NEW YORK — It’s 5 p.m. on Tuesday and the J train is rumbling down Broadway above the streets of Brooklyn.
Larry Moreno sits in the first car, killing time with his cell phone just like everyone else on the train. He’s a 2,000-point scorer on a championship team, but nobody pays him any notice.
He’s heading home from the school that doesn’t look like a school, with the gym that isn’t much of a gym. Brooklyn High School for Law and Technology hosts no home games and the program has only existed for a little more than a decade, yet it’s produced three Division I basketball players.
This weekend, Moreno and his teammates will be in Glens Falls to play in the boys Class A bracket of the Federation Tournament of Champions. It will be the first time this season they’ve ridden together to a game on a bus.
It’s 200 miles from Glens Falls to Brooklyn Law and Tech, but more than miles separate the communities. This is a big city inside the bigger city of New York, where subways are the main mode of transportation for students and most of the population lives in apartment complexes of various types and sizes.
The basketball is different, too. To understand how Brooklyn Law and Tech has become successful, you have to understand how New York city schools work, how New York city basketball works, and how those two things interrelate.
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The school sits next to the elevated subway tracks on Broadway, a block from the Gates Ave. station. Long ago the building was an odd-shaped theater, and from the outside, it still looks like a relic from the past.
It’s a “pre-screen” school that offers specific programs for students with a career in mind. There is a mock courtroom with a full-time lawyer on staff for those interested in law; technical labs and a TV studio for those interested in the other end of things. But not everyone picks the school for those programs. Some are here because they live nearby, or for a general education.
The gym seems like an afterthought at a school meant for future lawyers and technicans. It’s on one end of the third floor, with the sidelines of its too-small basketball court running up against the walls. Balls bounce with a dull thud, a menace to the art classroom directly below it.
In New York city, students can choose their high school through an application process. So why would a basketball player apply to a school with a gym like this?
Because connections go a long way in city basketball. Kenny Pretlow, who coaches Law and Tech along with Michael Levy, has been around basketball for a long time, including a long stint at city power Abraham Lincoln. His reputation helped bring in some of the first players.
Matt Scott earned a scholarship to Niagara University, Mikko Johnson went to St. Peter’s in New Jersey, and now Moreno will head to St. Francis of Brooklyn after he graduates this spring.
“The selling point is, we put kids in college,” Levy said.
Despite the size of the gym, the Jets are a team that hits from long range. Moreno practices some of his 3-pointers from just inside a doorway.
“All in all, it’s still a gym,” senior Victor Ogbo said. “You work with what you’ve got. ... The ball’s still gotta go in the hoop.”
They work with what they’ve got in a lot of ways.
Players take the subway to all of their games, including their “home” games at the Hebrew Education Society in Canarsie, about a half hour away. They might have 75 supporters in the bleachers on an average night.
The team plays a lot of games during the summer, often jumping from park to park, sometimes playing the city’s bigger schools. That gets players the exposure they don’t always get during the winter season.
“Larry (Moreno) became an overnight sensation with the summer he had,” Pretlow said. “The word got out.”
They won the school’s first PSAL city championship on Sunday, which brought with it the trip to Glens Falls. The school’s athletic accomplishments — a member of the track team has also earned a scholarship, despite the school not having a track — is welcomed by school principal Vernon Johnson.
“For a small school like us to be a powerhouse in some of the sports that we have been doing well at, it’s a nice addition,” he said.
The success brings the things it would bring to any school — a sense of pride and a more positive school environment. The players can serve as role models. That’s a good thing for a school that sits on the traditional dividing line between the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick neighborhoods.
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As Johnson points out, there are signs that the area around Brooklyn Law and Tech is gentrifying.
There are some empty lots and graffiti scrawled on buildings, but there’s also a new condo going up a half a block away. In the evening, there are streets nearby that have a middle-class look, with people out walking their dogs.
Johnson worries that will only push some of Law and Tech’s students farther away from their school. They don’t always come from the best areas, and that can be a challenge for the staff.
“A lot of our kids come from neighborhoods that are pretty tough neighborhoods, so you almost have to understand that they may walk into the building with a chip on their shoulder, because that’s the way they may survive, just going home and getting to school,” he said. “So when they walk into the building, we try to provide a nurturing environment where they know they’re home, this is their second home, and that every adult in this building is genuine and they care for them.”
For Levy and Pretlow, basketball sometimes takes a back seat to other matters. Like making sure their players are in school on time and doing the right things in class.
“When report cards come out, usually that day in practice, that’s practice,” Pretlow said. “I talk about the report cards. ... So they realize that’s more important than basketball. We won’t practice today because we’re talking about grades.”
The team claims a 100 percent graduation rate. Pretlow said there are parents who send their basketball-playing sons to Law and Tech not for sports, but because they want them to graduate.
“First and foremost, they know it’s school,” Pretlow said.
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Moreno goes three stops on the subway on his way home, getting off at Flushing Ave. There’s a long walk to his home in the Williamsburg neighborhood, past sidewalk vendors, storefronts, housing units and a community YMCA.
He walks unnoticed through these streets. Imagine Joseph Girard III walking around Glens Falls, going unrecognized. But maybe that’s not a fair comparison. This is a city of millions, and high school basketball just isn’t on the radar the way it is in a small town.
Moreno and his teammates have never been to Glens Falls. They will find it a very different place than the bustling streets of Brooklyn this weekend. The two places are in different worlds, in some ways.
Moreno turns into his apartment complex, then hangs a left. On the right is the outdoor basketball court he grew up on.
Basketball. It’s one thing that Glens Falls and Brooklyn have in common.