New York City’s basketball roots run deep.
Its storied Madison Square Garden — widely known as the “Mecca of Basketball” — is home to some of the most legendary performances in the sport. Its famous Rucker Park has held some of the most electrifying pick-up runs the game has ever seen. Its five boroughs are scattered with bustling blacktops and playgrounds.
NYC is basketball.
And perhaps more important than all the iconic moments the concrete jungle has provided hoop heads, it has birthed countless basketball pioneers who’ve used the game to impact lives.
Clarence ‘Mugsy’ Leggett is one of those pioneers. Over the last 30 years, the Bronx native has served as a mentor to inner NYC youth. He founded his Wiz Kids Basketball program with the intent to not only coach kids on the court, but help them build educational and life skills too.
For his long standing efforts, Leggett was recently named 2020-21 Jr. NBA Coach of the Year. He was surprised with the award by Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley and former Knick Rod Strickland at a Jr. Knicks event in the Bronx.
We spoke with Leggett about his Bronx roots, his coaching journey, the inspiration behind Wiz Kids and more:
How did your basketball journey begin as a kid growing up in the Bronx?
I was an athlete. I was good at a lot of sports as a young kid. My father played minor league baseball, so I actually started in that first but eventually got into other sports. On my block, there was a basketball court with rims that were nailed to a tree. That’s how I learned how to play — shooting on a tree. I started playing against grown men around 9th grade and by the age of 15, I was one of the top streetball players in New York City.
What got you into coaching?
I wanted to give back and use my talents to help some of the younger kids in the community. At 15, I started training kids in the parks and putting them in local tournaments and camps. I saw the faces of the kids I was helping and how it made them so happy, and it made me feel good. I fell in love with that feeling and decided I wanted to continue to make a difference in kids’ lives and in the community.
What inspired you to establish your Wiz Kids Basketball program?
Growing up, nobody really gave me the opportunity to get out of the inner city and see other things. Eventually, I got the opportunity to play college ball and travel around the world, and I wanted to give kids in my community the same opportunity because I was once one of those kids. I wanted them to see other things besides drugs and violence. Making a difference in the kids’ lives made me also want to do more in the community, so I started giving away food, clothes and toys during Christmas time. That’s where I started with the Wiz Kids program. Now, after over 25 years of doing this, we’re getting a lot of exposure but we did it the right way. Kids, family and community — That’s what we’re about.
What does winning the Jr. NBA Coach of the Year award mean to you?
It means everything, but I’m a person who’s always in the background. I don’t look for anything. So, it’s more gratifying for my community because we usually don’t get this kind of exposure. We’re usually left in the background, so for a program from the Bronx to get this, it’s an honor. I’m happy that somebody was looking and appreciated our program and what we do. I always tell my kids: Remember where you come from. Remember how hard it was for you to get here. If you don’t believe in yourself and what you’re doing, then who’s going to believe in you? There’s going to be a lot of downs before there are ups. That’s why I appreciate everything I have, because I know how hard it was to get here.
When your coaching career is behind you, how do you hope to be remembered?
I want to be remembered for being loyal and patient. You should always stay focused and loyal to what you’re doing, and have a heart. Your heart has to be right. I’m not using this game to get rich or make a name for myself. I do this because of my heart and because I want to help. My kids know I care. When I go out to the store or somewhere and one of my kids see me, they’ll yell “Mugsy, Mugsy!” and come running to hug me. Kids can read you. They know I’m sincere in what I’m doing. I’ve helped over 300 kids get scholarships, not just for basketball but academically too. I’m trying to open up doors and help these kids get educated and job opportunities. I just want to help, and if I can reach these kids and impact them, then I’m doing my job.
To learn more about Leggett and the Wiz Kids Basketball program, visit wizkidsbasketball.com