You may not expect to see the newest hub of youth basketball when you visit Young Israel of the West Side Synagogue, yet that is exactly what you will find. Located on the Upper West Side, the side entrance is unassuming, and only when you step inside a second set of doors do you gain a view of the brand-new basketball gym, complete with banners on the walls. On the court, you might see a group of Kindergarteners learning the basics of dribbling, or one of the best travel basketball teams in the city running through their drills.
This space is the joint venture of two of the most well-known youth basketball programs in the city, Basketball Stars of NY and Fastbreak Sports. Their founders, Dave Brown and Lonny Levine, respectively, recently joined forces to best serve the young athletes of New York City.
Levine, a father of two, started Fastbreak Sports in 2006 after struggling to find a challenging basketball program for his son, J.D., in the city. “When my son was 8 years old, we went to all of the programs in the neighborhood, [and] there just weren’t proper coaching and teaching techniques,” says Levine, who played basketball through high school himself.
Levine’s first clinic had 25 kids; today, Fastbreak serves more than 2,000 children ages 2-18 each year, offering children ages 2-5 an introduction to a number of sports, including basketball, flag football, and lacrosse. A second program, for ages 5-18, offers one-on-one and group training during the weekend or after school.
Levine is especially proud of the facilities where his programs take place, especially their multi-million dollar main facility at 1629 1st Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets, as well as other locations, such as the Trevor Day School, Sacred Heart School, and Brearley Academy. “They are three of the top fieldhouses in New York City,” he says. Fastbreak also rents out space in public schools through the Upper East and Upper West Side neighborhoods.
But what Levine believes makes Fastbreak special are its 11 full-time and 50 part-time employees. “I think what also sets us apart are our coaches, who bring a passion and enthusiasm on a daily basis that we believe is second-to-none,” he says.
As J.D. grew older, Levine wanted his son’s first-class basketball experience to continue. So he began sending him to Basketball Stars of NY, the program led by Brown. Brown, who is now married and has a 16-month-old daughter, has an extensive history with the sport. He was a star player at the Dwight School before receiving a scholarship to play at Colgate University. After graduating from Connecticut College, he worked as a coach for a number of basketball programs, including at John Jay College and Susquehanna University. He now coaches at the Dwight School in addition to running Basketball Stars.
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Brown began Basketball Stars out of a pure love for the game. “When I first started, I was just in love with basketball, but not necessarily with children as much,” Brown says. “I viewed myself as a kid at heart, and I figured that’s maybe why I was drawn to kids. But as I get a little older and a little more mature, [I found that] watching them grow up is amazing.” He believes that the level of coaching and focus in his program sets it apart from other youth sports organizations. “We wanted substantive basketball people behind the organization teaching kids, and we make sure that they have the same passion for working with kids that we do. If they have those two things, it normally leads to success and making us stronger.”
Levine and Brown met by chance 10 years ago at a local basketball gym. As their respective businesses grew, they developed a friendly competition, but eventually saw that working together would be mutually beneficial. So in the summer of 2015, they ran a basketball program together, and received an astoundingly positive response. “It was a home-run for the kids, they loved it,” Levine says. This past summer’s program sold out all five weeks.
Their combined success attracted the attention of the New York Knicks, who brought in Levine and Brown last winter to run a three-on-three league for 200 boys and girls from the ages of 7-13 at the JCC Manhattan. It was such a hit that they will be doing it again this winter, downtown at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School as well as at the JCC.
Now, Levine and Brown are joining together to make the best use of their new space on the Upper West Side. Basketball Stars’ older athletes will play in the afternoons and evenings, while Fastbreak’s younger athletes will use the gym during the morning and early afternoons, when most of Basketball Stars’ players are in school. In the true spirit of partnership, no one is a bigger fan of Fastbreak Kids than Brown, who just started sending his daughter there. “They have a state-of-the-art facility on 84th Street. The kids’ classes are amazing…everybody in the class loves it,” he says.
The two dads plan to keep working together in the future. They want to create more opportunities for kids to play during the summer and also move some programming downtown. One immediate goal is more programming for girls—they estimate that only five percent of their current players are girls. “It’s what keeps me up at night, work-wise… there is no program in New York City that caters basketball specifically to girls,” Brown says.
Brown and Levine both love their jobs, as well as the relationships they’ve developed with players along the way. “A lot of our kids…are now playing college ball, and sending me emails and remembering when they first started,” Levine says. “It’s just been a wonderfully rewarding experience.”