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Hoops coach keeps his home court advantage
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Hoops coach keeps his home court advantage

Mentor to NBA stars guides summer clinics at Union YM-YWHA

Sandy Pyonin and Larry Markowitz show off the case at the Union Y that displays pictures of Pyonin with some of the star basketball players he has coached.
Sandy Pyonin and Larry Markowitz show off the case at the Union Y that displays pictures of Pyonin with some of the star basketball players he has coached.

For kids who are passionate about playing basketball, there will be a chance in August to train at the YM-YWHA of Union County with a coach who has worked with some of the best.

Sandy Pyonin, the wiry, no-nonsense coach who has trained 32 National Basketball Association players over the past 35 years — including Kyrie Irving, this year’s number one draft pic — will be offering two one-week camps and clinics for boys and girls ages 10 to 17.

Irving himself will be coaching along with his mentor. The camps, hosted by the Y and run under the auspices of the New Jersey Roadrunners, run the weeks of Aug. 22-26 and Aug. 29-Sept. 2, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Pyonin told NJ Jewish News that all skill levels are welcome; his only requirement — as with his star players — is that kids try their best.

Despite all the more prestigious and lucrative opportunities that his track record could have opened up, Pyonin has chosen to stay put at the Y on Green Lane for more than three decades. Though now believed to be in his early 60s (he doesn’t discuss his age), he can still be found most afternoons pounding the weathered floor alongside his charges, often challenging them to one-on-one battles.

In a recent article celebrating this low-key star, Sports Illustrated listed some of Pyonin’s protegees, all people he trained at the Y. Among them are Randy Foye, who played for Villanova before getting drafted in 2006 by the Celtics; Al Harrington of the Nuggets; Dahntay Jones of the Indiana Pacers; and Bobby Hurley, who was a star player at Duke University.

Larry Markowitz, the Y’s sports director, met Pyonin when he joined the staff himself 12 years ago, and the two men have worked together ever since. He said, “Sandy works with players at every level. He just loves coaching. And he really cares about the kids. Sometimes he’ll give them a ride home, or he’ll take them out for a burger.”

During the school year, Pyonin works as a physical education teacher at Golda Och Academy (formerly Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union) in West Orange. He also coaches its varsity basketball team, which has won two state championships.

He stressed that much as he focuses on sports, he reveres the well-rounded education the school provides. “It produces people who do well in their careers, and also give back. They do good in the community,” he said. That principle — which he said he learned from his mother — shapes his own life.

His dedication is remarkable. Players talk of how he would meet them at dawn to take them to train, or work with them through the night. Single until now — he recently got engaged — he seems to have organized family life and all his other interests — including his own passion for billiards — around the needs of his players. But he demands as much of them — an all-out effort to be fit and to strive for their best performance.

His wife-to-be, Lucy, whom he met in the Ukraine four years ago, understands his priorities. “She knows what I do, and what’s important to me,” he said. While she isn’t a professional athlete, she does deep-sea diving, and recently got her certification as a diver. “If I’d met her earlier, I could have helped her become a top-rate tennis player or basketball player. She has what it takes,” Pyonin said.

Nationally, he is known for a traveling summer-league team he coaches, the New Jersey Road Runners. More than 300 kids from the squad have gone on to Division I programs, and the Roadrunners have won three American Athletic Union national championships, often beating out players recruited by athletic shoemakers showering them with flashy gear.

Randy Foye said of Pyonin, “It wasn’t just about basketball with Sandy. It was about life. All the things we’ve gone through together, all the traveling, he’s always been there.”

For more information on the Y’s 2011 NJ Roadrunner Basketball Camp, contact 908-565-2617 or njroadrunners@gmail.com.

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