Sandy Pyonin is the kind of coach and mentor who comes along once in a generation. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Golda Och Academy paid tribute to Pyonin for more than 40 years of service by renaming the basketball court at the West Orange school in his honor.
At a time when statistics are as much a part of sports as the players or the history, Pyonin has piled up a pretty impressive set of numbers. As of this writing, he has won more than 570 games and two state titles with GOA (formerly Solomon Schechter Day school of Essex and Union); more than 2,300 games, three national titles, and 70 state titles with his Amateur Athletic Union teams; and sent more than 300 players to NCAA Division I schools.
Then there are the 30-plus players he has shepherded to the NBA through the AAU, including Kyrie Irving, the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year, and Randy Foye, who served as honorary chair of “Celebrating Sandy,” held on Sept. 9.
More than 500 family members, friends, and GOA/SSDS alumni came out to honor Pyonin. The height of many of those in attendance would lead one to believe they had played ball for him at some point.
Prior to the ceremony, Pyonin shared hugs, backslaps, and memories with former athletes from the school; the YM-YWHA of Union County, where he coached his AAU teams; and his JCC Maccabi Games teams.
Seth Schwartz, class of 1987, and Eitan Melamed, class of 1997, chaired the event. Both had played for Pyonin at SSDS.
“For all the things he did for us growing up, we wanted to give something back to him,” Schwartz told NJ Jewish News, adding that he considered renaming the basketball court “an appropriate honor.”
Guests roamed the GOA halls, which were lined with posters created by students depicting Pyonin’s accomplishments over the decades (he refuses to divulge his age). Along one row of lockers, pictures of the NBA players included “scouting reports” from their former coach. For Foye, Pyonin commented, “He was a special talent” and “He had a dream to be a great player but fulfilled it even more by being a better person.” Similar sentiments appeared on each player’s “card.”
Prior to the program, Foye told NJJN, “Sandy is a big part of my life and the reason I’m in the NBA today. He’s one of the best human beings I ever met.”
Foye, a guard with the Utah Jazz, first met Pyonin when he was an 11-year-old growing up in Newark. “When I started playing for him, I was on the court three, four hours a day, and I said, ‘Man, I didn’t sign up for this.’” He described Pyonin as a father figure who demanded his charges put out their best, whether on the basketball floor or in the classroom, and fondly recalled the many hours he spent just shmoozing with the coach.
During his remarks to the audience, Foye became emotional as he spoke of the route his life could have taken had it not been for Pyonin. The six-year NBA player said he had learned to be a “complete and unselfish player” under Pyonin’s tutelage. Foye said Pyonin still calls him after every game to offer words of encouragement, “no matter if I score 30 points or five points.”
“If it wasn’t for you, your hard work and dedication to me, I would not be where I am today,” Foye told Pyonin from the dais.
Prior to the formal program, when asked if could he sum up in a few words what the event meant to him, Pyonin answered with a succinct “No.” At first this reporter thought he was merely being modest, but he was just being honest. Pyonin is not a man of few words; his remarks to the crowd were copious and detailed as he reminisced about growing up in Brooklyn, teaching and coaching the kids that he came to love and respect, recognizing old friends in the audience, and thanking the school for the honor.