Photo courtesy of Damion Reid.
By David Cordova
In the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, there was one memorable quote that holds a lot of truth to it. The quote was, “If you build it, they will come.” This means if you love something and you go through whatever lengths to make sure that it will be a success, then people will support it.
This is something that South Bronx Prep head coach Paul Campbell has had in mind for a few years. And so far, the hard work that his program has put out has come into fruition. This season, the Cougars have made noise throughout the PSAL and around the city, with a 27-2 overall record, including an 18-0 record in the Bronx B3 Division. They are ranked No. 3 in the New York State Sportswriters Association rankings.
The team has attracted a lot of attention and controversy, due to the way in which they’ve won. Many of the wins were against inferior competition, as they would win by an average of 50-80 points in a lot of their games. However, team chemistry and a willingness to learn, has kept the Cougars focused and always ready for battle.
Two players that have stood out on the squad have been senior guard Tilquan Rucker and junior forward Ali Sumareh. Rucker is a small guard who is athletic, but is also quick with the ball and is a scoring threat every time he walks on the court. He leads the entire PSAL in scoring this season with 37.4 points per game. Sumareh is a versatile forward that makes plenty of highlight-reel plays and plays tough on the boards. He averages 21.2 points and 14.4 rebounds per game.
This season, the Cougars, a veteran team with twelve seniors, dedicated themselves to winning a title and they had their chance against Fannie Lou Hamer, another school from the Bronx that from another section of the Bronx B division, who also went 18-0 on their side and would cruise to the title game with a 25-1 record.
In the PSAL B division championship game, which was played at Baruch College in Manhattan, both teams played in front of a raucous crowd of over 1,000 people. The game was intense throughout as both teams battled it out. But unfortunately, there could only be one winner, as Fannie Lou Hamer would win the title, 61-55, and advanced to the upcoming New York State Federation Tournament in Glens Falls.
Despite the loss, the Cougars made a great run and made it to the first championship game in school history and will be remembered for the level of talent that they showed, which put the city on notice.
For those who want to know about their rise from being an upstart to where they’re at now, here’s the Q&A with South Bronx Prep head coach Paul Campbell:
What’s the mission of the basketball program at South Bronx Prep?
The mission is that student comes first. One of the main things is work hard, on & off the court, dream big, work hard enough to get there.
What makes South Bronx Prep more unique in comparison to teams around the city?
I think one of the main things that make us unique from other teams is our emphasis on education, our school, South Bronx Prep, is a Grade A high school, we’ve always been one of the top schools academically. Since I’ve been there, I’ve been trying to build an athletic program to gain that same type of respect on the educational level. One of the things that make us unique is that I have a rule that you can’t fail any class at all. I know the PSAL rules are a little different, but you can’t fail A class. If you fail gym, Spanish, it doesn’t matter what class, you’re ineligible for me. You have to maintain and overall 75 to 80 average and that’s about it. That’s one of the main things we really strive for is academic excellence. And you have to be willing to work hard. It’s not about talent, being the best kid in the city, I take them however they come, and I put in the work in the lab with them, we work hard, we have a rigorous schedule, a lot of conditioning, a lot of gym time. My whole thing is building from the bottom up, giving kids an opportunity, no matter what level.
How does it feel being one of the more dominant teams in the B Division?
It’s definitely like a dream come true, it’s definitely something that we’ve worked for a years. We’re not surprised by the success right now, because we’ve been putting the time in. The kids that I have, I have twelve seniors graduating, these kids have been with me since middle school, so we’ve shared that dream when I coached them in middle school in the C.H.A.M.P.S. league. We’re just benefiting from the fruits of our labor, at this point, from all the hard work we’ve put in over the years. Every year, we’ve gotten better, every year I’ve been here, we’ve been to the playoffs. This is the furthest we’ve ever been, this is our first undefeated season ever, this is our first championship appearance. This is huge for the program and huge for these kids. They really put a lot of time and effort in there, I demand a whole lot from them. If you ask any one of these kids what it’s like to be a Cougae, they’ll tell you. It’s like no other.
How does it feel having a large group of underclassmen this year?
It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s more of a blessing because of the journey these kids have gone through. It all started back in middle school in the C.H.A.M.P.S. league, something small, less competitive than varsity basketball. These kids, I started grooming them since then, I gave them opportunities, made them feel confident about them playing this game. I gave them a chance, a chance that no other school, no AAU program ever gave them. The majority of my kids, 90-95% of my kids never played AAU basketball. Last year, and the year before was probably the first year that a couple of kids started playing basketball. Like Tilquan Rucker started playing with Castle Athletics, Mark Morgan played with the Wiz Kids for a little bit, Ali tried to play with a couple of teams and didn’t really pan out too well, Miguel Garcia, who used to play with us, played a little bit last year Castle and with the Wiz Kids. Our kids are not highly-touted, big names, all the elaborate stuff, these are kids that just work hard, they grind, they believe in the system and they believe in me. It’s a blessing to see these young boys grow into young men, losing them next year is going to take a lot out of me, you know, mentally and in the heart area because these kids really mean a lot to me, I mean we’ve grown six years, seven years together. It’s great to see their development as young men, so losing them, the leadership, all of that, is going to be hard for me, but we’ll keep on carrying the tradition.
What can you tell us about Tilquan Rucker and Ali Sumareh?
Great kids, I just came from Ali’s parent-teacher conference. That’s another unique thing about what we do here at South Bronx Prep, we emphasize education. It’s no fluke, it’s not a joke. We have practice right now, I have my assistant, Kenneth Aytch, holding it down right now, while I’m at parent-teacher night with Ali and his mother, making sure that he’s taking care of his grades. So he’s a great kid, over an 88% average, athletically, he’s come a long way, he’s made strides every year. If you’ve seen him, he’s played in a lot of city tournaments last summer, and really held his own out there, so you see the growth and development in his game, all the hard work he put in here in the gym. He’s definitely a high talent. He’s got a lot of potential. He’s only a junior, so I just keep working with him on and off the court, he’s a special kid, very special kid. Tilquan Rucker? He’s one of a kind, I can tell you that. I’ve been with Tilquan since he was in middle school as well. Back in the middle school days, he was always faster and athletic than everybody. He wasn’t the best player and he couldn’t shoot, but he is tough nails, always a competitor. He’s gotten better every year, obviously. My whole thing was to challenge him as a player and as a young man to mature his game and to increase his IQ. And therefore, be the total package. His whole thing is to be a score-first point guard, so I’ve been working with him. I’ve challenged him to average a triple-double, so everyone can be like, “Why does he score many points? How he average a triple-double?” It’s a method to my madness, it’s a lot of thought that went into that. I told him, “Every year, you have to build your resume, at the end of the day, you have to build your resume as a player and be more attractive to college coaches. College coaches see you at 5-5, 5-7, the most, and the first thing that they’re gonna do is turn their eye, because your too small and you can’t play at the next level, so you’ve gotta hit them with the triple-threat. You have to be able to do everything. Not only are you a prolific scorer, you have to be able to dish the ball at 5-5, 5-7. If you can’t pass the ball at that size, no one’s gonna take you serious.” I mean, that was a big challenge for him. We bumped heads a few times when he was in ninth grade and it ain’t been easy. But he’s finally bought in to what I’ve been preaching this whole time, he’s buying into the system, he’s a great kid. He’s a personable kid, he’s fun to be around, he has a lot of passion for the game. He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached, I’ve coached tons and tons of kids, thousands of kids, college, overseas, NBA. I’ve been around a lot of kids. But he’s one of the toughest kids, because of his size and his stature, he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached.
How do you feel about this season overall and are there any goals that you would like to be completed?
This season, I mean, I’m super proud of my boys, I’m proud of the program and where it’s come from, am I surprised? Not at all. I’ve seen this coming and it’s not to sound cocky or nothing, but I’ve seen this coming last year. Last year, we had a great season as well. We lost two games, one to Fannie Lou and one to South Bronx. We only played Fannie Lou, so we were never able to get that game back, but we played South Bronx, and got the job done and won our first division title last year. I wanted the kids to feel proud about that, so I got them some rings. In the playoffs, we had a great playoff run, and we ran into KIPP, who was one of the top teams in the B division last year, along with us, and we had a great game down to the wire, and we didn’t get it done, but we vowed that we were going to come back hungry and stronger, put in that extra time in the offseason. And I knew that this year was going to be special, because I had everyone returning. And I already knew we were going to be special because we knew a lot of kids would be graduating from other schools and I seen that KIPP was already trying to move up to the A division and we wanted to play them again this year, so we could go get that championship, but you know, they made a move up, which is respectable, so I knew it would be us and Fannie Lou, because they’ve been great for decades here in the B division. I have a lot of respect for that program, so I knew that they would be a team that we would run into at some point this season. Going into this season, I knew there would be games in which we would beat teams by a lot, because there’s kids that’s hungry and strong, and everybody got better since the summer. I already knew it was going to be one of these seasons, my non-league schedule, I tried to make it as difficult as possible, for any team that wanted to play us. A lot of teams saw us beat teams by 50 points and didn’t want to play us. I hear that and I understand that, but my job is to prepare my team and be the best and I knew if I wasn’t getting that much competition, I’d have to step out and play AA teams and Catholic schools and that was all in preparation for our main goal. My main goal that I want to accomplish is to win the city title. This is the furthest we’ve ever been in, this is the first championship matchup we’ve ever been in, so I want to seal the deal and the kids want to seal the deal, so the mission is to win our first PSAL B division city title, and that’s probably No. 1 and then from there, we want to win states, but it’s one game at a time. Our main goal is to win the city title and that would mean the world not only to the kids and me, but also for our program and for our school. I really want to win it for the kids though, they deserve it.
What are the life lessons that you give your players on a daily basis?
One of the main life lessons I give my players on a daily basis is: Respect The Process. Trust The Process. Work hard for everything you want. If you don’t work for it, chances are that you ain’t gonna get it. Everybody out there, they’re not giving handouts anymore, they never really did. Everything I ever really wanted it, I hard to work hard for it. And when the chips were down and everybody left my corner, and I was stuck trying to figure it out, I went and did it. My thing is always work hard, keep good people around you, believe in yourself, first and foremost, and respect the process, trust it. Anything you want in life, you can achieve. I know it sounds cliche, but I’m a product of the process. Like, I’ve been through a lot in life, and nothing’s been easy for me, and I just found a way, because I wanted it that much more, so give everything 110% and push yourself hard and believe in yourself.
Because you guys have been dominant in the B division, would you anticipate a move up to the A division in the near future?
I would definitely anticipate a move up to the A division. It’s also something that I’m all for, because I’m always for progress and growth. When I started coaching this program, my whole thing was to create a program, a respectable program in New York City that people would take serious. We’re in the B division, most people will turn their eyes at the B division, they’ll say this and that about it, but if you ain’t coaching in the B division and you have kids in the B division, and you ain’t grinding like that, then all of your opinions mean nothing, but it is what it is. If you don’t put that work in, then you don’t understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, every coach ain’t the same, a lot of people don’t put the time in. I know the work I do here, I know the work that these kids put in and sacrifice that they put in, so my whole thing is like, moving to the A is something that I’d like, I won’t be opposed to it, I’m all for it, granted that I’m losing twelve seniors. At the end of the day, it’s all about growth and progress and those will open up a lot of opportunities for us as well, more kids will probably want to come to our school. Everybody gets caught up in the AA, A and the B, but I tell them, “If you’re good, if you’re great, some of these schools are going to find you.” I’m quite sure, I’m assuming that, with the way things may turn out for us, that the PSAL may want us to move up, but that’s a conversation I’ll have with my school, my coaching staff and my players, because they deserve a say-s0. A lot of them want to accept a challenge. I tell my players all the time to accept a challenge and never back down, so if our challenge is to move up, we’re all for it. But I gotta finish what I started here in the B division, because this is where I started and I never like to leave anything undone.
What’s next in the future for the Cougars of South Bronx Prep?
Next in the future? The near, near future is hopefully win a city title, that’s No. 1, win a state title, and just keep building the program, at the end of the day, and just building a respectable program, so when you say the name, South Bronx Prep Cougars or Cougar Nation, you know what you’re getting into and you’re coming into a program where academics are held at the highest. You’re going to get some of the best teaching in basketball, because I’m a guru, I go hard at this basketball thing, I spent timeless hours in this gym, I’m thankful that my school supports me, my school community supports me so much. But just look for South Bronx Prepatory to be a household name, respected in the basketball world, and making progress, doing amazing things on and off the court, in the classroom first, sending kids to college, scholarships and so on and so forth.