‘Our kids are dealing with adult problems’: New YouTube series follows Newark athletes on and off court

Shawn McCray has made a lifelong mission of teaching basketball to Newark’s youth, including as a varsity coach of Central High School’s Blue Devils. His devotion to his players and the lessons he and they have absorbed on and off the court have resulted in unexpected stardom for the team, which is now the subject of “Best Shot,” a YouTube Originals documentary series that began airing in July.

The series, which counts LeBron James as one of its executive producers, also features Jay Williams, a former NBA player and current on-air analyst for ESPN, who joined McCray as coach of the Blue Devils last season. Both men have endured remarkable personal journeys and thus have deep affection and empathy for their players, and the hardships they often face. Holding the team to high standards, the two coaches see their job as teaching the skills of the game—and also of life: self-discipline, communication with others when driving toward a goal, the ability to rebound.

“I want to win the state championship,” McCray told his team in the series’ first episode. “But I want people to go to college.”

McCray’s own hoop dreams provided the scholarship that enabled him to complete college. He grew up in the 1970s in the Hayes Homes, a public housing project in Newark’s Central Ward that has since been demolished, and graduated from Central High. But despite this success, he was soon selling drugs as part of a local Newark gang known as the Zoo Crew, because this was a life that was familiar to him and his friends. Several of those friends ended up dead or in jail.

Determined to make a change for himself and his community, McCray put the gang’s name to better use, starting the Zoo Crew Summer Basketball League and made his way back to his alma mater as a coach.

Williams similarly discovered how youthful missteps can sometimes lead to devastating consequences. A reckless motorcycle ride and resulting crash ended his promising NBA career with the Chicago Bulls after his rookie year. He wants to show players like Shaquan–“Quan-Quan”– Clark, a Central High student who has had several run-ins with the law, that even such setbacks do not define a person’s character.

Chalkbeat recently sat down with McCray to talk about his hometown, his lifelong love of basketball, and what he believes his players, the city’s schools, and those who know Newark only through the show can learn from the game and the YouTube series. What follows are the highlights of that wide-ranging conversation, which have been lightly edited for continuity and clarity.

Growing up in Newark’s Central Ward…

The projects taught me unity and togetherness. Everybody was struggling. Nobody was really better than the next person because we all lived in this area, and it was low-income housing. If you had more than the next person, you probably wouldn’t be living there. So it made it easier for people to get along, because we were all struggling.

Becoming a basketball coach…

I was always a coach. I coached my first team when I was 16. I was coaching my younger brother and his friends from the neighborhood. They lived in the Hayes Homes or some of the kids lived across the street. There was a playground, which I’d walk to that wasn’t far from where I used to live, and I used to practice with the kids there.

Culture shock in college….

Basketball is what took me to college. I went to what was then Keystone College in Pennsylvania. But it was a culture shock because it was in the mountains. I never was around Caucasian people growing up in the projects. It was my first time living among people who were not my race. I wasn’t used to it. It wasn’t prejudiced. The basketball team was black but the school was predominantly white. I wanted to leave, and my mom talked me into staying. She said once basketball started, it would be a different feeling, and she was right. I did two years there but I didn’t graduate. I was six credits short. But my mom didn’t have the money for me to take the two classes, so I transferred my credits to what was then Caldwell College–it later became Caldwell University. And when I came home from Keystone, everything was packed up. Our building in the projects was being closed. We were moving. I didn’t know the area. But some of my friends were already there. That’s when I got caught up in the streets.

Life in the Zoo Crew….

My friends were doing it [selling drugs]. At the time, it seemed like a fun, easy way to get money. It wasn’t as rough as it is right now. The streets weren’t as bad. It seemed like everybody was hustling, selling drugs.

At the time I didn’t really think I was doing anything wrong. It was grown people making the decision to spend their money [on drugs]; it wasn’t kids. But as I got older, I realized I was contributing to what was going on in my community. I never did anything around the kids. I never let them see me in a negative light. But I was being something of a hypocrite–I was telling them not to do something and then I was doing it. I was young at the time–21, 22–still trying to find myself. I balanced it with going to school, still playing ball.

At the same time, we did block parties, we took care of the kids in the neighborhood. We did things with the money that people who do receive money from the community–they don’t even put it back in the community. But here we were using our money, putting it back in the community.

McCray’s players today….

A lot of our kids don’t make it out but a lot of them can. And I don’t want them to leave. I want them to come back and show other people that you can be successful and still come back to Newark and live. I think a lot of our kids are afraid to be successful because they see so many unsuccessful people as they’re growing up–in their communities and on TV. It’s like nobody’s succeeding–everyone is just getting by.

And it starts to seep into the brain. You tell kids they’re going go to college and they say, ‘Arrr, I’m not going to college. Nobody in my family went to college. I’m not going to college.’ Well, I’m the first person to graduate from college in my family.

How the documentary came about….

This woman called me on the phone, and she said I want to come talk to you about doing a documentary. And so she came to the school and asked me about my team, what type of players I have, what type of team do I have coming back, do I think they’re going to be competitive, the background of some of the kids–I guess they were trying to find storylines. She said someone would be contacting me. The director [contacted me] and said they’d be coming out from California.

[On the appointed day], I see two white guys walking up–and I think, ‘These must be the guys.’ They said we want to do this documentary–focus on kids and how basketball keeps them motivated. And they said it’s between you and two other schools–a school in Philly and a school in Brooklyn. And I’m thinking, ‘Little ole Newark’–those other cities have all the sports teams, they get all the publicity, they’re not coming here.

Two weeks later, they called, and said, ‘Coach, we’re going to put you on Skype.’ And there were about six guys, and they were asking me questions, and after it was over, they were like, ‘Okay, coach, we’ll be in touch.’ And then they texted me and said, ‘Hey, coach, we’re gonna go to your school. We picked you guys.’

The importance of being from the community…

For teachers, it’s tough. They’ve got so many kids in the school–and there are lot of kids dealing with so many issues–and people don’t know that if you don’t get to know the kids. But every teacher doesn’t see every kid. I have a relationship with the kids, and I’m in the community, so sometimes I already know what happened before people got to school, but the school don’t know.

I’ve called up Ms. [Sharnee] Brown [the principal of Central High] numerous times and said, ‘Such and such got shot; I’m just calling you to let you know to take whatever steps you need to take.’  Or, ‘Ms. Brown, these two groups of kids have a problem.’ I’m sort of like the liaison between the community and the school. Sometimes I’ll walk into a bodega and I’ll see a kid from Central and he’ll say, ‘What you doing in here?’ And I’ll say, ‘I live up the street.’ So now the connection is different.

Changes at Central High School…

When I first got there, in the old building, it was rough. That’s when the gangs really came into the city, and all the kids were claiming Blood or Crip. But I don’t think it’s as heavy as it was 10 or 15 years ago. And then [Newark Mayor Ras] Baraka [Central’s former principal] came in and he weeded out all these so-called gang members, and we got in the new building. And he said, you’re going to conform to what I’m trying to do or you’re going to leave my building. He changed the culture of the building. Kids were allowed to be kids, to be themselves, instead of trying to be something they weren’t. So his four or five years as principal, he made the kids believe the building was theirs. But when he became mayor, he plucked a lot of good people out of the building and brought them with him to different positions in the city. So we lost a lot of good teachers. But it’s family oriented. Ms. Brown shows compassion to the students. I show compassion. It’s a whole building filled with people like that.

Students feeling trapped in their neighborhoods…

Students say, ‘I don’t leave my ‘hood.’ So now they’ve alienated themselves from everybody else. Because the South Ward has a beef with Stratford. So now there’s a beef with everyone who lives in one community. That affects kids because now they’re saying, ‘I’m not leaving my community.’ Newark is a major city. We have nice things here. I’m not afraid to go anywhere in Newark. I live here. But they say, ‘I don’t leave my ‘hood.’ That’s the first thing they say.

Responses to the series……

I’ve never seen so many grown men come up to me and say, ‘I shed a tear. I cried. I got emotional.’ Teachers are saying ‘I’m watching this in my class.’

One of my [former] players called. He teaches in a charter school in the city. He was a great student. Had a 4.0 average, got a full ride to college. And he called me crying, saying, ‘I’m watching Episode 3 and that was me! My family kept kicking me out, and I still did what I was supposed to do.’ He was crying on the phone. And he said, ‘Can I talk to Quan-Quan. Because I’ve been through what he’s going through, and I want him to see that I still went to school, that I graduated, that I’m teaching now.’ He’s got two daughters. So this is really touching people.

What McCray hopes viewers will take away…

Our kids are dealing with adult problems and they shouldn’t be. You’ve got kids who go home and they can’t even do their homework. Some kids go home, and the lights aren’t on. Some kids, there’s nothing in the refrigerator. Don’t label our kids as bad. Some of them make bad decisions, but they’re not bad because I’ve seen some kids make a bad decision and never do it again.

Quan-Quan says, ‘I live in one of the most dangerous ‘hoods in Newark.’ He’s lost over 20 friends, and I know 10 of them he’s talking about. I know two mothers who lost all three of their sons–that’s six people from two families. How do you deal with that?

Teachers are overwhelmed too. Resources are lacking across the board. Hopefully this documentary helps people understand that we need to pour more resources into our children. When the city cuts its budget, the first thing that goes is recreation. When the school cuts its budget, the first thing to go is recreation. But how do you cut recreation when these kids are our future? Basketball teaches discipline. It teaches social skills. You build friendships for the rest of your life around sports. I hope something good comes out of the documentary. It’s powerful.