Blind—but Can You Beat Him at Basketball?

Standing in the well-worn gym, phys ed teacher Steven Sloan observes wearily as one of his students, a fifth grader nicknamed Double Stuff, struggles to land a layup. “Why are you standing so close to the net?” he hollers. “It’s not hard: Right. Left. Shoot.” Then Sloan takes the ball himself, sinking a shot without even brushing the rim. “Four times in a row,” he shouts, “and I can’t even see the basket!”

He’s not lying. Sloan, a strapping bear of a man who can bench-press 305 lbs., was born with a condition that left him almost entirely sightless since birth. But that so-called handicap hasn’t stood in the way of the high expectations he has set for himself—and the students who love him—at the New York City primary school where he’s taught for 22 years. Not only has Sloan managed to whip 350 pre-K through fifth-grade students, many suffering from asthma, obesity and diabetes, into better shape, he has spurred them to greater athletic heights: This year his kids jogged a total of 49,000 miles as part of a New York Road Runners program, besting all 50 other participating schools in the city. “He makes the point that obstacles are there to be worked through,” says the group’s executive director Cliff Sperber.

Born with macular degeneration, a condition whose onset usually occurs late in life, Sloan, 51, can distinguish only darkness from light. Yet he recognizes individual kids by voice and gauges their basketball form from the sound of their feet. For help taking attendance or on the rare occasions when a kid tries to sneak into the gym wearing street clothes, Sloan relies on “my eyes on the job,” Lorenzo Cowell, 29, his assistant. “People always say that kids from East Harlem are rotten apples, a bad bunch,” says Cowell, “but Mr. Sloan taught me how to be a father figure to these kids.”

Mostly by example. Off-hours, Sloan takes the kids roller-skating and ice-skating and calls them by nicknames like Baby Diesel or Pretty Bird. Sloan bought sneakers for some of the kids on the track team and gives out his personal cell number to kids in need.

As a child, Sloan never had that kind of care. One of seven kids born to a Harlem woman on welfare, Sloan became a ward of the state at 3. (His mother, who suffered brain damage after a brutal attack, was stabbed to death in 1983.) He grew up in group homes, and at 13 Sloan still couldn’t read. Then, in the sixth grade, a social worker helped him land a spot at the Lavelle School for the Blind in the Bronx, which he credits with changing his life: “They said, ‘You can be blind in this school here, but the world is not blind. You’ve got to learn to adapt.'”

It’s a lesson his kids are learning too. Vernice Melendez, 10, recalls how Sloan recently took students for barbecue as a reward for being leaders in class. “He tells us we can do stuff, and we accomplish it,” she says. Leslie Gonzalez, 12, graduated from P.S. 102 last year but still comes back to see Sloan, who helped her through the death of a brother and went to her choir concert at a new school. “He’s like a second dad to me,” she says. “He treats everyone like one of his own.”

That also includes an extended family of Sloan’s brother’s 12 kids, who often sleep over at the neat one-bedroom apartment he shares with girlfriend Linda Cadell, 48. “I let them sit back a little,” she says, “but Steven don’t take no mess.” Up at 4:30 a.m., Sloan does some of his own cooking and cleaning. He refuses the aid of a guide dog and jogs by “running in the same direction as the cars and making sure I tap my cane.” Last year he carried the Olympic torch for a 300-meter run in Turin after Tony Danza learned about Sloan and nominated him for the honor. Seeing Sloan pass the torch “brought tears to my eyes,” says Cowell, who went with his mentor on the trip. “He’s accomplished so much with his life, and he hasn’t even seen it.”

Back at school in Harlem, Sloan takes another shot at the basketball hoop. “Did I make it?” he calls out.

“Yes!” they scream.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he roars. “Of course I did.”

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