Roxbury CC players getting the grades, paying rent and winning championships

Alyssa Stewart with the put back, as Taj Lewis looks on. Photo by Phuong Tang, RCC Marketing Department.
Alyssa Stewart with the put back, as Taj Lewis looks on. Photo by Phuong Tang, RCC Marketing Department.

No scholarships. No dorms. No dining hall. No stipend. No practice on Fridays, so players can hold part-time jobs to pay their rent and utilities, and buy food.

Such is the life of a player in an inner-city National Junior College Athletic Association Division III program.

Roxbury Community College lies in Boston’s neighborhood of the same name, just south of downtown. Over time, Roxbury has been the home of several waves of immigrants to the city: Irish, Germans, Jews, and in the 1950’s, Southern blacks. Boston’s official website calls current Roxbury “the heart of black culture in Boston.” Civil Rights leader Malcom X came to the area in the 1940’s, and his 1946 arrest and imprisonment led to his transition from a street criminal to a religious and cultural leader.

Failed urban renewal in the 1960’s left Roxbury economically depressed, dangerous, and without a sense of community. The last two decades have seen a slow revitalization of the area due to economic investment and an increasingly diverse population. Today’s Roxbury is anchored by Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Franklin Park on the South side (frequently called “a jewel”) and RCC on the north end. It remains solidly middle-class but is still considered a tough neighborhood, albeit a lively and creative one.

Perhaps nothing shines brighter on the RCC campus than the women’s basketball team. The program has been to the NJCAA Final Four in four of the last five seasons, and are favored to do so again this year. They are currently ranked No. 2 in Division III.

When Coach Mark Leszczyk was hired in 2007, the program was moribund. Make that, non-existent. Leszczyk was given the hefty charge of forming a team.

“All I promised [former AD Keith McDermott] was that we would have a team on the first day of the season, and a team on the last day of the season,” Leszczyk said. “Since I wasn’t hired until late July, recruiting was impossible, so we had campus wide “tryouts.”

Nineteen students showed up; seven were left after the first water break.

That first team (later joined by a walk-on) of the renewed program was 10-10 in the NJCAA Region XXI (New England), and actually made the playoffs. Leszczyk had fulfilled his promise: he had a team on day one, and a team on the final day of an unexpected extension into the post-season. Roxbury was stomped in that first playoff game, but once Leszczyk could recruit, the Lady Tigers began a steady and rapid climb to the top of the NJCAA standings.

RCC players live very different lives from their sports contemporaries at Division I schools. Yet Leszczyk has created a culture of success on and off the court that would be the envy of most basketball programs.

Many of his best players have the skills to play in NCAA Division I, II or III programs. Usually, however, they have come to Roxbury either because they were under-recruited or because they don’t have qualifying grades. Others were injured during recruiting periods and come to RCC to rehab and gain some exposure.  Most players are from academically struggling city high schools. Many are the first of their families to attend college of any kind. A majority are from single-parent families.

Roxbury’s players may come from similar backgrounds, but they have had very different basketball experiences. Leszczyk seems to be able to handle them all.

Center Alyssa Stewart played at Weaver High School in Hartford, Conn. – a failing school that by 2014 had only one academic program remaining: the Culinary Arts Academy. Stewart was an “All-[Hartford] Courant” player her senior year, averaging 15.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and a state-best 4.3 blocks per game. She helped lead her school to the Class L state championship three of four years. Division I schools were interested, but she knew she could not make that jump.

“You can have all the schools in the world [calling], but . . . I didn’t have the grades or the SAT scores, so I had to get pushed back,” she told Courant writer Lori Riley in December.

Stewart took some time to adjust in her freshman season at RCC, even though she finished as a second-team junior college All-American.

“At my high school, we just did whatever we wanted to do,” she said last week. “Here we have more structure. Now I’m seeing that I can’t do whatever I want on the court, which is a good thing because obviously one guy can’t win a game.”

Sophomore guard Ryia Newsome, by contrast, needed some freedom.

“In AAU they were very, very controlling. You didn’t shoot unless they told you to shoot,” she explained. “If you made a mistake, they took you out. Coach Mark allows you to find your game and play your game. If you play hard and try your best, a mistake doesn’t mean he’ll take you out.”

Lesczcyk manages to provide structure to one player and flexibility to another. He believes in seeing each player as a person in need of a “bridge to her future.” That approach has created a program that is a yearly force in D-III ball.

Even though it is an academic alternative for some players, junior college basketball is not just NCAA-lite. It is, in most cases, far more demanding of the student athlete than programs that offer scholarships. Although most of the Roxbury players qualify for need-based Pell Grants (full tuition), sometimes including cost of books, there is no school or government money for housing or food.

“[Roxbury] has no direct relationship with their housing,” Leszczyk said.

He believes that a big part of his job is to teach his young charges how to become responsible for their own lives. Common coping strategies include players sharing apartments – sometimes as many as five together – and food. He provides guidance on practical matters, such as how to open a bank account, how to find bargains and use coupons when grocery shopping, and how to save enough each month to pay the rent.

“Everyone likes to win, and we set high standards on and off the court,” Leszczyk said. “The kids we take here want to use us to be a bridge to a four year college.”

The coach also wants RCC to provide players a bridge to the next step in their lives off the court.

“We are a stop along the way for them, in basketball and in life,” Leszczyk said. Many of Roxbury’s students come from tough backgrounds, and have seen the effects of prejudice and inequality. “I tell them that I don’t care what issues they had at home or in the past. We want them to understand that they cannot change the past, and they shouldn’t let it define them. Here, it’s all about the future.”

Taj Lewis scores as Breonna Pinkcett boxes out. Photo by Phuong Tang, RCC Marketing Department.
Taj Lewis scores as Breonna Pinkcett boxes out. Photo by Phuong Tang, RCC Marketing Department.

When his players move on after two years, Leszczyk said the programs that take them “tell us how much they like our kids because they know what it’s like to survive.” That life advice is an important part of what the Roxbury experience offers, and the players recognize it.

“Living on your own, that’s a struggle,” Stewart said. “(They) teach you leadership, how to survive on your own. You don’t have someone to fix things for you. It can be stressful, because if you’re not mentally strong, you’re going to fail.”

The players deeply appreciate their coach’s commitment to them as individuals, and most chose Roxbury to learn those life lessons from him and his Assistant, Kisandra Ayanbeku.

“I’m 23, and started school years ago,” Newsome recounted. “I went to Temple out of high school [West Roxbury], but my grades were not great, and I wasn’t comfortable there. I left school for 4 years. [Lesczcyk] kept in contact, told me I could still play for him. . . regardless of what I’d been through. I never thought about it until last year, when I looked into his program. He has a welcoming type of personality, that makes you want to play for him and do the work. He’s been great.”

Amariah Brown transferred from another junior college to play for Lesczcyk, after playing against RCC.

“We played Roxbury, and they were different,” she reported. “I looked into Coach Mark, and heard he really cared. I didn’t want anybody to use me just to win a couple of games.”

Brown said Lesczcyk is “different from all coaches I’ve had.”

“No matter what, he’s determined to get you where you want to be,” she said. “He goes above and beyond for his players. He feels as though everybody should have a chance to succeed, and he wants to give everybody that equal opportunity.”

Perhaps more than anyone else, Stewart realizes how much she has benefitted from Lesczcyk’s guidance.

“Coach Mark picked me to come here,” she said. “I heard that he was a good guy; he really cared for his players. I’m glad I did come here, because I didn’t have the behavior to make it in college. His program teaches you good behavior and survival skills.”

Academically, the NCAA transfer rules seem biased against junior college players, because they must meet higher entry requirements than their four-year counterparts. A player can transfer from an NCAA D-I school to D-II with a 2.0 GPA. For a NJCAA player to move to the NCAA, she needs a 2.5. In a rule that Leszczyk calls “just stupid,” the rules also forbid a player to take more than three classes in the summer after their second year to graduate. If they cannot graduate from Roxbury in two years, they must sit out a year before playing at the Division I level.

Leszczyk is proud of the success RCC has in advancing his players, describing the program as a “bridge to greatness.” His pride in the program seems justified.

“Every player who has qualified academically for a D1 or D2 scholarship in the past seven years has received one,” he said. “Our scholarship rate is probably around 80%.”

In the last few weeks, scouts from Howard University, LaSalle and Fairleigh-Dickenson have been to Roxbury games, according to Lesczcyk. Southern Mississippi, Manhattan and Post have called this month. NCAA D-II and NAIA schools are also looking at Roxbury players, including Claflin U., Virginia State, Dillard, and Xavier of Louisiana.

On the court, the need to organize and battle for subsistence often is reflected in Roxbury’s assertive playing style. Roxbury has outscored opponents by an average of twenty points this season. They defeated Quinsigimond CC (Worcester, MA) 116-34 in early November. Like many top programs at any level, their dominance has led to complaints about “running up the score.” Leszczyk understands these gripes, but refuses to let them affect his expectations of his team.

“We treat them as college athletes here,” he said. “They are not treated as JC athletes. We develop that mindset from the beginning.”

But keeping players on point during routs is a challenge.

“The toughest thing to do as a coach is to keep them engaged in a game when you have an opponent who really can’t compete with us,” Lesczcyk said. “We explain to them that somebody is always watching: they may hustle and play hard two or three or ten plays in a row, but that one time you take a play off – if you have two minutes of laziness on the court – that will be the label that sticks. ‘She’s lazy’ the scouts from the NCAA team will report, and that school is off your list.”

Many of his athletes have never been challenged by a coach, because they were the center of the teams they played for in high school. He tells the story of a skilled player who got frustrated and pulled herself out of the game, saying she was done. Not tired. She just did not want to play. When later in the game, a player fouled out leaving the team with four and no substitutes, he refused to let her return (he sent her out of the building). Roxbury played the fourth quarter 4 on 5, and lost by seven.

“I’ll take that loss, because that young lady learned a valuable lesson: you just can’t quit,” Lesczcyk said.

The athlete returned to the team and played with enthusiasm for the rest of the season.

Leszczyk may be a life coach, but he is also an outstanding basketball coach. Roxbury’s team and player statistics approach the unbelievable, and explain their dominance:

  • Taj Lewis (Longmeadow High, MA) was NJCAA Player of the Year as a freshman, with 22.3 points and 8.9 boards a game, shooting .580. This year the 5-10 forward is second in Division III scoring with 24.7 points a game and averages 7.3 offensive rebounds per game.
  • With a year of discipline instilled in the program the All-American Stewart has ascended to another level. In the first 15 games this season, she averaged 23.8 points, 15.4 boards, and 5.6 blocks, all in the top five nationally.
  • Sophomore shooting guard Brown is 35-70 from beyond the arc, an even 50%. Freshman point guard Ly’Ayshia Stevens averages 8.4 assists and just 3.1 turnovers per game. The Lady Tigers force nearly 18 turnovers per game and average 8.2 blocks.

The team, ranked second in NCJAA, is now 16-2, with a recent loss to Division II Dean CC (Leszczyk’s prior coaching gig), and an earlier two-point road loss to Division I LSU-Eunice. Roxbury is the favorite to win its conference for the eighth time in the last nine seasons, and to return to another Final Four, it’s fifth in the last six years. After an overtime loss in their third Championship game last year, the Lady Tigers hope this year proves the charm, and they can bring home a National title.

Whatever the postseason holds, however, all but one of Roxbury’s players will be looking to cross that bridge that the program has so carefully fashioned with them. On the other side is a four-year school where they can continue their journey as athletes, students, and independent women.