February 3, 2009

Mount Vernon earns its nickname and sports program

NEW YORK They call it "Money Earnin' Mount Vernon" after the late 80s hit by Heavy D & The Boyz.

And the basketball players from that school certainly had to.

After the school budget at Mount Vernon (N.Y.) was voted down two times last summer, all public funding to interscholastic sports was cut off.

"As of July 5 we had no sports at all in the city of Mount Vernon," Mount Vernon boys basketball coach Bob Cimmino said last week in advance of the SNY Invitational at New York University's Coles Center.

"After being in the [Mount Vernon] school system for 12 years, then all of sudden you're smacking them in the face saying, 'No, you can't play sports here."

The players were certainly surprised.

"I was in disbelief," senior forward Odayne Clark said. "I couldn't believe it. I was saying to myself, 'There's no way they could get rid of sports in Mount Vernon.' "

The Mount Vernon basketball program is rich with tradition, having produced former NBA players Gus and Ray Williams and Scooter and Rodney McCray; current Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon; and three players currently in the Big East − Jonathan Mitchell and Mike Coburn of Rutgers and Kevin Jones of West Virginia.

In response to the financial crisis, Mayor Clinton Young established a fundraising initiative called Save Our Sports (SOS).

"I told the fellas they were going to be the face of this program, the face of this movement, and they were up to the task," Cimmino said.

Faced with an athletic crisis, the players hit the streets of Mount Vernon in their uniforms and began asking passers-by for donations.

"We started doing some fundraising," Clark said. "We were on the corner of Sandford Boulevard collecting money."

"We just had buckets and whoever stopped we asked them for a little donation for Mount Vernon," senior wing Sherrod Wright added. "We were about to lose our sports."

The pictures of the kids in their uniform on the streets begging for money were dispersed nationwide, helping to spur support. The program also received some major help from famous Mount Vernon natives such as Gordon and actor Denzel Washington.

Gordon established a charity event known as Ben's Bowling Bash and Celebrity Fundraiser, which allowed corporate sponsors to purchase bowling lanes. The Bulls guard also enlisted the help of other NBA players, including former UConn teammates Emeka Okafor and Charlie Villanueva, and Elton Brand, who grew up in nearby Peekskill, N.Y.

"Can you imagine a high school without sports, without football, basketball, soccer and all those things?" Gordon asked in a press conference. "I don't think high school is high school without sports. I think it's such a big part in developing young kids and they need it so I think it's very important."

Washington reportedly donated $100,000 of the $950,000 ultimately raised.

"Why wasn't that thought about in 2005 and 2004," Washington said in a press conference in reference to the cutting off of funds. "And not just on the day, one day we make a vote, 'Hey, there's no more money. Too bad, you're out of luck. It doesn't make sense.

"And I'm not one to get up and get on the pulpit. I give millions and millions of dollars away. I never talk about it, but this is my home. This is my heart."

Enough money was raised to save the fall and winter sports for this year, but the school still must raise more money to salvage the spring sports. And all sports will have to start all over again next year.

"We almost never had this season so it makes us go out there and play a little harder," said the 6-foot-4 Wright, who is considering South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Fordham and Manhattan, among others.

And that's just what they did last weekend.

Wright scored 60 points in two games to lead the Knights to victories over Thomas Jefferson of Brooklyn and St. Raymond's of The Bronx en route to the SNY Invitational championship.

"I was just feeling it," Wright said.

Thanks to some concerned fans of "Money Earnin' Mount Vernon," Wright had a chance to.

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