The school day is over at Intermediate School 90 in Washington Heights, and Nick Blatchford watches as seventy adolescent boys and girls gather to play basketball. However, the director of the Warriors Program for Student Athletes isn't planning the strategy for the next game.
He's working on new ways to motivate these middle-school students to study just as hard as they play. "We never want basketball to be the most important thing," says Blatchford. "Basketball is the hook, not the emphasis."
His passion for sports, he says, motivated him through high school at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and on to Duke, where he was a receiver on the Blue Devil football team in 1990 and 1991. After graduation, he taught English in Croatia and coached the Croatian junior national basketball team.
Blatchford came to Intermediate School 90 in 1997 to teach English and social studies and coach basketball. After three years, he says, he decided he had seen too many teens striving for basketball greatness but failing to develop skills to graduate from high school or to get a college degree for success off the court as adults.
He decided to establish a program "emphasizing discipline, hard work, and respect for others" for New York City's fledgling student athletes. His concept for the Warriors led to his leaving teaching in 2000 and launching the program through the Children's Aid Society, a nonprofit group that provides after-school activities at Intermediate School 90.
" I believe in the power of sports to motivate and help kids achieve in the classroom and in life," says Blatchford.
The program is thriving, and academic achievement for these students is rising in a culture where the improbable dream of playing professional basketball too often overshadows the desire to work for a college education. The program's staff has grown to two full-time and twenty-five part-time employees, serving adolescents in six New York City schools and providing basketball and tutoring to 700 youths every Saturday.
From 3 to 8 p.m., when most teens are just hanging out, the teens in Warriors are meeting with tutors, attending SAT prep classes, practicing basketball, or competing in tournaments.
The Saturday program, supported by the National Basketball Association Read to Achieve program, requires two hours of literacy training with volunteers before the fledgling hoopsters hit the court.
Blatchford has a team for elite high- school players, who compete in regional and national Amateur Athletic Union contests, and ten traveling teams for fifth- through twelfth-graders, who play in the New York metropolitan area. All of his programs are augmented by a growing number of volunteer tutors, including several Duke alumni, who come to Intermediate School 90 to help with homework and literacy skills.
Aruna Inalsingh M.B.A. '95, who has tutored for more than a year, used her marketing skills last summer to promote the Warriors' first fund-raising event, a 3-on-3 competition in Manhattan, emceed by NBA Hall of Famer Nate "Tiny" Archibald.
" What I like about the program is that it's a student-athlete program, and the student comes first," says Inalsingh. "Nick is inspiring both to the volunteers and the kids."
Blatchford's program prepares his students for the city's best academic schools. He has also forged relationships with admissions counselors at prestigious Northeastern prep schools seeking motivated student athletes from inner-city neighborhoods to bring diversity to their institutions.
There are now three students from Intermediate School 90 at St. Albans School and twenty-three at other prep schools. Eighteen Warriors are now in college.
Duke alumni have played major roles in the program. Bryan Knust '97 has coached and directed academic programs. Nine of the seventeen members of the Warriors' board of advisers are Duke alumni, including Derrick Mashore '79, a former Duke linebacker. His son Max trained with the Warriors last summer and plans to play on the AAU team in 2003.
Mashore says the Warriors' focus on youth development, rather than winning at all costs, is crucial for young athletes in the world of youth basketball world. "I think an evil empire is swallowing up our kids, particularly those who are athletes. But Nick has managed to build an alternative. His program has been spectacular, both in its objective and execution."
--Wilson is a New York-based freelance writer.
Nick Blatchford '94
January 31, 2003