A high school sports coach often has to be a trainer, parent, guidance counselor, motivator and therapist all rolled into one.
Joel Ascher, who led August Martin High School’s girls basketball team to 12 city championships and four state titles, was just that, and beloved by his players.
“He literally was a father figure,” Leah Cromer told the Chronicle about the 83-year-old former coach who died April 27 from a heart attack in his Rego Park home.
Cromer became an unlikely star at the school in the 1990s. A tall freshman, she was walking in the hallway when “this older white guy” asked her if she wanted to play basketball. Cromer said thanks, but no thanks. Ascher kept pushing.
“I don’t know how to play,” she said.
“You don’t how to play yet,” he replied.
Ascher asked Cromer what she thought about getting a full scholarship to the college of her choice. He told her to try basketball for two months and if she didn’t like it, she could quit.
“This guy doesn’t even know me and he has all this faith in me, maybe I should have a little faith in myself,” Cromer said.
She went from not being able to make a layup to starting in her sophomore season. During her junior season, colleges were recruiting her to play.
“Physically he never really showed us anything but he just coached us,” Cromer said. “And people used to wonder how is this old man making people into superstars?”
She said Ascher focused on the fundamentals, believing once those were in place the talent will take over the rest.
Cromer also remembered how he would scold players if they bragged about how many points they scored.
“He would tell us right then and there, ‘It’s not about how many points you score. How many times did you turn over the ball? How many times did you miss the easy rebound? Did you jump on the floor for that ball that went out of bounds?’” she recalled.
Marsha Harris, who was the school valedictorian in 1994 and became a colorectal surgeon in Manhattan, remembered the coach’s two rules: “Rule No. 1: He’s always right. And rule No. 2: If he’s wrong, refer back to rule No. 1.”
Ascher, who coached for 30 seasons before retiring in 2009 because of arthritis, wasn’t married and didn’t have any biological children.
“I know he considered us his kids,” Cromer said. “He didn’t have to say that because it was all in his actions.”
He would drop players off at home and subway stations around the city. He would call a family member to see if they were OK. He would give money out after practice so players could go to the vending machine. And he made sure that players weren’t goofing off in class.
“He made it clear that being a good player on the court means nothing if you can’t excel in the classroom,” Cromer said.
Ascher knew when report cards would be given out and on those days, practice wouldn’t begin until he saw the grades.
On some occasions, he would even sit in the classroom with his players.
“We’d all have our heads down, like, ‘What is Ash doing back here?’” Cromer said.
But she appreciated it, saying players couldn’t be mad at him.
“He understood the balance of being hard on you and challenging you but also loving you all in the same breath,” she said.
Harris added, “There was never a time that you would question whether or not he cared for you or that he loved you. He could throw you out of practice, he can yell at you all day but there was no doubt in your mind whether he loved you or cared for you.”
Harris, who led NYU to the 1997 Division III Championship, credits Ascher’s ability to connect with players for his success.
“No matter who the player was he had an ability to connect with them on whatever level it was, whatever your background was, whatever your challenges were, he would always find a way to try to reach you and try to help you,” she said.
Yolonda Wilson injured her knee during a game and Ascher carried her off the floor. He would take her to physical therapy as her knee recovered.
In later years, Wilson and other players would take him to doctor appointments, make dinners for him and make sure he had company during the holidays.
“Ash was, I’m not going to say a father figure, he was a father,” Wilson said.
She said she bought Ascher a shirt once but if she tried to give him more he probably wouldn’t have taken it.
“He never wanted anyone to do anything for him, he wanted to do everything for everyone,” Wilson said.
Cleavon Evans had Ascher as a gym teacher at JHS 238 and became manager for the basketball team for the coach when he attended August Martin, keeping the clock for the games and helping train the players. He continued serving as manager for a decade after he graduated.
“Each individual felt like they got individual time with him,” he said. “You could’ve been in a room with 1,000 people and when he spoke to you it felt like he spoke to you. He might have been speaking to everybody but sometimes it just felt like he was just speaking to you.”
Evans, president of the August Martin High School Alumni Association, said he tries to take some of what Ascher did and apply it when he coaches boxing, especially the work ethic.
“You had to worker harder than everybody else,” Evans said, noting that Ascher’s teams ran a lot and shot a lot, sometimes not being allowed to leave the gym until they made a certain amount of free throws. “If you thought you were better than someone else, then you’re not working hard enough.”
More than 100 of his girls went on to play in college.
Cromer played at St. Peter’s and was MVP of the 1999 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. The high school freshman who couldn’t make a layup went on to play in Israel and Ecuador, and coached at PS/IS 116 in Jamaica.
Ascher found the time to attend her first and last college games. On Senior Day, she looked up in the stands and could hear the coach telling her to keep her hands up on defense.
“I’m like, ‘Alright, Ash. OK, OK,” Cromer said laughing.
Wilson said each player has great memories to share.
“It’s so amazing sometimes ... when we sit around and you actually hear the stories the other girls tell, you think you know it all but they’re tear-droppers. It warms your heart even more,” she said.