His players started as young as 9 or 10 years old, and perhaps because many of them lacked for male role models, Gagliano became a major figure in their lives. Increasingly, they started to play a role in his. They also played some very good basketball. Several years ago, Gagliano took his travel team, the Zion Lions, all the way to a national tournament in Orlando. It was the first time many of the players had been on an airplane. The local paper covered their departure with the fanfare normally accorded a professional team, noting that dozens of college coaches would be watching them play. The team ended up taking second place, but the triumph was bittersweet: Several hours after they returned to Newburgh, the star of the team was arrested for first-degree robbery. Gagliano helped the family post bond, putting up his own house as collateral. (The charges were eventually dropped.)
One perennial obstacle to good policing in America, particularly in depressed jurisdictions like Newburgh, is that cops tend to be commuters; they don’t live on the streets they police, which can limit both their acquaintance with the neighborhoods and their investment in them. But the decade Gagliano spent coaching in Newburgh has proved to be an enormous advantage. He arrived at his job with roots in the community and credibility—what he calls “traction.” He knew the kids on the stoop, their teachers, their families. He could walk the neighborhood without a gun on his hip.
One afternoon, I join him, and as we pass the run-down rowhouses of Lander Street, or “Blood Alley,” as it’s known, kids materialize at every turn, waving from a vacant lot, calling out from the back seat of an idling car. Gagliano calls back to them by name, spreading the word about a barbecue he’s planning after basketball practice. You’d think he was a community activist.
Except he’s not: He’s an FBI agent whose stated mission is to “bring the hammer” to the very gangs that control the drug turf we are casually strolling through. Every block or so, a clutch of hard-eyed young men sit arrayed around a porch. They stare at us, unblinking, with withering disdain.
“How do I tell a kid to stay away from these guys,” Gagliano mutters, “when these guys live in his house?”
It’s an oddity of Gagliano’s situation that while he might know the victims of Newburgh’s gang murders, there’s a chance he’ll know some of the perpetrators as well. These relationships prompt discomfort, if not outright worry, among his colleagues. “You’re too close to this,” they say.
But Gagliano never really had a choice—his investment in the community wasn’t a conscious policing strategy; it was the baggage he brought to the job. He recognizes that the most intractable challenges in Newburgh are beyond the reach of law-enforcement solutions, and in this respect, his competition with the gangs has simply evolved into a multi-front affair. He relates the story of one kid in particular, a local boy I’ll call Delroy. Like many of Gagliano’s players, Delroy started out as a harmless preadolescent rascal. He wasn’t a big kid, but he knew how to carry himself and showed real talent on the court. Gagliano took an interest in him. “I knew he was a kid that lived on a tough block,” he says. “But he never gave me any guff.” Delroy developed a friendship with Gagliano’s son and became a frequent houseguest.
But as he got older, Delroy started skipping practice. This is a common problem on the team. Often, Gagliano starts a practice by instructing the players to do warm-up drills while he hops in his car and drives the streets in search of truant teammates.
“Get your ass in the car,” he’ll say when he finds them on the corner with a group of older boys. “We’re going to practice.”
And while they’re still young, that often works. But as the boys grow into surly adolescents, many just fade away. Delroy eventually stopped coming to practice altogether, Gagliano says. “He dropped off the face of the Earth.” From time to time, they would bump into each other in town, and Gagliano would urge him to come back.
“Coach, I got you,” Delroy would say. “I’m coming back.” But he never did.
“For most of them, I am their father figure, for better or for worse,” Gagliano says ruefully, before lapsing into an uncharacteristic silence.
One of Newburgh’s crueler ironies is the way today’s depressed urban landscape is overlaid on a rich architectural foundation full of vestiges of bygone wealth. In the nineteenth century, the city flourished as a hub for river-borne commerce. Thomas Edison built one of the nation’s earliest power plants there in 1884. But eventually the factories relocated, the ferry was discontinued after the construction of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, and Broadway emptied out after malls opened outside town. In the sixties, the city undertook a disastrous experiment in urban renewal, demolishing the historic waterfront but failing to replace it with anything.