentoring them. When I started I had 10 or 12 and before you know it I had about 100 young men I could never get rid of, and that became the story of my life from that point on.
NewsOne: But you were a city basketball champ. Didn’t you have aspirations of going to the NBA?
Coach Gustus: My coach at Canarsie High School, Mark Reiner, was another person that breathed life into this concept of me going out and being a community-minded person. Just like any other ball player, I wanted to go to the NBA, I wanted to play professional basketball, I wanted to go to top schools. I was a very good basketball player. He says to me: “Teddy, I know you want to play NBA ball, I know you want to go to the top college, but your community really needs you.” He’d seen how I worked with kids even while I was playing ball in high school and said “your community needs you to really do that, and I want you to take that into consideration when you decide on colleges.”
NewsOne: So at what point did you realize that you could be a haven for young people who hung around you?
Coach Gustus: NBA referee Derek Richardson wrote a passage for my upcoming book. He said when he was a kid coming up and he had all these issues going on with his family, he was approached by gang members. I [then] approached the gang members and told them that the guys who were a part of my basketball program are off-limits and I didn’t want them recruited. These were my guys. He said for the first time, the gangs never came anywhere near him and he felt protected. So protection is very important. How do you give protection? By being consistent, meaning you’re committed and caring on a regular basis. And that’s what they see, my Three C’s: Commitment, Consistency and Caring.
NewsOne: We all know that coaches are surrogate parents in many cases. Are you comfortable in that role?
Coach Gustus: I’ve always been very comfortable in that role. I understood at a very early age the power a coach has in our communities. I came up with a 12-step game plan to help transform “boys in the hood” to responsible young men in the neighborhood. It allows for the coaches to exercise the power that they have over our community. One of the most powerful people in our communities are the coaches. I know people tell us to run away from sports, we spend more hours in sports than we do our studies. But if we could impact the leaders and give them the tools to help transform these young men, that’s where it starts.
NewsOne: These boroughs are rough places to grow up for a boy. How do you develop a narrative that tells them to straighten out?
Coach Gustus: One thing about our young people is that they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Before you teach them, before you teach them basketball, try to teach them in the school system, once they find out that you care then you become that once source that they connect to and it never changes. Then you begin to help change and shape their lives. However, you have to be right as well. When I was a younger coach, I went to every basketball clinic [by] John Wooden, a masterful coach—and I’m not just talking about basketball. His coaching skills are tremendous life-wise. Phil Jackson, tremendous life skills. These guys taught life skills that were greater than the game of basketball. This is how you create a space for our young people to transform.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter: @madisonjgray