BOSTON –- On the eve of the City League playoffs, the New Mission boys basketball team came to the Reggie Lewis Center from all over the Boston, battling through white out conditions just to get to practice.
As backpacks and sweatshirts piled up on the floor next to court, the Titans players began loosening up with light jogging and stretching. When everyone was in the gym, one thing was clear:
It was time to work.
Practice began with sprints, base line to base line, down and back, three times over. When they failed to finish it in less than 30 seconds, the process began again.
The second attempt had the same result -– another 34-second finish.
Coach Cory McCarthy simply offered: “If you’re not ready to run, you’re not ready to play basketball. You’re not ready to compete”
Each player seemed ignited at the words, ready to prove him wrong, ready to race against each other.
“We usually get like 28, maybe 30 seconds,” said senior Fred "Bam" Rivers. “The fact that we were getting 34 was pretty frustrating. It made us want to work harder, and get out and compete with each other.”
After the third showing, a 28 second performance, New Mission was ready to move on. Still no basketballs in sight, the Titans undertook the “mirror drill,” an exercise focused around fundamentals like foot slides, reverse pivots and jumping.
Finally, 48 minutes into practice, the first basketball bounced across the court as Mission started reviewing some ways their offense might be able to break specific defensive sets they may see.
“We start off without a ball because we gotta get into the hard work so when a game comes we keep working hard without the ball. A lot of teams only work hard when they have the ball, so our fundamentals as a team help us get ready,” said senior Kordell Harris. “The thing is, we’re different from any other team. We’re New Mission. Nobody in the city likes us. We have to work twice as hard as anyone else. We have to do things nobody else does.”
That statement provides the very essence of the New Mission program. A program that believes in "Family, Loyalty, Discipline and Character", which is why F.L.D.C. is on all of their warm-up gear. A program that believes there’s much more than just being good at basketball.
“These kids just represent a good program,” said McCarthy. “We don’t ever want to be just a team. A program sustains wins and produces college students. If I never won a state championship, I wouldn’t care because our victories are already in kids going to college who didn’t think they could.”
In fact, for the six straight years now, every single senior on the New Mission basketball team has been admitted to a four year college. It’s part of the allure of why guys come to Mission, including all seven seniors on this year’s squad who have all already been accepted to four year institutions.
“When I was planning out what schools I wanted to go, New Mission was really a school I was thinking about because I know a lot of their students ended up going to good schools,” said Rivers. “I wanted that in my future.”
Basketball success has been obvious –- the Titans earned the top seed in the Division 2 North tournament this season and went on to win the program’s third sectional title in five years (they won the Div. 4 crown in 2010, then the Div. 2 title in 2011 – eventually winning state titles both years).
As a team, they’ve been equally effective hitting the books. As the season began eight of 13 kids landed on the honor roll (four of them tackling AP Calculus) and the team held a GPA of 3.23. The season wore on, so did the studies, and during the most recent marking period, Mission delivered a 3.19 GPA.
“New Mission, the program, is not based on just basketball,” said Harris. “It’s based on character. We, as a team, are one, we’re together, so we gotta help each other in the classroom. We gotta do the extra work, we gotta get close to teachers. This program is about a lot of commitment. We love playing basketball and that’s why we work as hard as we do in the classroom. It’s reflecting on us now."
Following the Leaders
Over and over, kids come into the New Mission program and get on board right away. Year after year, how does each class wind up like the one before it?
“It’s really the fact that we talk about college so much and the experiences that go with it,” said McCarthy. “My guys buy in because I always talk about college. They want to be able to go to bed at night with the lights on and their rooms messy, and no one punish them for it. They want to go to class, and hang out in the dining commons all day and meet girls.
"They want to experience studying abroad. They want to go on spring break. Those are the things that they don’t have here. They just see it as an opportunity, and the sports piece becomes so much less than what it is really important, which is a career.”
McCarthy makes sure to catch their attention as soon as they walk through the doors of New Mission, steering them toward success rather than dangers that can commonplace growing up in the city,
“Every kid that has come through here in the ninth grade has heard from me ‘how would you like to make 65,000 dollars in eight years? Get through high school, do well here, then four years in college and somebody will come looking for you.’”
Added Rivers: “I was 14, I was like wow, that’s something I really want to do. I just committed to the program.”
And so from the get go, New Mission players band together to be better basketball players, better students, and better people. It’s why they rally around being a family.
It recently became clear that graduating from high school couldn’t even separate these chosen brothers.
“They really are like brothers,” McCarthy said. “Some of my alumni have this group chat and it’s non-stop. When I check after practice I bet I’ll have messages on there. I didn’t check the group chat for two days and one of the kids wanted to quit (his college team), and three different guys talked him out of it.”
Supporting the guys they grew up with is one thing, but the New Mission bond runs much deeper than that just checking in on guys they played high school ball with.
“Every time we play a game, there’s five, six, seven of those guys texting to see if we won,” said McCarthy. "Like the kid Ousmane (Drame), he’s at Quinnipiac, and I’m like ‘dude, you’re playing in the MAAC right now.’ He has like 23 and 12 and seven blocks, then he’s calling me to find out how these dudes did. And he doesn’t even know them. They know who he is, and he wants to know who they are. These guys all come back in the summer and train together, and hang out together. They’re all in this together.”
It’s that closeness, that family bond, which leads to all of their successes, including their dominating on-court presence. It’s because they treat each other like brothers that they have no problem holding everyone on the team accountable on and off the court.
“It’s pretty easy because we know when a player is slacking because know each other so well,” said Harris. “We really go at it at practice. We just go intense, intense, intense. That one practice we see someone not themselves, we notice. We’re a family. We’re always together. We’re together outside of practice. We sleep over each other’s houses.”
That same brotherhood makes their practices as challenging as their games -– if not more so, because they have a sibling rivalry that exists every bit as much as if they grew up in the same house.
Never was this more on display than in the final drill during the practice before the City championships began. It was a drill that starts out with a two on one, and every time down the floor another odd man attacker was added. It grew to three-on-two, then four-on-three, and five-on-four before pitting a five on five match-up of New Mission players.
The rules were simple: No more than two dribbles before passing, no out of bounds and no fouls. McCarthy offered through a laugh “Watch this, this is the most competitive these guys get.”
And his players didn’t disappoint.
Battles back and forth ensued. At first, the games were played to seven, and as soon as one would get there, the other would head back to midcourt, calling for a best of three. When the best of three was decided, it turned into a best of five.
A new game was created, and this time to win each team needed a lay-up, jump shot and 3-pointer to win. Once again, one game, two games, three games couldn’t decide a winner and every time a team lost, they’d lay down a new challenge, no one willing to quit. Finally McCarthy had to step in and put a stop to it.
“Everybody wants to compete and really go at each other in practice,” said Rivers. “None of us likes losing to each other. We just don’t. It makes the games that much easier.”
Two days after that practice, the Titans captured the program’s first ever City League championship. The intensity New Mission drums up trying to get the best of each other in practice certainly appeared to make life easier throughout the sectional tourney as they won all four games by at least 11 points.
Now New Mission, winners of 22 games this year –- including 19 straight, is two wins away from it’s ultimate mission of capturing another state title, a big reason McCarthy’s players are still so on board with focusing on conditioning and fundamentals more than three months after their first practice.
“They’ve had their heart broken before,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes, to get your kids to play with heart, they have to experience heart break. Every program that’s doing well has sort of struggled before. For us to lose in the first round two years ago and the second round last year, especially the way we lost with all those injuries, they don’t want that to be them.”
That’s why no one should be surprised when a basketball is nowhere in sight at the beginning of New Mission’s practices, leading up to Tuesday’s EMass. finals against Milton.