Charles Coleman’s life is about to come full circle.
That’s because, the same Queens, New York, community that the youth basketball coach and mentor has given back to for over 30 years — via his B.A.C.E. (Be A Community Educator) organization — is now giving back to him.
Coleman is set to be honored with a proclamation from local NYC council member Francisco Moya at the Elmcor Youth and Adult Activity center in Corona, Queens, this Saturday (April 21). What makes the impending honor even more special is the ceremony is set to take place during halftime of the fourth annual Ballin4Peace celebrity charity basketball game. Ballin4Peace’s founder, Haron Hargrave, a B.A.C.E. alum, told Moya about Coleman being a longtime pillar in the community, thus setting up the honor.
“That’s one of the reasons I agreed to let them [honor me],” Coleman tells BET.com. “Haron's like my son. I've been knowing Haron since he was 9-years-old. He won't accept no for an answer, and that's what I love about him. That's one of the reasons I agreed to do this.”
Added Hargrave: “I just told him, ‘I want to honor you.’ I just want to be able to have him smell his roses while he’s still here. A lot of people tend to do things when people are no longer here.”
Since its inception in 1986, Coleman’s B.A.C.E. program has impacted thousands of kids and young adults in the Southeast Queens community on and off the court. On the court, Coleman, holds an annual summer basketball tournament for about 200 17-and-under and 14-and-under kids. He also regularly holds college exposure workouts, where kids get looks from Division I, Division 2, Division 3 and Junior College basketball coaches and scouts, like the one he just did at Springfield High School in Queens earlier this week.
Coleman, who played basketball for the Army and resides in St. Albans, NY, is also still spry enough to get on the court and show kids a thing or two himself, although he absolutely refuses to reveal his age.
“I’m proud of my age, but I don’t reveal it because once a youth knows how old you are, they get a thing with age,” says Coleman, who can usually be seen rocking his bucket hat and clutching a basketball. “But if they don’t know, they’re going to listen to you all day and all night.”
And listening is one of the integral components of B.A.C.E., as Coleman regularly invites speakers to drop knowledge on the kids in the program. Coleman says those speakers could be former NBA player Charles Jones, former Rikers Island warden, Howard Robertson, or past B.A.C.E. alum who are now doctors or lawyers.
Here, Coleman [pictured below] speaks with BET.com about being honored this weekend, some of B.A.C.E.’s success stories, including NBA center Kyle O’Quinn, Hargrave and Barry White Jr., who went viral as the “Handshake Teacher” last year, and why he refuses to call himself a mentor when dealing with kids.
How do you feel about being honored?
I really didn't want to do it. Haron [pictured below] ... he's the one who wanted to honor me. I even turned it down because I told him that I didn't like talking about myself. I've turned down a lot of these things. But it's something that they wanted to do and I agreed to it. I'm grateful. I'm very proud of him.
How would you describe the essence of the B.A.C.E. program?
The program is a basketball program, including different things that we need in the community to get in touch with the youth and young adults. Everyone needs counseling, everyone needs to know what's going on in the community. Basketball gets the kids in there and once you got them in there, you got 'em. That's how it started. I don't consider myself a mentor. I just think they understand what I'm talking about. That's really what the program is — we use basketball as a tool to educate the kids.
From its inception until now, what have students in the program learned and continue to learn?
They learn maturity because one thing we instill in all of our kids is discipline is an aspect in life. Rules are rules. We teach them to act accordingly — not to tell them exactly what to do, but there's a way to carry yourself in life that you will have to do. That and handling yourself with respect. The key is respecting yourself. If you don't respect yourself, nobody else will. That's what we instill in the kids. The people who went to the program are all professionals, young professionals and it's not just basketball. They all come back on their own [and talk to the kids]. I never tell one to come back and say anything unless you want to come back. If you want to come back, you're always welcome.
What do you remember about New York Knicks center Kyle O'Quinn being in the program?
Kyle was a quiet young man. By moving a little slower, they used to say that he was lazy, but he wasn't. He tried hard, he did what he was supposed to do and the results are right there. [O’Quinn, 28, just finished his sixth season in the NBA.]
Kids have NBA dreams, but most won’t make the league like Kyle. How do you convey to aspiring youth to use basketball as a vehicle to get an education?
I can give you one example. Have you heard of Barry White Jr., who is a teacher down in North Carolina who had the handshake thing that was on TV? He was in my program, too, as a ballplayer. When he left, he went to Claflin University (Orangeburg, South Carolina) and when he got there, he decided he liked school and that basketball was on the back burner and that he didn't want to play anymore. Before he left [B.A.C.E], it was all about basketball. But once he got to school, he realized, 'Hey, I like school.' That's just one example. Some have master's [degrees], some are working at Wall Street at the moment. Once you get them in school, they might play basketball or they might not play, but the idea is to give them the experience.
How many students are enrolled in the program in any given year?
About 200 or so sign up to play in the summer tournaments. We can't get the recreation centers like we used to, so we have to go according to who shows up. And we go around to help get other programs started. We are all year round, but we cater to mostly the summer. During the winter, it's mostly a training type of program, where kids who don't make their teams, but still want to go to schools [to play basketball] come. I help kids who are trying to get out of high school and go to college and ones that are getting out of college and trying to go to the pros, keeping them academically eligible to do that and letting them know what they need to do to stay there. I [had] a showcase [Tuesday] for colleges to come down and look at roughly 50 kids. All 50 kids want to go to college. They want to play ball, but they want to go to college. That's what we have to cater to — you don't want to force them in. They have to want to come.
You played basketball for the Army. What did being enrolled in the military teach you that helps when mentoring kids?
People don't realize, but it does teach you a lot of discipline and how to make decisions on your own. You don't have your parents with you and you have to make decisions on your own, whether good, bad, whatever ... it's still your decision. The military taught me to understand that once I made that decision, it's done. So, you have to be careful about the decisions you make to take charge of your life itself because nobody else will. You have to take charge of your life first.
In addition to that, you worked for [now-defunct] Trans World Airlines for 25 years as an aviation system technician. Do the kids in your program find your background fascinating?
I hardly ever get into that because they only know me as their coach, but once they get talking about what they want to do, then it comes out. So, I always use my experience in life itself. One good thing about working for the airline itself, and being a mechanic for the airline, is I had a chance to travel a lot. I had a chance to see certain things that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to see, so that made me aware that every teenager, every child around the world is basically the same — they want to learn. If you give them the rules and something to go for, they'll go for it, especially if it's something they like. That's why I never use the words "I'm your mentor."
Why is that?
Because you can't assign a mentor; they have to pick you. If they don't respect you or don't understand what you're talking about, it won't work.
The fourth annual Ballin4Peace celebrity charity basketball game and festivities will be held Saturday from 3:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. ET at Elmcor. Celebrity players include Love & Hip Hop’s Grafh and Jaquae in addition to viral sensation Fatboy SSE, to name a few. Tickets are still available.
(Photo: Fabian Krause / EyeEm / Getty Images)