HEART OF THE GAME

SPorts On Earth

Chuck Culpepper
April 25, 2014

coffino-mainBasketball coach John Coffino’s brotherhood with his players goes beyond the court — he shares a fraternity-style house with 15 of them. (Chuck Culpepper)

NAIROBI, Kenya — My new favorite coach throws a bag of Skittles from the third-floor window to the four Kenyan kids playing in the driveway next door and implores, “Share!” He chats up the café wait staff in the nearby shopping mall, and the guys sitting on motorcycles along the way home and maybe even the livestock who occasionally parade through that passage. He recently made grilled cheese sandwiches for his players who’d never had them.

They raved.

On Easter Sunday, my new favorite coach wore one deeply meaningful ribbon.

Not many American coaches ever say on game day, “I don’t want to hear any laughter on the way to the matatu,” but my new favorite coach does. (The matatu is a Kenyan van-bus hybrid.) Not many American coaches can get by in Swahili, but this one can. Not many American coaches treat their players to sugar cane from a vendor after a win, but this one just did. And not many American coaches can tell harrowingly of getting hit by a boda boda, but, oh, wait:

“I got hit by a motorcycle, right in front of the mall,” said John Coffino, 51, my new favorite coach. “Knocked out. Concussion. Cut everywhere. The motorcycle was wrecked. The matatu let me off on the highway where he shouldn’t have, but I liked it — but as soon as I turned, the guy hit me on the highway. And the cop was right there. He woke me up. He says, ‘Are you hurt?’ I said, ‘I like sleeping on the highway.’”

On the ride home from a tournament in Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, the view included giraffes, zebras and wildebeest.

You don’t get many of those in the MAAC.

Coffino grew up on Bussing Avenue in the Bronx and at the outdoor court at P.S. 87. He can swoon knowledgeably about New Park Pizza on Cross Bay Boulevard near JFK. He has assistant-coached at St. Peter’s, Niagara and Iona; and head-coached in the sub-NBA pro terrain of Albany, Albuquerque and College Station. He also lives in a veritable basketball frat house with 15 of his 17 players, ages 16 through 22 — South Sudanese and Kenyans and Congolese who between them speak Swahili, English, French, Arabic, Dinka…

“And basketball,” said the Team Dankind Academy founder, a remarkable 26-year-old British-Canadian named Daniel Peers-Hoegen.

The owner also lives in the house.

The laundry outside on the line is quite a sight itself. It’s some long laundry.

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When 15 basketball players share a house, shoe storage gets tricky. (Chuck Culpepper)My new favorite coach makes $70 a week for this job and lives in a house that was recently without water for a week. “I took a shower after nine days,” Coffino said. “It was cold. The power goes out for a couple of days. It’s amazing, I’ve gotten used to it. It’s humbling. It’s very humbling. Like, ‘If I can live here, man…’ We’re spoiled.” He recently taught Monopoly and Uno to players who had never played Monopoly or Uno. “And they learned it, like that!” Coffino said. “And they became ruthless at it! ‘Pay me! You landed on my property!’” He can tell you that lions seek out frailty and baboons are devious; he has learned those things from players who fled through nights from what was then southern Sudan. He marvels that players whose tribes were at war in South Sudan share living quarters and a basketball brotherhood in Nairobi.

Said the 6-foot-9 South Sudanese player (and gentleman) John Jock Chuol Jock, “Living in this house is like an opportunity for me where you’ve got your bed, you’ve got your meal, and we live as brothers. Everyone is taking care to one another…I’m very happy to be part of this.”

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John Jock Chuol Jock hopes to get a scholarship at an American university. (Chuck Culpepper)Jock lived two of his formative years in northwest Kenya at Kakuma, the humongous refugee camp. As Peers-Hoegen said of the players, “Obstacles and challenges just kind of bounce off them.”

Technically, my new favorite coach didn’t even coach the game I watched in a church with a concrete floor on the court and music blaring over the wall from the sanctuary. That’s forgivable. He went technical-foul nuts the previous week when a foe knocked one of his players into one of the dangerous basket stanchions, and the referee forbade him to coach this time around. In his stead went Robbie Peers — Daniel’s father, a frequent visitor and one of the best-ever coaches in the British Basketball League. The players, still chesty from taking the national champions to the wire in an exhibition two nights prior, slumbered out to a 29-16 deficit before recalibrating impressively. The team romped while Coffino chomped — over in the corner.

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The cement floor of a church doubles as a court. (Chuck Culpepper)Out by the side of the church afterward, he addressed the team: “I’m sorry that I let you down. You didn’t let me down. Thanks for a great second half.”

And he wept, his big heart pretty much visible.

Yeah, that’s my new favorite coach.

He still wears that meaningful ribbon, seven months on.

“Hey, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “I’ve had some run-ins with the guys because I’ve lost my cool and said some things I regret. I mean, I’m not Father Duffy or Mother Teresa. But we got through it. We got through it. They know I care. See, let me tell you something: Players don’t care how much you know, but they know how much you care. You know? And that’s very important to me. They need to know that you have their back. And they had my back today.”

After the game, at lunch in the mall near home, he said a loss would have consigned him to a reclusive evening. It’s a reminder of how this game, wherever it may occur, forever eats at — and eats up — the subspecies known as the basketball coach. Instead, the team reached 2-0, and has since reached 3-0 coming off a championship season in a lower division, a reminder that among the vast semi-anonymous dwell numerous excellent coaches.

When he arrived last August, he found players of a startling rawness — and as Peers-Hoegen points out, African rawness is rawer than American rawness. “They were raw as an onion,” Coffino said. They would miss layups in drills and laugh about it; he put a stop to that. They would joke around downstairs on game mornings; he put a stop to that. They didn’t tend to stretch on their own before games; he put a start to that.

“It was tough at first,” he said, “because they didn’t fight me. They actually felt bad. And I’ve had many meetings in my room, they come — when I’ve disciplined somebody — knocking on my door and saying, ‘Coach, I’m really sorry for disappointing you. You know, coach, they teach us not to disappoint the elders. And coach, you’re like a father figure to us and we would never want to disappoint the fathers.’ So it’s incredible! Just incredible. I mean, how do I get mad at somebody like that?

“I’ve learned how to coach all over again. I’ve learned how to reteach. Because, you know, you get a little stale as a coach. You never stop learning, but this brought me back to the basics, and it’s really fun. At first, I was like, ‘I’ve got to teach these grown young men how to play the game, when I’m used to Americans already going through systems of high school and grammar school and AAU. They play ball everywhere, in schoolyards everywhere.’ These guys, they want to play basketball — they watch basketball — but all they want to do is dunk and shoot threes. They don’t know how to set a screen. They don’t know how to cut. Now they have all the terminology. You know? It’s a lot of fun.”

As they improved toward that championship in the 26-team, third tier of Kenyan basketball — and gained promotion into the 16-team second tier they’re playing now — they felt the resentment of crowds cheering against them.

Coffino assured them that was a privilege.

Snags do abound. There’s frequent talk of embassy hold-ups and visa complications. Visa renewal in Juba, the capital of the nascent country of South Sudan, is a two-day bus ride away. There was the grind of finding a good practice court, until Peers-Hoegen spotted one that needed painting but worked beautifully, at a Mormon church a mile and a half from home. It’s close to a non-fragrant pork slaughterhouse, but a team of very tall African men jogs to it many mornings at 7 a.m. nowadays. Even with that luxury, Coffino and Peers found some interlopers using the court one recent Saturday and had to mine an uncomfortable situation and persuade them to leave.

Sometimes, the peculiar strain of creating something would just about get to Peers-Hoegen. “I’ll never forget, I was in my room and I was just really down about whether this was gonna work or not,” he said. “All the guys were downstairs and they were just laughing, you know, joking around, just like, ‘Whoa, it’s for them at the end of the day, so, like, I might as well do this, and get it done…’”

After all, basketball begets uncommon hope here. It stirs dreams of potential scholarships at American universities. The role model: Luol Deng from southern Sudan, the Dinka tribe and the NBA. “I check it every day, the student visa,” Jock said. “What are the qualifications? I read, I read, I read. I look at what they need from me for [the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi] to grant me that visa. So I have to get everything right.” And: “I don’t quit in my life.” And: “I know when I’ve got challenges, this is the time for me to learn.”

He’s 20 years old.

So my new favorite coach buys sugar cane but doesn’t sugarcoat. “I was on unemployment,” he said of his pre-Kenya time. He lived a while with his sister in Los Angeles. Of his four surviving siblings — a brother died at age 19 in the Vietnam War — he said, “They’re all doing well, all of them. I’m the black sheep, there’s no question, but I’m doing what I love. I would love to make money. Are you kidding? I love money. My father always said to us, ‘Don’t let money define who you are.’ So I’m not. I’m not. I do waste it. But I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs.”

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The team grabs a post-game snack from a sugar cane vendor. (Chuck Culpepper)

He does do grilled cheese.

And he still wears that ribbon.

He wears it because, to supplement his income, he took on two other teams, both at the International School of Kenya, meaning more long matatu rides in his carless Nairobi life. That led him to coach the junior varsity girls, and that led him to coach Nuriana Merali, an inspiring 15-year-old point guard who died last September alongside her mother and 65 other victims in the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall.

You can still read the resonance of the memorial service on Coffino’s face as he describes: “They were painted blue, her mother and her. Flowers around them. Had them on the floor, in a hangar. Chanting and singing. It was very moving. Two lines for viewing. You had to be on your knees.” Life had brought him to comprehend the profundity and cruelty of the loss.

He had tried China, which didn’t work. He had tried Qatar, which didn’t work. Yet after Peers contacted him through a mutual friend, he found Kenya — and meaning. “I didn’t know if I was gonna last,” Coffino said. “I was afraid of getting malaria…all these horror stories. Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy for going.’ Now everybody’s saying, ‘What a great thing.’ Last night we were having dinner, and I’m [joking], ‘Yeah, I really need to get back to the 9-to-5 job. This sucks here.’ We’re having a blast, you know?”

That’s because my new favorite coach is on to one of life’s great secrets: There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as surmounting fears and embracing frontiers.


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