So now, if you hurtle after a ball and bash into the wall of the Harry Lebau Gymnasium, it should be less painful. New blue padding surrounds the gym at the YM-YWHA of Union County, part of a $30,000 renovation that includes new flooring, paint, and glass backboards.
There is a long list of improvements still needed for the 47-year-old gymnasium, but the basketball community that calls the Green Lane Y its home chose the latest fixes as an opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary basketball program that has flourished there and the man behind it, Sandy Pyonin and his New Jersey Roadrunners organization.
More than 100 players — past and present — and supporters gathered Feb. 23 at the gym, welcoming a $15,000 gift from the Brewster and Lebau families, in memory of Harry Lebau, the Y’s executive director from 1926 to 1963.
A matching amount was raised by the NJ Roadrunners, a traveling summer-league basketball squad.
“It’s amazing what they have accomplished in this shabby old gym,” said Y executive vice president Bryan Fox. “We still need better lighting and ventilation and a scoreboard — and anyone who would like to help us with that would be very welcome.”
In his 40 years of coaching the Roadrunners, Pyonin has produced 34 NBA players, including Luther Wright, Al Harrington, and Randy Foy. Kyrie Irving, a point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, worked out at the Y under Pyonin. His players have won three National Amateur Athletic Union Championships, and two International Maccabiah Gold Medals.
His teams at Golda Och Academy, where he has also coached for just about as long, have had more than 570 varsity wins. When GOA, formerly the Solomon Schechter Day School, was briefly housed at the Y, its students played ball in the gym.
But, as passionate as Pyonin is about basketball, excellence on the court has never been his sole priority. “We produce great basketball players,” said Roadrunners general manager John Gardner, “but we produce even better human beings.” He — like others at the dedication — talked about the integrity of the program. “We make no sneaker deals. Our kids are not for sale,” he said. “Sandy made a vow about that a long time ago.”
“It’s all about helping people every which way we can,” agreed the trim, blond-haired Pyonin. He joined the Y as a member right after graduating from high school, when his parents moved into a house nearby. “I was very quiet, but the Y opened me up,” he said.
As a school kid, he had recruited and coached his own teams, but he had no formal training when the Y hired him. He went on to serve as its athletic director for 10 years and — as he moved on to other career opportunities — to coach there on a part-time basis, working with everyone from elementary school children to the teenagers and adults who belong to the Roadrunners. The Y remains his “home away from home.”
“This is a Jewish Y, but they make everyone welcome,” Pyonin said. “Making friends and more friends and more friends is what the Y is all about.”
Eitan Melamed flew in from Los Angeles for the event. “I wouldn’t have missed it,” he declared. Still a passionate basketball fan, he said he met Pyonin when he was nine years old and living in Warren. Now in his 30s, he lives in Santa Monica, Calif., and works at a hedge fund. Winning “the game of life” was what Pyonin taught, declared Pastor Calvin Duncan, who had come in from Richmond, Va., for the event.
Duncan, who lived with an aunt in Linden as a child, said he was failing at school — and barely attending it — when he got into the Y program. “Sandy told me, ‘Every week you go to school all five days, I’ll give you a pair of sneakers,’” he recalled. “I think I got about four pairs.” It was enough to get him going.
Pyonin, he said, gave him a sense of purpose and the desire, discipline, and dedication to reach his goals. He was drafted in 1985 by the Chicago Bulls, but opted instead to join an evangelical Christian traveling team. Now a long-married father of three, with a degree in criminal justice, Duncan heads up a congregation with 1,400 members.
“This tribute is long overdue,” he said.