Berkeley College Has Built a Basketball Powerhouse Without a Gym to Call Its Own

Matt GilesFeatured Columnist IMarch 9, 2018

B/R

It wasn't until the final minute of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national title game that Mike Taylor felt fully confident the Berkeley College Knights would win their fourth consecutive championship. But Taylor, the team's leading scorer, was the only person on the Penn State Fayette campuswhere the USCAA hosted the Division II title gamewho fretted about a comeback.

The Knights had outscored their opponent, Villa Maria, 53-39 in the second half. From Taylor's parentswho traveled from Bushwick, Brooklyn, for the gameto the cheering section of local teenagers who "adopted" the squad and sat right behind its bench throughout the 93-77 romp, Berkeley's dominance was obvious.

"I've always been nervous before every game I play," Taylor tells Bleacher Report following the victory. "But once we were up 16 points, I thought we had a good cushion and could finally take my foot off the gas."

Located in two midtown New York City office buildings, Berkeley is one of the best college basketball teams you've never heard of. At one point, the team won 56 straight games, a streak that Division III's SUNY Delhi snapped earlier this season. ("I was happy we lost, because it showed guys that we were great on paper but could be beaten," Taylor says.)

Over the past four seasons, few other men's college basketball programs have been as successful as the Knights, who don't even have a home gym. Instead, they practice on rented courts throughout the city and play their games a 30-minute subway ride downtown at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Watching Berkeley is exhilarating, a blur of white jerseys constantly pressuring the ball on defense. But that frantic excellence is exhausting.

As the team cut down the PSU-Fayette nets, Taylor sat glued to Berkeley's bench, needing a minute to process his emotions. The senior joined the squad at the start of the 2017-18 season, and the victory was the culmination of a journey that first began when he was in seventh grade.

"We worked so hard this whole season, and it took a toll on my body," Taylor explains. "I'm so happy it is over."

Like Taylor, who starred at Boys and Girls High School before accepting a basketball scholarship to Rutgers, each member of the squad cut his teeth grinding on NYC playgrounds and within the cutthroat high school scene. Each player also lost his way before resurfacing at the for-profit business college.

Johnnie Green
Johnnie GreenBerkeley College

Take Johnnie Green, a 29-year-old senior who dropped 24 points versus Villa Maria. Prior to earning his associate's degree, he had dropped out of community college to care for his infant daughter, and he subsequently bounced around several low-paying jobs. Or Ricardo Ayuso, a 6'4" junior and the team's second-leading scorer (14.9 points per game), who last played high school ball several years ago. Or the 25-year-old Taylor, who led Boys and Girls to consecutive city titles before academic and eligibility issues plateaued his college career.

The team's circuitous path notwithstanding, Jonathan Pena—an ex-Knight and longtime assistant who just finished his first year as Berkeley's coach—rejects the notion that Berkeley is a Second Chance U.

"When I meet someone, everything starts from scratch, and it doesn't matter what happened with your first chance," he says. "We take the time to understand what a person has gone through and the support he has or hasn't had. We're providing you with the experience of still being an athlete but also guiding you towards your next chapter in life."  

Chris Christiansen, a business professor who founded the squad in the 1990s and now serves as head coach emeritus, says Berkeley's overarching philosophy is a familial one: "When you combine trust and hard work with the relationships we try to foster, it's only natural to experience the success we've had." Or as Pena explains it, "Do you feel comfortable in what I am telling you that the school has to offer, how we can prepare you and your family for a better life?"

He continues, "Do you trust us to be a part of your journey? Given the success we've had with other players, if you're willing to buy in, we can help you secure a better life."

On paper, that's a fantastically appealing pitcha lifeline for those who seemingly had no other options.

"Basketball is more of a short-term thing," Green says. "Once you graduate, that is a lifetime situation. That's why I'm grateful I came back to school...you need education to grow."

Of course, there are catches. The school doesn't offer athletic scholarships, so players must take out student loans. Without any on-campus training facility, a Knight seeking to soothe sore muscles following the team's two-and-a-half hour practices either has to take a hot shower at home or at a Planet Fitness, where the players weight-train. And since the majority of players live deep in the outer boroughs, the nightly commute home after practice, which often ends around 11 p.m., can take hours. ("The MTA's scheduling is really bad," Taylor complains.)

"We know other teams have certain things we don't have, so we use that as motivation," Green says. "The laughs and the pain we put in, we have to go out and work harder to prove to people we're tougher than them."

Though Green and Taylor don't seem fazed when asked about Berkeley's lack of facilities, it's still remarkable that a team that has set this high of a bar doesn't have a home gym. Instead, it relies on a text chain to communicate the location of the next practice, which could be anywhere in the city.

"We're putting in work any time we can find free time in between classes," Green says, stressing it isn't unusual for players to leave Berkeley's midtown campus and get up shots for an hour in Brooklyn or uptown before returning for afternoon classes. It's a peculiar type of college existence, for sure.

Berkeley coach Jonathan Pena
Berkeley coach Jonathan PenaBerkeley College

That dedication to the craft explains an aspect of Berkeley's rise, but it also helps to have talent, which Berkeley doesn't lack. The squad has averaged more than 90 points each of the last three seasons, and even the stoutest of defenses struggle to keep the Knights from weaving to the bucket.

Though the college's profile is somewhat known in New York City thanks to its omnipresent MTA advertising campaign, it is largely anonymous within the everyday happenings of the five boroughs. Yet on the playgrounds and within the city's summer tournament circuit, Berkeley is well-known—a blue blood of final destinations—which is how most Knights land on the coaching staff's radar.

"I have people in my neighborhood that are really good players, but they didn't get the right recognition, and I am always referring them to Coach [Pena]," Taylor says.

Christiansen will even sometimes spend hours at certain playgrounds all over the city—the court on Brooklyn's Tillary Street is a favored destinationwatching random pick-up basketball. He does so both for the love of the game and also on the off chance he'll find the team's next recruit—an under-the-radar and underappreciated player with at least one year of college eligibility.

"New York City is still an unbelievable place to find basketball talent, and I'll often sit in a park for hours," he explains. "Yes, it's very important to go to exposure camps and to talk to high school coaches, but every once and a while, you can find talent that no one else knows about."

That's how Christiansen first scouted Green, this year's captain, who was part of three of the squad's USCAA titles. The forward was playing in a rec league at Basketball City when the then-Berkeley coach approached Green during a break in play.

"I wondered, 'What was the purpose of my life?,'" Green says. "I wanted to better myself, and I didn't have any more time to waste."

Before he had ever heard of Berkeley, Taylor thought he was done with basketball. An all-city player and offensive catalyst for a team that defeated powerhouses Abraham Lincoln High School and Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in back-to-back PSAL playoffs, Taylor was supposed to be part of Rutgers' renaissance under then-head coach Mike Rice.

"Mike was a very accomplished scorer," Rice, who now helps run the celebrated AAU program Team Rio, says. "My assistant, who did a good job recruiting NYC, thought Mike could help provide a perimeter punch."

Berkeley College's Mike Taylor
Berkeley College's Mike TaylorBerkeley College

But Taylor, who failed to graduate from Boys and Girls, didn't academically qualify and bounced between junior colleges before returning to NYC and enrolling at Medgar Evers, a D-III squad, in 2013. It was an imperfect fit.

"This isn't the template for a kid that's an All-City player, to end up at Medgar Evers," legendary recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski told Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News at the time. "It's definitely one of the strangest things I ever heard."

The setbacks continued to accrue. Taylor suffered significant injuries, first breaking his right ankle when a teammate landed on it and then his left ankle (the byproduct of playing with a severe sprain) during back-to-back summer tournament slates.

"I love the game to death, but I couldn't do it anymore," he says. "I was depressed. I had to get away."

He moved to South Carolina and worked at a BMW plant, driving the assembled cars to dealerships. He had stopped playing, letting that part of his life slide into idleness, but that didn't dissuade former high school teammates from recruiting Taylor to their respective college teams. One of those teammates, Anton Dickerson, had recently been named an assistant at Berkeley.

He began peppering Taylor with the positives of graduating from college, and wouldn't it be great if the guard finally fulfilled the promise he showed as an all-city prospect? Like past Knights and present teammates, Taylor had stalled, yet he wasn't just any Berkeley recruit. He would be the highest-profile prospect in the program's history.

Pena believed Taylor's skill set was perfectly suited for Berkeley's full-court press defense and various trapping schemes, and he thought he'd be equally as potent orchestrating the squad's high-octane offense. The coach recruited him accordingly.

"I spent that summer playing all over NYC, from Dyckman to Gersh Park and West Fourth, and [Pena] was always there," Taylor says. "He didn't miss a single game. That showed he had a lot of trust in me."

Taylor is set to graduate from Berkeley with a degree in business management next summer, but the USCAA title game against Villa Maria was his last as a Knight. His eligibility clock, which started in 2011, had finally expired.

This could also be the end of Berkeley's abject dominance. The squad loses five seniors following the 2017-18 season, including Green and Taylor, and the program has never had to deal with that level of turnover during its rise.

Pena has already scheduled a coaches meeting to discuss the team's needs for next season, and summer tournaments are only a few months away. But in the meantime, Taylor and Green both hope the legacy they—along with the other Knights on the four title-winning teams—helped to create will allow Berkeley to invest in a basketball future that includes opening its own gym or financing partial athletic scholarships.

"We've paved the way so people will recognize Berkeley," Taylor says. "No one had ever heard of the school or even the USCAA, but now that we've won four championships, people are aware of us. It just took time."

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