Former NBA Coach Switches Gears At Charter School

Joe Carbone is the gym teacher at a small New York Charter School called The Equity Project, based in Manhattan's Washington Heights. The former NBA strength coach has given up the big league to teach gym at the innovative charter school where the kids are only somewhat impressed with his NBA credentials.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The NBA season starts tonight, and if past is prologue, the season will feature an incident or two of a player or coach behaving immaturely. Well, here's a story about a man who spent his career in the NBA and then decided it was time to cavort with the legitimately immature, the under 10 set.

NPR's Mike Pesca has his story.

Mr. JOE CARBONE (Gym Teacher, The Equity Project): I want you to go on this turn over here and go spot the track. Go.

MIKE PESCA: A fifth grader right around 11 a.m. has such a need for movement, such a Jumping Jack Jones, that a clever teacher…

Mr. CARBONE: Two factors of 30.

PESCA: …can actually sneak in a little math lesson while no one's looking. Joe Carbone is the gym teacher at a small New York Charter School called TEP, The Equity Project. TEP is based in Manhattan's Washington Heights. They actually share a field with the high school where Manny Ramirez played baseball. The difference is Ramirez is merely childlike. Joe Carbone's nine-year-olds are surprised when asked to run farther than many have ever run before.

Unidentified Child #1: Four laps around?

Mr. CARBONE: Tomorrow, we're going to do four laps. Today…

Unidentified Child #2: No.

Unidentified Child #1: No.

Unidentified Child #2: That's a mile.

PESCA: Carbone is TEP's only teacher with no prior classroom experience. His journey is as meandering as the routes some of the fifth graders have adopted on their way around the track. Up until 2008, Carbone was a strength coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, a job he took at the behest of his sole client from the mid '90s until 2004, Kobe Bryant.

Mr. CARBONE: Once you've done it, it's an amazing career. Me, personally, I think it's for someone who is maybe married without kids or maybe not married.

PESCA: Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder and principal of TEP, saw the resume from an NBA MVP's personal trainer and was intrigued.

Mr. ZEKE VANDERHOEK (Founder, The Equity Project): There's no reason why those fifth graders don't deserve as great a physical education trainer as elite athletes.

PESCA: Of course, in a capitalist society what one deserves usually takes a backseat to what one can afford. And this is the second remarkable thing about Joe Carbone and every other teacher at TEP, they all make $125,000 a year. Vanderhoek, sitting in the Soho offices of his for-profit test prep company, explains that paying for top talent works for the rest of our society, so why not teachers?

Mr. VANDERHOEK: If you actually invest in them, as opposed to simply saying that they're important, but just paying lip service to it, not really investing in them, we think it's very cost-effective.

PESCA: The high salary was necessary to attract Carbone. He says if an NBA strength coach hustles and leverages his affiliation, he can make much more. But on straight salary, $125,000 is pretty competitive.

Carbone wanted TEP, but there were some questions to answer before it was clear TEP could use him. So I asked Carbone about the possibility of teaching a 10-year-old who might be averse to any non-Xbox exercise.

Are you confident that you'll be able to reach the really clumsy and unathletic kid, considering, you know, you came from dealing with NBA superstars?

Mr. CARBONE: I love working with the clumsier kids because they really need it more than anybody for their confidence. And I'll spend extra time with those kids.

PESCA: Vanderhoek saw just that when he observed Carbone in a school setting. Carbone was engaged and by the end, so was every member of the gym class. And while Lakers fans may bemoan the fact that they've lost an expert at dealing with the impetuous and easily distracted, just as they've signed Ron Artest, it seems that TEP students are benefiting. Carbone is learning, too. Early in the day, he was assigning a third of his class to be spotters at far-flung points along the track. After a few periods, he recalibrated.

In the first class, you were telling kids to go to the cones just to get them involved, but then I think you realized, well, they are a quarter of a mile away.

Mr. CARBONE: Yeah, too far, man. Yeah. And that's like, you learn logistics every day, you know? You try to make each class a little bit better.

PESCA: Most of the students know that Carbone worked with Kobe Bryant. That buys about four seconds of respect from a child. At this level, providing expert oversight of a rousing game of sharks versus minnows is a lot more impressive than a championship ring.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

Mr. CARBONE: Bring it in. Game over. Bring it in right here.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. CARBONE: Bring it in.

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