NEW YORK TIMES - IRA BERKOW, 12/3/03
A HARD CASE FROM THE STREETS MAKES GOOD
The first time Rick Carlisle saw Jack Ryan, he was less than impressed. It was 13 years ago, in 1990, at a Nets rookie camp, when Carlisle, now head coach of the Indiana Pacers, was an assistant to Bill Fitch.
'He had been recommended, though he didn't have any real college-playing credentials -- but we gave him a shot,'' Carlisle recalled. ''He was older, 29 years old, just about six feet tall, and he looked like a California beach bum when he showed up. White guy, deep tan, long blond hair, mustache, big smile, a little overweight, not quite in shape.
'Fitch and I looked at each other, like 'Oh?' Then we saw him on the court. It was not what we expected. Where'd he come from? This guy could play!''
But it would not be a National Basketball Association career that Ryan would carve out for himself, nor one in college. During what may have been his most productive basketball years, in fact, he was hauling hundreds of pounds of fish in a hand truck at the Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan.
It was only later that he began to gather himself as a person, materializing first as the lead attraction on the otherwise all-black Harlem Wizards and then as the self-styled Hoop Wizard. He had seemed bent on throwing away his talent and even his life. ''He was headed for the gutter,'' his fiancée, Jennifer DiMaggio, said.
Instead, at age 42, he has convincingly turned his life around. He performs magic with a basketball at children's parties, bar mitzvahs, summer clinics and charity events and at halftime of high school, college, N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. games. His next appearance at Madison Square Garden will be at the Holiday Festival on Dec. 28 and 29, spinning sometimes eight balls on his body and head simultaneously, drawing squeals of delight and then making as many as 20 straight shots from 3-point range.
While in high school, Ryan became famous locally in street ball, joining that esoteric circle of New York City playground legends who get a limited but surely heady recognition that, in many cases, ends up without monetary reward.
''In my 35 years in basketball,'' said Pete Coakley, Ryan's coach at John Jay High School in Brooklyn, ''Jack was the best high school player I ever had -- one of the best I ever saw -- and the biggest disappointment. He was totally talented and totally wild.
''But basically, he disappointed everyone who tried to help him in those days. Like a lot of talented ballplayers who have no discipline or too much ego, you were sure he'd drift off the map and you'd read about him getting shot, getting arrested in a drug bust or just rotting in jail.''
Today at youth events, Ryan, solidly built, looking as healthy as a model in an ad for milk, as committed to his work as a monk to his prayers, with that trademark big smile, will give a palatable lecture on doing the right thing: stay away from drugs and drink, stay in school, be a team player. ''Those were lessons I had to learn the hard way,'' he said.
The basketball magazine Slam recently published its list of New York City street-ball legends with the likes of Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins and Earl Manigault. It also listed: ''Jack Ryan, a k a Black Jack. Chris Mullin once described Jack as the best shooter he'd ever seen who hadn't played in the N.B.A.''
Ryan was raised in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn, a heavily Irish area, and got to know the Mullins: Chris, who became an N.B.A. All-Star, and Terence, who also played at St. John's.
Basketball was the sport of the neighborhood, and even as a boy of 5, Jack Ryan could spin a basketball. He was seen as a prodigy. ''But it seemed he went for laughs instead of working at his game,'' said Jimmy Burke, an actor and lifelong friend who still plays in pickup games with Ryan. ''It all came so easy to him.''
Eric Eisenberg, the longtime coach at Tilden High School in Brooklyn, said: ''In high school, Jack was as good as there was. He was as good as Stephon Marbury -- for about five minutes. That's because Jack never cared much about staying in shape.''
Coakley, Ryan's coach at John Jay, sought to get him a college scholarship. ''Loads of schools were interested, until they saw his grades,'' Coakley said. Ohio University took a gamble but insisted that Ryan first go to a junior college to get his grades in order. As Ryan recalls it, he enrolled at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, and was swiftly thrown off the team for coming to practice drunk on Saturday morning. He returned to Brooklyn, to the playgrounds, and the fish market.
His father, John Ryan Sr., a longshoreman, was disgusted with him. ''All this is going to come back and bite you,'' Jack recalls his father as saying. His mother, Susan, tried to be conciliatory, but she, too, despaired. An older brother, Randy, was a successful Wall Street trader, making Jack look all the more a disappointment.
Yet people continued to be amazed at his basketball ability. He hooked up with Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore. It was a terrific team, with Ryan as the productive point guard. ''The four other starters all went on to Division I schools to play,'' Ryan said, ''except me.''
Seton Hall expressed serious interest, and Ryan came back east. ''But Jack still had a reputation,'' said Mike Brown, now head coach at John Jay College in New York, recalling when he was an assistant coach to P. J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall. ''Too much baggage.''
Ryan then enrolled at Brooklyn College, where he was spectacular in the first three games. Warned by the coach not to showboat, he showboated nonetheless, and was thrown off the team.
Several years passed. He was playing lunchtime games at the Y.M.H.A. on East 14th Street in Manhattan with Peter Vecsey, basketball columnist for The New York Post. Vecsey, impressed, called Fitch and arranged the tryout for Ryan at the Nets rookie camp.
''We liked Jack,'' said Carlisle, Fitch's assistant, ''and wanted him to go to the C.B.A. and hone his skills and get in shape.''
Ryan didn't go. He injured his knee in the camp and wound up having three operations. Two years later, he sought another tryout with the Nets but was told, ''Jack, you were too old at 29.''
Ryan was living part time with DiMaggio, who had been a two-time all-American forward for Pace University and taught third grade. ''Jack would come in drunk at 3 in the morning,'' DiMaggio said. ''I broke up with him. He went back to his apartment, where his mother was paying the rent. And he was 35 years old.''
Todd Davis, president of the Harlem Wizards, learned about Ryan and found he could use him. Ryan was 37 years old. ''I got so wrapped in wanting to play well and do the required tricks,'' Ryan said, ''that I worked day and night. I was disciplined, for the first time in my life. Maybe I was growing up, finally.''
Davis recalled: ''He was great for us. But some of the other players resented him. They thought only a black man should be doing what Jack was doing.''
Ryan was feeling the discomfort, and he soon went off on his own, calling himself Hoop Wizard and going so far as to set up a Web site, HoopWizard.com.
He has been hugely successful. DiMaggio has taken him back, and they are expecting a baby in February. And Ryan gives the fans at his Hoop Wizard events their money's worth. After one performance, a nun approached him.
''You're terrific,'' she said. ''You're doing God's work. You're making the children happy.''
Ryan was taken aback, but immediately called to tell his mother.
''My mother was so proud,'' Ryan said. ''And when she died, my sister Suzanne, in her eulogy, told that story about the nun and my mother. Some people had tears in their eyes. No one in my family, or anyone else, including me, ever thought I'd come to this.