Berkeley College in NYC: Champions in Life and Hoops
The Berkeley College Men's Basketball team in New York City won 53 games in a row to claim it's third consecutive USCAA Division 2 Championship. Berkeley defeated Penn State-York 80-76 in overtime to grab the title.
Coach Chris Christensen sat down on the bench when it appeared their opponents only had to make a free throw to win the championship game. It was the first time the coach had taken a seat the entire contest. He says divine intervention may have led to another victory:
“The game was tied and those two fouls were called. If you looked at the game you would have seen that the whole game I was standing up. When that occurred I actually sat down. And in my own mind I felt “I don’t know man”. I bring these rosary beads with me lately cause of all the close games. And I was holding onto the rosary beads and I said “God please help me figure out to tell these guys they are going to lose”.
The 5-10 co-captain Jeffrey Mejia says he never thought they would lose the game and kept the faith through the bizarre end to regulation:
"Coach, all the coach’s from the head coach to the assistant, they tell us what we need to do and how we need to do it and we all simply buy into it. It’s more like a family; I mean the atmosphere in Berkeley and the basketball team. It’s amazing I’ve never experienced anything like it. I feel like it’s my second family I can rely on anybody on the team from the head coach to the last player on the team”.
Mejia says once the game went into overtime, he knew they would win it in the extra session.
Mejia's road to success is not your usual story of a young basketball star. As a teenager, the Bronx kid spent about a year in a homeless shelter with his mom and sister.
"When it first happened, I was actually ashamed, but basketball actually served as an outlet, I mean I was on my high school's basketball team and it just helped me cope with the situation."
Coach Christiansen saw Jeffrey dive for a basketball during a camp, and he knew the guard had something special to give.
“I kept looking at this one kid who just seemed to stand out, I mean there were shooters there and tall rebounders, but this kid just kept coming in and out of my mind because I could see the persistence in him in diving for a ball or getting a loose ball or getting a steal and my opinion is, that’s guts. When I see guys I can teach him anything”.
Coach Christiansen has been giving back to his players since he came to Berkeley College in the mid-90's. When he first started teaching at the college, an athletic program didn't exist at the college on 43rd street between Madison and 5th avenue. After starting a basketball program, Christiansen implemented strict rules for his players especially when it came to discipline:
“My father used to say to me “I want you to feel uncomfortable before you feel comfortable”. And I never really understood what that meant, until I became a coach and what were doing with these young men is we’re making them feel uncomfortable in the beginning. We’re changing what they are doing; we’re trying to rearrange their value systems from the neighborhoods they’ve come from. We’re trying to change their attitude of the importance of school, getting a good education and playing the game that you love”.
Coach Christiansen's rise to the top of the basketball world started after his world was basically torn apart:
"In the early 1990's, four unbelievable things happened to me that were totally unexpected. My marriage failed. My father passed away unexpectedly and six months later my mother passed away. Probably within three or four months after that, they had a major downsizing in my organization and I was one of the first ones to leave."
The 6'5" Christiansen eventually would get a job teaching at Berkeley College and the rest "is history."
Could the 53-game winning streak stay alive next year? Mejia thinks there's a great shot at that:
“I think with the guys we have coming back and hopefully with the recruiting that goes on. I think we have a good chance to keep going, I mean why not a 4th one why not a hundred games you know. Coming into college I would have never expected 53 games in a row, so I mean now the sky is the limit so why can’t we keep going?"
The day the SportsJam interviewed was taped, Mejia found out he had landed a good job where he was interning.
Mejia says he owes a lot to his coach, especially when it came to realizing that education is what leads to success:
"That's why he's so impactful, he gives great advice, he cares, he's loving like a father figure."
Click above to hear the entire SportsJam with Doug Doyle interview with Berkeley Coach Christiansen and Jeffrey Mejia.