Yonkers’ Jamison earns respect of inner-city boys she coaches
By Jane McManus
The Journal News
(Original Publication: February 7, 2007)
|Rohanna Mertens/The Journal News
YONKERS – It’s a Monday night, and coach Tracee Jamison is dribbling the ball on a three-quarter-length basketball court and yelling to the young men around her.
“Set picks,” she said, playing the part of the point guard. “That’s your job. You’re going to get the ball if you take care of me.”
Someone whispers, and Jamison looks up with wide eyes.
“You got something to share with us? Because I could have sworn I was the coach,” she said.
Jamison, 42, lives in Yonkers and coaches the kids who can’t afford much in the way of summer camp and private coaching. Some of these kids might be seen as difficult, and most won’t get the child-of-an-alumnus benefit when applying for colleges. They are at times troubled and charming, talented and complicated, with hopes that include playing their way into a college they might not otherwise appeal to.
Three years ago when Alberto Reyes, a senior at Ossining, joined Jamison’s program, he hadn’t ever played for a woman and didn’t know what to expect.
“I got the hang of it,” Reyes said. “I think a woman coach is better than a male coach because she understands the heart. She’s the best coach I ever had.”
Greater Opportunities Start Here – or GOSH, for short – was started by Jamison as an independent basketball program three years ago. It offers one team for kids 15-and-under and another for players 17-and-under. A third team, a combination of the other two, plays an AAU schedule in the summer and has been to the national tournament in Orlando, Fla., for the last three years.
When Jamison walked into the coaches’ meeting that first year, she looked around a room filled with 350 of her peers. She was the only woman, not counting hotel staff. Today – on National Girls and Women in Sports Day – she is one of the many women carving out new roles for her gender.
She is strong enough to handle the challenge, be it proving herself in Orlando, quelling a fight or explaining to a 17-year-old why he isn’t getting a lot of playing time. Her sister, Angela Aponte, is an assistant coach, and they see their gender as a benefit.
“We deal with inner-city kids, and the majority of heads of households are female,” Aponte said. “So a lot of those kids give respect to an African-American female.”
Aponte and Jamison have opened their hearts and their home. When one player was arrested, he called Jamison. When another was locked out after missing curfew, he spent the night on the sisters’ couch. Trouble with teammates, with coaches, with parents – it’s all part of life.
Aponte brings her 2-year-old son, Jonathan, to a few of the practices each week. The curly-haired child has favorites, and one night Alfonso Ellerbee picked him up to use the water fountain. All night long, Jonathan tugged on Ellerbee and pointed to the fountain.
“He’s like the joy of the team,” said Tony Gonzalez, a senior who plays on the Lincoln varsity. “He’s up when everyone is down.”
One thing is clear: Jamison knows her basketball. She grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, playing for Thomas Jefferson High School. After graduating, she went to SUNY New Paltz and played as a walk-on, earning her degree in 1988. She worked during the summers and incurred loans for that diploma, but her grandmother and the aunts who raised her stressed its importance.
“I wanted to get out,” said Jamison, who works in midtown Manhattan as a radio-advertisements buyer for Mediacom. “I didn’t want to stay there, and I felt like in order to succeed, you have to get an education.”
Marelle Edwards sat on the sideline a recent Tuesday night. The Ossining senior was filling out a college application to a school in Virginia.
Edwards said that, for the most part, he had been a good student before joining GOSH, where he needs to have a C-plus average in order to play. His father, Mel, is one of Jamison’s assistants, and when Marelle doesn’t have a game or a school obligation, he practices with GOSH at the PEARLS Hawthorne School.
“I know she’s the real deal,” Edwards said. “Everyone who comes here, they know that from the start.”
Nilda Guzman overheard Jamison on the train one evening, talking about the team as they both commuted home. Guzman, whose 15-year-old daughter, Ariel, plays for Our Lady of Victory in Dobbs Ferry, struck up a conversation.
Jamison told Guzman to bring her daughter to play. And why not? How could Jamison justify excluding a talented young player because she was a girl? It would have gone against everything she believed.
“Here, I see no color or gender,” Jamison said. “I see one thing: a ball.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to be the program’s only girl. Ariel said she knew playing against stronger opponents would make her better, but she was in for a little shock her first few practices.
“They were big, so I was intimidated,” Ariel said.
The point guard was the smallest player on the court.
“The coach will tell the boys, ‘Don’t go easy on her. She’s here to get better and you’re not doing her justice,’ ” Nilda said.
Jamison doesn’t charge anyone to play. She has pulled money out of her own pocket and gotten donations from companies she does business with across the country. Mike Strawn’s company, Cox Radio in Atlanta, gave enough money for Jamison to purchase T-shirts and basketballs from Anaconda earlier this year.
“She’s very genuine,” said Strawn, the national sales manager at Cox. “If you don’t know her, she might come across as a little abrasive. But if you know her, she really cares. It makes it easy to support her.”
He recalled once that he went to meet her at the lobby of her Atlanta hotel when she was in town on business, and she was yelling into the phone, oblivious to everyone around her. It took him a few seconds before he realized what was happening, but then it made so much sense.
“She was coaching a basketball game back in New York,” Strawn said with a laugh. “She was yelling plays. It was so Tracee.”
Reach Jane McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org.