INNER-city basketball attracts all types. Hustlers who pocket cash for steering prospects to college coaches. Genuine Samaritans. Combinations of each. Then there's the man who calls himself simply Mr. Page. ``He's a genius,'' says Drederick Irving, a former player for a New York City basketball club named the Gauchos, who went on to play at Boston University and now works at New England Life.
Page dislikes his first name ``intensely'' and therefore never uses it. He claims the Gauchos had to drag him bodily to their gym. ``They got me out of my garden,'' he says. ``They volunteered my time.''
It couldn't have been too hard. This is a man who used to walk all the way from this South Bronx neighborhood - where he's lived for 30 years - to Stone Gymnasium at Columbia University to coach a neighborhood team. He's a man who taught school by day, worked as a city policeman at night, and still found time to start a playground team called ``The New Breed.'' He paid the expenses himself, except for the year James Brown, the ``Godfather of Soul,'' picked up the bill. (Page met him while policing outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem.)
``I don't say it was easy,'' Page says, coming about as close as he does to high-sounding utterance. ``But I thought it was important.''
Sitting with Page at the Gauchos' gym in an old warehouse in the South Bronx, one suspects that he still does.
The Gauchos are a premier basketball club, known widely for players they send to college and the pros - players such as Ed Pinckney of the Boston Celtics and Mark Jackson of the New York Knicks. During a tournament last year, 85 coaches from Division I schools squeezed into the Gauchos' crowded grandstands.
But the Gauchos aren't just about basketball. ``They are a tremendous organization,'' says Peter Gillen, basketball coach at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Their players are ``a cut above a lot of other kids,'' he adds.
The Gauchos' founder is Louis d'Almeida, a New York businessman from Argentina who is a basketball version of Eugene Lang - the millionaire who promised a whole class in Harlem he would pay their way through college if they graduated from high school.
Mr. d'Almeida built the Gauchos' dazzling new gym (see accompanying story), raises money, and pays the bills. He helps needy players pay tuition at parochial or private schools, and generally uses basketball as a lure to get fragile lives on track. The Gauchos' coaches watch their players' grades, provide tutoring, offer a sanctuary from the streets. ``All the kids bring problems,'' says Dave Jones, a coach who manages the gym. ``This is their outlet.''
In ``Heaven is a Playground,'' a classic account of inner-city basketball, Rick Telander recalls how the kids at a Brooklyn playground dragooned him into coaching. ``You don't have to do much,'' one of them pleaded. ``Just run us through some drills, put dudes in and out and, you know, keep some order.''
Male authority and order may be lacking in the world of many Gauchos. But there's no shortage in the Gauchos' gym. Mr. Jones, a stocky young man, rules with an iron hand. No food. No horsing around. ``This is their building and they gotta treat it like their building,'' Jones says.
Coaching the 12-to-14 age group, Jones is a relentless taskmaster, stopping the action every few minutes to make his displeasure known. There is a price for error: wind sprints and push-ups for missed foul shots and layups. Losers in scrimmage games run around the court lugging heavy punching bags.
``You can't save everyone,'' Jones says. ``If you save one, it's still worth it.''
Page sits, offering comments from time to time. He wears a baseball cap, running shoes, and shorts, an Afro comb perched in the back pocket. Along with his aversion to his first name, he also hates to have his picture taken. ``Everybody has his idiosyncracies,'' he says. ``That's mine.''
Sometimes Page works with older players. Rod Strickland, the Knicks guard who grew up just around the corner, still comes in for workouts. But Page prefers the little fellows - the ``Biddies'' - age five and up. ``They are more amenable to coaching,'' he explains. ``You seldom see a little kid tell you, `I can't' or `I don't know how.'''
Page is gentle with the Biddies, but a taskmaster still. The kids begin with ``Gorilla Walks,'' bounding sideways around the court, touching their hands to the ground. Then they dribble two balls at once, back and forth, hurling imaginary passes against the wall. Then ``power moves,'' picking a ball off the floor, spinning toward the basket, and leaping as they put it against the backboard.
Page watches every move. ``Richie, there something wrong with your left hand?'' he shouts to a boy using his right hand from the left side of the basket.
The kids revel in the structure and attention. One gets the impression they would dribble to Trenton, N.J., and back if Page asked them. One boy from Queens takes three subway trains and a bus, six days a week, to play for Page.
``Every day I always find something they do well,'' Page says. ``After a while, they'll do anything I ask.''
An older boy is on the bench near Page, doing one-legged knee bends with weighted jackets, like boxers use. Then he skips with a thick, weighted rope. Though only 14, the boy's chest and shoulders are starting to ripple like taut cables. ``That's my son,'' Page says. ``I just work him to death, that's all.''
Page has 13 sons in all. He's on his third batch of offspring, and the oldest is 50-something. (``I lose track,'' he says.) That revelation prompts a double take. Page moves with an athlete's easy gait, and almost looks as though he could go one-on-one with anyone in the gym. But then, he says he never played basketball in his life.
``Son, that's not heavy,'' he interjects to the boy huffing with the heavy rope. ``It's all in your mind.''
Page talks the rhythms of the street, but with a learned civility. He chides Laura Roth, the Gauchos' fund-raiser, for a run-on sentence in a letter she has shown him. He has a hip, ironic quality; yet he's a stickler for fundamentals, in all respects.
Why don't these kids, obviously intelligent, do better on Scholastic Aptitude Tests? ``They are not well read,'' he says. ``That's the key. [As a teacher] I required every kid to read a book a week, and give me a book report.'' He also insisted that they read the New York Times every day. He has one of his Biddies reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
But doesn't basketball take a lot of their time? ``I bet each kid out there watches 10 hours of TV a week,'' he says. ``If you can watch TV, darn it, you can read a book.''
Page knows all about these kids, their siblings, how few have fathers. He spends almost $100 a week on subway fare and pizzas for them. They call him up, tell him things they don't tell their parents - things he wouldn't want to see in the newspaper.
But there are hints. At one point, he summons a shy eight-year-old to his ``office'' on the bench. The boy stands before him, eyes to the ground, sneakers about two sizes too big.
``Look me in the eye, son,'' Page says. His voice is firm but gentle, meaning business but not harm. ``Why are you telling me you are 10 years old? I know you are eight.''
``How you know that?'' the boy replies, avoiding Page's eyes.
``Your birth certificate told me,'' Page says. ``Your momma told me.''
``Look me in the eye, son. You want to be here real bad. And you don't want me not to want you. You know why I want you? Because you are eight. If you were 10, I'd kick you outta here.'' Redeemed, the boy prances back out to the court.
``His mother is a crackhead,'' Page says.