American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, General Manager of the New York Knicks Steve Mills, Head Coach of the Denver Nuggets Mike Malone, and Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving have one thing in common: They were discovered and mentored by Ryan.
In September of 1961, Don Ryan ’66 was an Adelphi freshman with a jam-packed schedule—a full-time class load plus evening and weekend jobs. Fortunately for generations of Hempstead young people, his weekend job was in the recreation department at the new Salvation Army in town.
When he wasn’t issuing equipment or answering phones, he started volunteering as the coach of one of the Salvation Army’s youth basketball teams. Fifty-five years later, Ryan is still coaching.
Over the years, his players have gone on to remarkable success. Among the most notable young people he has mentored through basketball are American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, General Manager of the New York Knicks Steve Mills, Head Coach of the Denver Nuggets Mike Malone, and Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving.
Today around 200 Hempstead youth a year play with the Hempstead Dons, now its own 501(c)(3). More than 25 volunteers keep the operation going, with multiple practices and games per week, and both weekend and weeklong trips for the traveling team. In recent years the traveling team has played everywhere including Finland and Barbados.
While Ryan is quick to credit young people with their own success— “It’s they who put in the time and the enthusiasm and effort,” he said—it’s clear from the number of former players who give back that Coach Ryan has a special magic.
When Julius Erving and his friend R.G. Rogers showed up outside the Salvation Army gym as 12-year-olds in 1962, Ryan invited them in. They were the first two young people of color to join the traveling team.
Today, Dr. J is one of the Hempstead Dons’ greatest supporters, hosting Ryan and his players every year for a tournament in Atlanta, speaking to the players, and even taking them on a side trip to Six Flags, a big team favorite.
“Don was the guy who taught me about accountability: there were no road games if you behaved like a bad apple,” Dr. J told The New York Times in 2009. “He was like a big brother to me and maybe at that time a father figure.”
Erving is far from the only player to credit Ryan and to give back to the Hempstead Dons. Many others contribute financially, and many of the volunteers who help Ryan today were once players themselves.
Ryan coaches players to great success on the court. In recent years, one of his teams won a national championship, while another won a world championship in Tampere, Finland.
But it’s clear that what happens off the court is just as important. Ryan and his fellow coaches check report cards and make sure that players pursue interests outside of basketball. “We’re very sincere about our interest in the total youngster,” said Ryan.
Seeing players as often as they do, Ryan and the other coaches are also able to keep an eye out for special needs.
“We’re a family. We do everything we can and then some,” Ryan said. Over the years, Ryan and his fellow volunteers have helped with fundraising for travel, supplies, and even money for college.
After making a difference in the lives of thousands upon thousands of young people, it would be easy for Ryan to rest on his laurels. But he has no plans to retire from basketball anytime soon—with one exception.
“I don’t play myself anymore. There’s maybe some kid who thinks I was good, so I don’t want to go out there and prove that he’s wrong,” he said with a laugh.Against the Odds: Read about the surprising success of three other alumni.
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