I was in town for a mid-January meeting of the LGBT Sports Coalition and decided I had to witness the phenomenon known as Anthony Nicodemo for myself. I needed to see the coach in his element as the legend of this simultaneously brash yet warm openly gay coach was growing quickly. Sitting at a 10-2 record, Nicodemo was sure I'd get to see his team post a 30-point win over Gorton High School, their opponent that day.
"That's only if we pull back in the second half," he said.
They did pull back in the second half of that game. Saunders won going away, 74-40.
Nicodemo had just kicked a player off of the Saunders High School boys basketball team days earlier. Walking into the gymnasium before the game to collect the team for their short bus trip, the recently cut player approached us. Nicodemo greeted him without reservation.
"You all right with everything?" Nicodemo asked the kid.
"Yeah coach," the kid said, fidgeting a bit.
"If your parents give you a hard time about it, you tell them to call me," Nicodemo said. "I truly think this is the best move for you and the team."
"I know coach."
Nicodemo gave his former player a couple more words of encouragement, patted him on the shoulder, and we continued on our way into the gym. When it's game day, Nicodemo has one focus: Win the game. By a lot. But for a kid in need, that all stopped for 90 seconds of encouragement.
"Coach," we heard from behind us. The kid Nicodemo had just cut from the team had one last thought he had to share. We turned around.
"I love you, coach."
When Anthony Nicodemo became head coach of the Saunders High School boys basketball team in 2009, the team sucked. They hadn't had a winning season in as long as people around the program could remember. There were seasons when the team didn't win a single game. O-fer. The team hadn't recorded a playoff victory since 1998.
Last Thursday, the Saunders Blue Devils beat White Plains, 55-53, in their Class AA first-round playoff game. The team has posted a 17-2 record this season and 10-0 league record. They haven't lost in the City of Yonkers in two years. Nicodemo was named Conference II co-Coach of the Year and two of his players - Derek Felder and Anthony Miller - were named All-Conference. The team has had a winning record every season since 2010-11.
How did Nicodemo turn a perennial loser into an emerging powerhouse?
The City of Yonkers where Saunders High School lies, just north of New York City, was a dominant force in New York high school basketball in the Seventies and Eighties, sending players to top Div. 1 schools. Yet in recent years the bloom has fallen off the Yonkers rose. Four years ago the city even shut down its entire JV program.
Nicodemo said Saunders' growing success is all about the kids.
"When I applied for the job here, people said you can't win in Yonkers. I just disagreed. There are good athletes here. And I figured if I can get four or five of the best players in the city on one team, I could win. I think we have done that. I think we've gotten the good athletes and made them good players, and we've gotten those good players to be a team."
Anthony Nicodemo found a family at Outsports
When he was in the closet, Anthony Nicodemo used Outsports as a resource for information and inspiration. Ultimately he found acceptance and a family. Today he is helping other people in the closet find strength.
That last piece - "to be a team" - seems to be at the heart of the answer. There are few coaches who have such respect from their players that a kid they just cut would say, "I love you, coach." The way Nicodemo and his astute assistant coach, Rashad Morris, have approached coaching in this lower-to-middle-class city has been the perfect antidote.
"He loves those kids," said Jim Nolan, the blue-collar father of two current Saunders players, Nick and Joe. "He has a different relationship with each kid, he knows how to develop that. Yet they all have respect for him. He's not just there for the glory of the basketball and winning, he loves them. If he knows something's wrong with a kid, he'll talk to the parents or he'll work through it with the kid. He takes the time to really know his kids."
Nicodemo's coaching style was defined for Saunders before he coached his first game. Getting the head coach job just weeks before the 2009-10 season, Nicodemo inherited a disjointed, dejected team that struggled to win just a single game in a season despite some strong talent. The coaches before he took over had little-to-no off-season program and didn't vest themselves in the lives of the kids.
"It was heart-breaking," Jim Nolan said. "Those coaches couldn't get the kids to click."
When Nicodemo took over the team, he had a different approach. One young man in particular was dubbed by others a "problem player." Parents and staff told Nicodemo he should cut the player - He was too much of a headache, too disruptive to the team. Nicodemo refused to give up on him.
"The kid was having problems," Jim Nolan remembered. "Anthony would pick the kid up, take him to dinner, understand what was going on in the kid's life. That's how he is."
That love and respect has gone both ways for many of these kids who are crying out for more structure and love in their lives. A few months after Nicodemo came out as gay to his team and to the public, the players wore Nike #BeTrue shirts in warm-up for their season opener.
He's been there for them, and they've been there for him.
Some of the parents have responded too. When Nicodemo coached the Nolans' older son, Mike, Jim would come to games, take some pictures. Now the Nolans are fully invested in the team, with Jim video recording every game for Nicodemo's film sessions and taking photos. Donna Nolan, mother of four past-and-present Saunders players and wife of Jim, has been Nicodemo's biggest advocate, speaking out publicly in support of the coach when he came out as gay.
"He gives 110%," said Donna Nolan. "He's just not one of those coaches who says, 'I'll see you later,' at the end of the season. He works with the kids in the offseason. We went to Manhattan to play in the summer. He does a lot with them. You can see it in this team this year, that it's all paid off. I've never seen that at Saunders. It means a lot."
The Nolans have been around the program for about 10 years, with four sons passing through the team. Their older son, Mike, played for Saunders when the team had O-fer seasons. A great athlete in his own right, drafted by the Oakland A's out of high school, Mike never reached his full potential in basketball - And his parents say it was all about the coaching. Nicodemo coached Mike his senior season; He was named All-Conference that season.
"I wish Michael had had Anthony for all of his four years at Saunders," Jim Nolan said. "If we had Anthony there all four years, a lot of colleges would have been looking at Michael for basketball scholarships."
This Wednesday is a big game. No. 3 Saunders hosts No. 6 Horace Greeley for a spot in the Class AA section semifinals. For the smallest school in Class AA - with only two more students enrolled than the 910-person cutoff - it would send a message that Saunders has arrived. Nicodemo wants this win badly not just for his team, but for the entire City of Yonkers.
"The City has embraced the kids. The City government has been great with putting our success out there, turning City Hall blue for our playoff game. Yonkers hasn't had many teams to cheer for lately.
"This is our opportunity to make the entire city proud."