When Marc Skelton took over the boys basketball team at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in 2006, they weren’t just the worst team in the Bronx, they were the worst team in the city. Skelton had never really given coaching a thought and figured his tenure would be brief.
Thirteen years on, Skelton and Fannie Lou have won three PSAL Class B championships, including the past two, and last season they added a state title.
Now, Skelton has written a memoir, “Pounding the Rock,” chronicling Fannie Lou’s 2016-17 championship season. He puts you in the gyms and on the bench during a true Cinderella run — their only regular season loss, to South Bronx Prep, even gets avenged in the finals.
While small school makes it big is a winning sporting cliché, this is not a stereotypical sports book. And the credit for that goes largely to Skelton, who is not a stereotypical coach. His personality, philosophy and struggles play out on the pages along with those attributes of his players. It was a conscious decision, Skelton told amNewYork, to share not just the spotlight but the scrutiny.
“If I was going to talk about my players lives, I felt that it was only fair that I talk about my life [too],” he said. “It’s not just about their troubles and how basketball helped them, but my own personal issues and how basketball became a salvation [for me] also.”
Skelton, 44, was born in Boston, but his playing career started and ended in high school in New Hampshire. After studying biology at Northeastern, he landed — and quickly lost — an unfulfilling job working with fruit flies.
Feeling like he had “failed adulthood,” Skelton joined the Peace Corps in 2001 and headed to Moldova. On the plane ride there, he met Jessica. They got married in 2006 and have two daughters, Nina and Salome.
Many basketball coaches would devote lots of ink to NYC hardwood luminaries like Jack Curran and Ron Naclerio. Skelton name-drops Oscar Wilde, Dante, Werner Herzog, Nikolai Gogol, Sigmund Freud and Jeremy Bentham, among others. That passion for knowledge carries over to the kids, on and off the court.
“I teach as a coach, because I see the benefits of coaching,” Skelton said. “You can motivate the classroom [in similar ways] that, I think, are highly effective.”
In the end, Skelton knows that education is the real prize. His team has a 100 percent graduation rate, but even that doesn’t change the fact that Fannie Lou is located in the poorest urban congressional district in the country.
“I can’t write a book that says just because I coach a kid, I’ve solved every world problem,” Skelton said. “It’s not even close. … Basketball doesn’t cure anything. It definitely helps, for a little bit, and those high school years are difficult for a lot of us, so if I can help a kid get into college or help him survive high school, then fantastic. And we’ll move on from there.”
Fannie Lou this year is moving on in the playoffs as well, according to a tweet from Skelton. The team, which sports five carry-overs from 2016-17, beat Summit Academy, 53-43, on Sunday, in the PSAL quarterfinals, keeping alive the dreams of the third straight championship.