New Mission boys' basketball coach Cory McCarthy isn’t one to make excuses for the lack of resources at the pilot school run out of the old Mission High building in Roxbury, where he’s also the dean of students.
If anything, one gets the sense that he likes it better that way.
“We work with a lot less,” he said. “No gym, no time no space, smaller school; we’re the poorest of the poor in the city. But we feel like we have kids that buy into that underdog mentality. It feeds our mentality.”
Still, “a lot less” is a relative term. Back in 2005, when McCarthy was still coaching the girls team -- which he led to a Division 4 state title in 2007 -- New Mission didn’t even have a bus at its disposal, so both the boys' and girls' programs traveled to away games using public transportation.
McCarthy remembers one night in particular when the New Mission coaches and players from both teams were stuck at Somerville’s Sullivan Station.
“It was below zero, 12:30 in the morning,” he said with a laugh.
McCarthy made sure every player on the team got home before walking to his home in Ashmont from Field’s Corner.
That devotion to his players is the primary reason why McCarthy, who never played varsity basketball in his entire high school career while attending East Boston, is such a successful coach. The No. 4 Titans, who made the turnaround from a 5-17 team to Division 4 state champion last winter, have moved up to Division 2 and are one of the favorites to bring home that crown this season.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the talent on the roster that McCarthy can work with. Players like Samir McDaniels, Kachi Nzerem, Darius Davis and Nate Anderson are some of the best in the area. But that’s not what makes the Titans tick.
“Cory is like these kids’ father,” said assistant coach Paul Mahoney. “People don’t get that. People on the outside don’t understand that. He’d give his right arm to every one of these kids.”
“These guys are quality guys,” McCarthy said of his players. “I love these kids. I would do anything for these kids. And I feel like they will eat glass for me.”
Loyalty is one of the four tenets that McCarthy runs his program by. On the back of the team’s warm-up jerseys is the acronym “FLDC,” which stands for “Family, Loyalty, Discipline, Character.” McCarthy, who readily admits that he defers to Mahoney when it comes to the X’s and O’s, learned to foster those qualities from Mike Rubin, the former East Boston coach who is now the principal at that school. McCarthy said he learned everything he needed to know about “building a program from scratch,” which he essentially had to do at New Mission.
“Absolutely, you’ve got to be like a family,” said Rubin. “I remember once going on a trip to Hope High School in Providence, Rhode Island. And I said on the bus, ‘I don’t ever see your fathers at the games.’ And one of the kids says, ‘Coach, you’re our father.’ Cory might have gotten that from me. That was always a priority for me. No matter what kind of problem they had, they could call me at three in the morning (and I’d help them out).”
Davis, a senior guard, might have said it best.
“[Coach McCarthy] is like a brother, a father; he’s like everything to us. He’s like our real family. If we get into trouble we can call him. He’ll come help us. We can talk to him about anything. He’s just a big role model.”
McCarthy views his role as basketball coach as only part of the job. His primary concern is not just getting his players into college, but getting them to graduate from it. He proudly reels off the statistic that, since New Mission opened in 1999, every boy and girl to attend New Mission has made it to college. Prospective students have to go through an interview process to get in.
With players graduating and moving on to college in droves from New Mission, McCarthy feels it can offer everything a prep school can. But in the current state of affairs, prep schools are able to swoop in and cherry pick all the best talent in the city, as many players believe it’s their only means to making it to college, causing McCarthy to quip, “Basketball is dead in the city of Boston.”
McCarthy, who graduated from UMass-Amherst and still plans one day to pursue a law degree in disability and elderly advocacy law, doesn’t discourage kids from going that route. After all, the prep schools have everything in the way of resources that New Mission doesn’t, including its own gym. The Titans both play their home games and practice at the Tobin Community Center. But McCarthy doesn’t mind the prep school coaches hovering around the program trying to take some of his more talented players.
“They can come and look at my boys all they want,” he said.
“At New Mission, we have a lot of opportunities,” Davis said. “Cory helps us out, AAU and all that. The other schools, (other players) don’t have an opportunity. So prep schools, they can come in and give them that. … If they had a settled program at the high school, they’d stay in the city.”
And while his players are staying in the city, McCarthy wants them to look beyond a basketball scholarship. His preference is to have his players know what they want to do when basketball is over, and that message has gotten across.
“I haven’t figured out what school I want to go into but I know what I want to study: physical therapy and athletic training,” said senior forward Charles Gunter. “That way, when I can’t be on the court, I can be next to the court helping other players: looking at them, giving them tips on what I used to do, also helping them how to stay healthy.”
“In the future I want to be in law enforcement,” said McDaniels, a senior captain who is one of the more highly-touted prospects on the team. “So when I go to school I’m looking to study criminal justice. And basically, at the end of the year, I’m just going to pick whoever has the best criminal justice program and whatever best fits me athletic-wise and academic-wise.”
That scholarly attitude is one that wasn’t always there for every player. But at a school like New Mission, which only has about 60 kids in every grade and each is required to wear a uniform, those who aren’t serious in the classroom when they enter the building are by the time they leave it.
“For a kid like Charles [Gunter], when we tried to get Charles, everybody said, ‘Don’t get him. Don’t take this kid in your school,’” McCarthy said. “Samir [McDaniels], [they said], ‘Don’t take this kid at our school.’ All these kids they said don’t take them. We took them because those guys are character guys, you’ve just got to find it. Character’s within, everybody’s got it.”
“[New Mission] teaches character,” Davis said. “Coming to New Mission, I knew the word character, but I didn’t have lots of it. And they helped me as a young man see the word different. [They] helped me with my studies, see that studying is important. And they helped me. When I was in middle school I was a C and B student. But as I came into New Mission, they helped me as a person and now I’m As and Bs, honor roll student.”
McDaniels missed the team’s first game against St. Mary’s (N.Y.) with an ankle injury, a 72-61 loss. As he stood in the locker room at East Longmeadow High School, he echoed a common belief among the players and coaches as to why the Titans are so successful.
“New Mission is the best thing that ever happened to me because these dudes are like my family,” McDaniels said. “We hang out out of school, in school. We help each other in the classroom, outside of the classroom. These dudes are my brothers, always and forever.”
Meanwhile, McCarthy lamented the team’s mistakes and lack of effort in the first half which caused them to fall in a hole they could never crawl out of. Still, as he stood outside the entrance of the high school in the shivering cold, one positive aspect of the trip was not lost on him.
“Oh, to have a bus that’s warm, as opposed to being at Sullivan Square at freaking 12:30 in the morning.”
He paused and looked into the bus.
“I might have to drive the boys home though,” he said, “because the bus driver, he doesn’t look like he’s going to drop guys door to door.”
And while McCarthy said it with a hint of frustration, it was only a hint. If anything, one got the sense he liked it better that way.
Adam Kurkjian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org