Eli Horowitz | Medium Talk Co Creator
On Saturday, March 4th, at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Queens, Santo Cottone looked on as his son Gabrielle hustled up the court during an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball game. Cottone, a Long Island railroad worker from Glendale, has two sons playing for the Queens Pythons, an AAU program in its second year. Gabrielle plays on the 11-and-under (11U) team, while Damiano stars for 12U. His sons are both talented players who could likely earn spots on an established AAU team. But Cottone chose the Queens Pythons.
“When a glove fits, you just wear it,” he said at halftime of the game between the Pythons and 845 Elite.
Just moments into the second half, 845 Elite scored a basket to trim the Queens Pythons lead to 15-12. Pythons founder and coach Monserrate Olivera, known as Junior, took his glasses off and rubbed his forehead in frustration. At 6-foot-4, wearing a navy blue sweater with a bear embroidered into its center, black slacks and brown loafers, he towered over his players.
His 11U team was undefeated, and Olivera was not ready to cede their perfect record. He called a timeout and instructed his team to run their bread and butter play, “Tiger.” It worked. They scored, and immediately set up their relentless full court press. The Pythons held 845 Elite scoreless the rest of the game, and won 36-12, ending on a 19-0 run. An hour later, in their following game, they won 52-3 to remain undefeated.
It was then time for a Pythons team photo, and each boy clutched his gold trophy, enjoying the victory. Olivera stood behind them, smiling for the camera.
But moments like this are only a minuscule part of Olivera’s job.
Helming a new AAU program from the bottom up requires a lot more than just a mild interest in coaching basketball. Olivera founded the Queens Pythons in October of 2015 with the vision of one day joining the ranks of New York City AAU powerhouses like the Rens and the Gauchos. By February 2016, Olivera’s 501-3C application was approved, and the Pythons began their first full spring through summer AAU season. Now, gearing up for their second full season, Queens Pythons has eight teams from 8U through 17U, with over 100 players participating.
Rather than coach the 17U team, a more glamorous role that includes trips to nationals and lots of schmoozing with college coaches and recruiters, Olivera elected to coach 11U with the hope of developing them into great players by the time they’re upperclassmen in high school. He plans to move up with this class each season until they graduate. Additionally, part of his plan is to help them earn scholarships to private high schools. To Olivera, a private or Catholic school would give his players their best chance of being recruited by colleges.
“You get better coaches, better leadership, and you have the funding behind you,” said Olivera.
A quick look at the New York basketball landscape suggests Olivera is recognizing real trends. Of the last 32 top-100 recruits to come out of New York, boys or girls, 28 attended a private school.
“It’s a death sentence,” Olivera said of trying to get recruited from a public high school. “At a private, you have the village behind you. You get sneakers and gear.”
Olivera, a Latino and Italian 32-year old who grew up in Queens, takes this view from his personal experience. He attended Christ the King, a private, Catholic school his freshmen year before transferring to his local public school Grover Cleveland High School due to financial issues. Olivera was raised by his grandmother and didn’t have the resources to sustain his private education. Although he played three years of varsity basketball at Grover Cleveland and secured financial aid play basketball at SUNY Delhi, Olivera feels the transfer limited his exposure in the recruiting process.
“If I would have stayed at private school I would have had a lot of different options,” he said.
After finishing his two-year program at SUNY-Delhi, Olivera transferred to Columbia University where he got his degree in finance. Although he didn’t play basketball for Columbia, he got an education that led him to a private sector job. Now, during the day, he works as a paralegal at Casin & Casin LLP, a law firm specializing in real estate finance.
Two days after the Pythons victory over at 845 Elite, Olivera was far away from his world of basketball at his office, a lush building at the corner of 44th street and 3rd avenue in Manhattan. At 32, he’s at his fourth law firm with the same job title. He could’ve gotten his law degree in order to move up. But that’s not Olivera’s vision.
“I could never be able to do basketball and go to law school,” he said.
Olivera hopes Queens Pythons can grow into a full time enterprise and he can fully focus on his passion.
“If I could make what I make here in the basketball world, I’d be gone,” said Olivera.
To do so, he knows he needs to focus on developing his young players now so he can compete with established AAU powerhouses at the high school level. The Queens Pythons have a loaded 11U team that hasn’t lost a game since falling to the Rens by eight points last season. The potential is there. But focusing on basketball is only a sliver of the job in AAU, and Olivera has to log 40 to 50 hours a week to keep the Queens Pythons operating.
More established AAU teams often have a board of directors as well as volunteers in charge of various functions of the organization. Olivera said he has to do everything himself and doesn’t collect a salary. His responsibilities include marketing, social media, bookkeeping, booking hotels, booking travel, registering for tournaments, ordering gear, coaching two of the teams, finding new coaches, recruiting players, running practices and talking to college coaches. All of this on top of his nine-to-five paralegal job which he leaves each day to go immediately to AAU events. Training is on Monday. Practices for different age groups are Tuesday through Friday. Games are all day Saturday and Sunday.
After speaking with Olivera at his office, he rushed out of his work and onto the 7 line to Queens. Arriving in Jersey City after just one stop, he ran off the train to his car, parked two blocks from the station. He drove to Maspeth High School to pick up Niko Anders, a 22-year old student at LaGuardia Community College. Anders was a manager for the college team and fell in love with coaching. Now, he juggles a transfer application to Brooklyn College, coaching the 12U, 13U and 14U teams for Queens Pythons, while also serving as an assistant coach for the Maspeth High School basketball team.
“You have to be a little bit crazy to do what we do,” said Anders.
After picking up Anders, Olivera drove towards PS207 in Howard Beach for training. He picked up a player on the way. Upon arrival, a youth baseball team was already in the gym that Olivera has permits for every Monday. After a ninety-minute drive and two stops, with no time for dinner, Olivera then had to speak with the school administrator about the gym. Thirty parents would be arriving with their children shortly, expecting a workout. Although the baseball team has been using the school for fifteen years, they told Olivera he could have the gym and they would run their tryouts in the school cafeteria.
Players of all ages came for intensive workouts: calisthenics, weights, jump rope, shooting and conditioning. There were three sessions that ran till 9:30 pm. After, Olivera stopped at Wendy’s, his first meal of the day. Next he dropped off a player and then Niko. Just past midnight he sent me a message that he got home.
The Saturday before, hours before his 11U team won back-to-back games, Olivera arrived at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Queens at 10am. The center is in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, next to a gas station at Atlantic Avenue and 111th street, 30 minutes from Olivera’s place in Jersey City. It’s wasn’t his first stop of the day, he already dropped off his eight-year-old son in Long Island for a basketball game.
By 11am, his teams were decked out in their light blue camouflage uniforms, yellow socks and basketball shoes. About thirty parents looked on, seated in plastic chairs. A camera crew lined the players up in two rows. The photos were to be sent to Under Armour, the Queens Pythons gear sponsor. In exchange for gear, the Pythons must send proof of players wearing Under Armour in games and tournaments. To do so, Olivera must hire a photographer and constantly film and photograph events.
“I have to oversee everyone constantly,” he said.
As Olivera kept the photoshoot moving, collected entry fees from parents, and made announcements about the schedule of games, he took a brief moment to interact with his players.
“If Jayden makes that I’ll give him 20 bucks,” he joked, as the 11-year old lined up a half-court shot.
Jayden Brickhouse, the leading scorer for the undefeated 11U blue team, smiled and continued to hoist shots from the midline. His team wouldn’t play till 6pm, but Brickhouse was having fun with his teammates.
“Don’t you have a paper?” asked his mother Kiki Brickhouse.
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” responded Jayden, as he lobbed another shot at the basket.
Only a 6th grader, Brickhouse had the confidence and poise of someone much older, and attributed part of that to Olivera’s coaching style.
“When you mess up he tells you what you did wrong, but also what you did good,” he said.
With the photos wrapping up, Olivera beelined to the Next Generation gym for a game with his 10U yellow team. They were also undefeated and had a league matchup against a winless opponent. Minutes before the game, the other team was nowhere to be found.
Greg Lowe, the father of Jaylen Lowe, another promising player on 11U, sat in the stands watching his son practice shooting. Lowe said his son played Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball, but he wanted him on a more competitive team, so he sought out AAU. Seeing the Queens Pythons and Olivera as a good fit, Lowe brings Jaylen all the way from Hempstead, Long Island to participate.
“He’s a passionate coach. Passionate for teaching and learning,” said Lowe of Olivera.
After fifteen more minutes of waiting, the other team didn’t arrive and the game was a forfeit. Olivera approached the parents who had been patiently waiting to watch their kids play.
“We get the win, but we’re not learning anything by beating these teams by forfeit,” he told the parents. He continued explaining that they’re a young program still figuring out how to balance playing the most competitive teams but also playing as many games as possible. Inside, his frustration was clearly brewing from the lost opportunity to play a game. He couldn’t help himself as he finished his speech.
“I’m not scared of any team, the Rens, the Gauchos.”
There’s was no time for further explication, as Olivera had to get back to the Boys and Girls Club for a full slate of games. His 11U team wouldn’t play till six, but other age groups were playing all day. Hopping back into his car, he raced out of the parking lot. Olivera hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, and his gas tank was dangerously close to empty. He didn’t seem concerned. Olivera said since starting AAU, which is essentially a second full time job, he barely eats on these jam-packed weekends. He stopped working out, and routinely gets home at 11pm. Even in the one-hour break from games, he was calling parents at the Boys and Girls Club to make sure people were working the scorer’s table, collecting referee fees and coaches were present.
On the highway back to the gym, as the coach got animated explaining all the logistics of running a tournament, the car ran out of gas. Luckily, Olivera was in the right lane and able to pull over onto the shoulder. Olivera called five highway patrol numbers to no avail. While on hold, he furiously texted parents to help run the games while until he returned. An hour later, a parent came with a gallon of gas and he was on his way.