There is a better way, for everyone. It takes some thinking. It takes some planning. It takes a little faith on both sides. But it can be done. Bob Breen is here to tell you that. It can absolutely be done.
Back in December 1965, Breen was fresh out of the Academy, a couple of years out of old Rice High School on 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, before they renamed the street after Malcolm X. He’d run track at Rice and he’d watched in horror as his old Inwood neighbor, kid named Lew Alcindor, went to Power Memorial and regularly beat up his beloved Raiders.
Breen was assigned to the 26th Precinct in Harlem, and though that wasn’t his first choice, his parents had grown up in the neighborhood and he’d gone to Rice. He knew the area fine and figured it was better than the outer boroughs, or the hinterlands of Staten Island.
“Your first two weeks you’re assigned with an experienced cop in a quiet neighborhood, like where all the Barnard girls lived,” Breen remembers. “The third week you had a beat by yourself.”
Tensions were percolating by January of ’66. Watts had lit Los Angeles on fire the previous year, and the New York blackout of November ’65 had given Breen his first up-close look at looting and lawlessness. The long, hot summer of 1967 was still a year and a half off, but it was easy to sense things were heading in a twitchy direction.
The rookies were warned: “You are a cop now. Whatever they yell at you, remember that. You must behave like a cop.”
It wasn’t easy. Breen would walk up and down Amsterdam Avenue, frozen to the bone, and every now and again he’d hear the taunts, “Go home, Whitey!” being the kindest one, even though he knew these streets, in many ways, better than they did. Each night he’d go home, read the books they’d provided at the Academy, try to figure something out.
If the kids had weapons, and sometimes they did, he would arrest them for unlawful assembly, but mostly they were unarmed, save for sharp tongues. One night, Breen approached a small group of teenagers, told them to get home, said, “Today is on me.” One of the kids, annoyed, said, “There’s nothing else to do.”
Breen, shivering, said, “It’s freezing out. I have to be here. You don’t.”
The kid shrugged. So did his friends.
“What do you want to do?” Breen asked them.
They pointed across the street at a fraying middle school. There was a gym in the basement. They’d really like to be able to play basketball in there once a week, get out of the cold, break a sweat. Breen said he’d look into it. He did. The school principal was reluctant, but Breen could be persuasive, especially since the cops there tended to look the other way with where his teachers parked their cars.
A few nights later Breen saw the kids again. “Thursday, 6 o’clock,” he said. It was agreed. Breen went to see his sergeant, see if the precinct would provide T-shirts for the kids. The sergeant asked: How many kids? Breen said 15 or so. They made up 20 shirts.
Of course Breen had a small problem: He was a runner at Rice. He’d coached a little football and baseball, but he was, his words, “the worst basketball player in the city.” So he improvised: One day, full uniform, he walked into his old high school and scared the hell out of the basketball team, running drills, wondering who had done what wrong.
The coach, Michael Browne, stopped practice. Breen told him what he was doing, and what was needed: a few of his players, once a week, to teach kids how to play ball the right way. Breen recognized the first player to step forward because everyone in Harlem knew who Dean Meminger was: the best ballplayer in the city. In a year’s time he’d go off to Marquette to play for Al McGuire.
“You want to do this in Harlem?” Dean asked, smiling. “Why?”
Breen smiled too. “Where do you live?”
“East 95th,” Dean said.
“Aha,” Breen replied. “The rich section.”
Meminger laughed. He was in.
“Don’t worry,” he told the cop, “I’ll make sure the kids all check their guns and knives at the door. Don’t be afraid.”
Thursday came. Meminger and three teammates arrived early, though Dean was the only one who seemed happy to be there. A few minutes before 6, Breen’s lieutenant walked into the gym carrying the 20 shirts and a bemused look on his face.
“Have you looked outside at all?” he asked.
Breen hadn’t, but his mind started to race: uh-oh …
The lieutenant laughed, opened the doors, and 88 kids came running inside, some of them attracted to Dean Meminger, local hero, most of them just happy to have something to do, out of the arctic cold. Dean looked at Breen and smiled.
“I guess we should roll down the side baskets, too,” he said.
This went on the rest of the winter, through the spring, until June when Meminger had to go off to a summer basketball camp, by which time the warm weather allowed the neighborhood kids to carry their games to local playgrounds instead. On the last night, past 10 o’clock, Breen offered Dean a ride.
“I’ll drop you off a block away from your house,” he said. “In case the neighbors are wondering.”
They chatted. Meminger told the cop he wanted to be a coach someday. He of course could not know as they spoke that he would become a first-team All-American at Marquette, and a first-round draft pick of the Knicks, and a member of their 1973 championship team, that he would spend most of his life as one of the city’s great basketball ambassadors before dying far too young in 2013 at age 65.
For now, he was a kid who wanted to make his small patch of neighborhood better, and recognized the young cop driving him wanted the same thing. Breen — now retired after putting in his 20, living the last 17 years in North Carolina — told Meminger of the youth teams he’d coached and quipped, “No kid of mine has ever gone to Power, I can tell you that.”
Dean laughed loudly at that.
“You’re a different kind of cop, Mr. Breen,” he said at last, hopping out of the car, into the rest of his basketball adventure. They shook hands. Breen said he became a cop to help people, especially kids. Dean told him he could relate: That’s all he wanted to, even at 17.
“I guess I’m a different kind of basketball player too,” he said.