Michael grew up in the Parkchester section of The Bronx in the late 60s and 70s when kids went outside, chose up teams and played. He played baseball, basketball, football or some other type of game all day long, often until his father had to come out to get him as it got dark. Michael points out that he scored the first boys point ever at Villa Maria Academy as he was part of the first group of boys to attend the school and the 5th grade boys played the 8th grade girls. As he recalls, it was no match with the boys losing by about 25-1, but he did have that one point on a free throw.
What inspired you to form the Escalades?
The inspiration for coaching is the ability to teach kids a skill and weave it into life lessons. When I was young a couple of coaches and teachers really helped me out. I am hoping to pay that back and keep the cycle going. My Dad was also a coach and my Mom has always been a great competitor. I think a lot of the inspiration comes from them.
The Escalades teams 4th grade to 11th all run the same system on offense and defense. We play man-to-man defense only until High School. We believe that playing zone with young kids is awful for development and is just about winning games. We have gone through entire seasons without facing man-to-man defense. If you don’t teach man you are only learning half of the game. We also run an offense without set plays. It is a progressive system that adds on each year. All players touch the ball and everybody is always moving. The most important thing about the Escalades is our commitment to diversity. We want kids from every background to play together, kids who would never have met each other otherwise.
What in your background prepared you to launch a youth basketball program?
I have been coaching and/or administrating youth sports for almost 20 years. I played baseball in High School and College but I was quite mediocre. I started coaching after school and found it rewarding and the kids started having a lot of success. These were kids who had not done well before. I eventually became the President of the Princeton LL and was also the co founder of the Princeton Basketball Club, an AAU program in New Jersey with boys and girls teams from 4th to 11th grade.
I spent five years coaching basketball under Clarence White at Princeton. I learned more from him then anybody else I ever played for or coached with. Clarence had played under some of the best old school coaches in his career and brought it all to the table. I gave up baseball coaching around 2005 and went solely for basketball because I felt I was helping the kids more with basketball, plus I couldn’t clean up one more post-rain baseball field. Who knew field turf was going to end all the landscaping issues!
How has the landscape of youth sports in NYC changed/evolved since you were a kid growing up?
My first organized sport was playing Little League at 9 or 10 years olds.. It was maybe 10 games in 2 months. That was it. The only kids who played AAU or travel back then were the most gifted athletes. The entire city only had one or two legit programs up until the 90s. In the 70s or 80s, AAU teams would go to tournaments and take the best kids from the losing teams and add them to the winning teams until they had a state team. Could you imagine if that happened now? Parents would go nuts. Even from the late 90s the expansion of travel level sports has been explosive. Very few kids played travel level even then. Now almost every kid has at least tried it.
The game-by-game level of play is lower now then it was but the number of competent players is way up. Now every program has 2 or 3 levels. The travel level is eating the rec level. The big downside is the kid who just wants to dabble probably doesn’t have a place. I think we could go on all day about specialization for kids in sports. The thing I do know is that kids who have stayed with me over the years have done much better than those who left organized sports. As a way to fill time in a constructive manner I don’t think many things can compare to being part of a good program that is taking the whole kid into account.
The upper level of AAU basketball is controlled by sneaker companies and is becoming a real problem. Turning these 9th and 10th grade kids into a commodity is mind blowing. I question the motivation of many of the adults involved with the sneaker circuits.
What do you do when you’re not coaching basketball?
I try to get to the gym when I can but I have been on the wrong side of that equation lately. Historically, I golf and spend time with my family. I would have to say the last year or two has been mostly work or basketball. I am hoping to do some fun stuff this summer. I spend a lot of time watching basketball videos. It is amazing how much great info is out there. My son, Coach Ian Finnen, and I talk (and argue sometimes) about schemes and ideas. It is a wonderful game.
How do you manage a career on Wall Street and coaching youth basketball?
I like to be busy. I have been a part of the New York Stock Exchange for nearly 30 years but the last seven have not been anything like the first 23. The advent of computerized trading has made it a much more serene place.
What do you look for when you hire a coach to work with kids?
First and foremost I look for teachers. My coaches must have basketball knowledge that they can convey to the kids and an understanding of the team game We also need coaches who are willing to check their ego at the door. Their playing time is over. It’s the kids’ time now.
When teaching young kids about basketball, what is something you stress?
Learning something the right way will travel anywhere you play. Part of the right way is to excel in school and realize you must sacrifice some social time to become good. Being a Scholar Athlete is not easy these days. It takes making the right choices. We are always preparing them for playing in High School and the choices they will need to make.
What are the particular challenges of doing what you do in NYC?
My partner Joe Masters has done a great job getting us gym space .The administration at Manhattan Center have been amazing. We are starting to expand now and so far so good with space.
How do you deal with parents who think their child is destined for athletic stardom?
The one promise I make to parents is that if your child goes all the way through the program with us he or she will play basketball in High School. I have never missed with that. Anything more and the math is amazingly difficult. Several players I have coached are playing in college but I can tell you they were very, very gifted and worked very, very hard.
You must have lots of great stories from your years working with kids. Tell us about one that inspired you.
Many years ago at a Little League baseball game I learned an important lesson. We were winning by a lot of runs when one of my teammates scores and I high five him. He asks me what the score is, and I said 19 to1 or something like that. He then takes two steps, looks back and asks, ”Are we winning or losing?” At the end of the day the kids just want to play and winning or losing is not that big a deal and they are not even paying attention to it most of the time.
What was the best advice you got from a coach?
You cannot teach somebody to throw 95 miles an hour. Some things are god given. And, that came from a guy who played with the Yankees and won the Rolaid Relief pitcher of the year award.
What is your most treasured sports possession? A Reggie Jackson signed ball
Mets or Yankees? Yanks. But it’s close
Giants or Jets? Jets
Knicks or Nets? Knicks
Rangers, Devils or Islanders? Rangers
Red Bulls NYCFC? Cosmos…. We have a player’s son on the Escalades.
Favorite sports book? The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle.
Favorite sports movie? Hoosiers and Rudy.
Best sports memory? My son hit a buzzer-beating 3 pointer at AAU nationals in Florida. My Mom came up from Naples to see it. It was the first time she had seen him play basketball.See more New York Sports Connection articles
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