Building Relationships Through Basketball: Interview with Coach Mel

By Jade Coley

Throughout American history, particularly in American sports, there have been countless stories of a team or an individual athlete that overcame insurmountable odds into victory, into history books, and onto the silver screen. Rudy, Hoosiers, A League of Their Own, Remember the Titans, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Venus and Serina Williams, are just a few examples of a seemingly endless list. Through these inspirational figures in American sports lore, we’ve learned that behind every all-star success story is a coach’s relentless belief in their players’ potential.

I recently spoke with one of Harlem’s finest, Coach Melvin (Mel) Martin, to talk about his role as a mentor, coach, and positive figure in the lives of young men. As a native of Harlem, Coach Mel grew up playing basketball, but health and life took his career in another direction. This changed about seven years ago when he began coaching an AAU team called “Positive Energy”. This is where Mr. Martin began to realize his purpose. Mel is an incredible role model to his peers as well as the youth of his community. Mel’s main focus is bringing young people together from different walks of life to a productive, positive setting through basketball. 

As the dedicated Coach Mel says, “To be able to relate and get through to the youth takes a special kind of person; one who sacrifices his time to better support our young people.” Mel led his teams to two championships in the span of three years, which speaks volumes about the work he has put in keeping his players ready and motivated. Coach Mel believes in his boys so much that he not only volunteers his time to the summer season, but he also pays out of his own pocket what is needed to ensure the teams’ success. This includes, but not limited to, gear, tournament fees, referee fees, travel, and sometimes even a meal. 

This devotion has built a trust and loyalty between the boys and their beloved coach. “They know they can count on me, no matter what. So, when it’s time for me to ask more of them, they step up”, he said during our interview. This trust took years to build, and now Coach Mel has the privilege and reputation of someone that can be counted on. He is a constant and positive influence in these young men’s lives, and that’s what the winning ingredient for Positive Energy is. In his own words, it all comes down to respect.

“Anybody can draw up a play, or read a defense. 90% of this whole trip is managing personalities, it’s mentoring, respecting them. Knowing who they are and why they’re there.” – Coach Melvin (Mel) Martin

Togetherness and identity are at the core of what his Positive Energy team is made up of. This is a group of diverse young men from a similar background and socioeconomic status as Mel grew up in. Coach Mel speaks to the importance of diversity on a team, that not only gives it its identity, but curated with care, makes that much more unified. “It builds respect for others that aren’t from where they’re from, forming relationships amongst themselves is key”, he said. This is monumental for a kid who, in some cases, has never left his neighborhood or meets another player from a rivaling part of town.

“Sometimes, a kid will say to me I respect you and I want to play, but I can’t go over there”, said Mel while explaining the intricacies of relationship building with these young men. Coach Mel explains that this integration of a tournament, sometimes just from the next neighborhood, is so crucial to broadening a players world, even if it seems to be on a micro scale. Encouraging them to go ahead anyway, and ensuring that he’ll make sure they’re safe no matter what, gives them a positive life experience that may not be the norm from the environment from which that child lives in. There are countless nuances that Coach Mel has to consider before a whistle is ever blown. 

For the first three years, Coach Mel and his team suffered defeat after defeat. Eventually, our ambitious coach began to ask himself what the point was at all. Then, another year goes by, and the boys begin texting Mel in anticipation of getting the team back together and playing another season. “They need this”, he said, “they need an outlet for the summer, out of negativity.” After year four, team Positive Energy started bringing home the wins and took home two championships of the span of three years! All because of his herculean effort to have a vision and see it through, no matter the personal costs. 

“They’re watching me. Just like I’m watching them. If I give up, what does that tell them?” he continues, “but, when Coach steps his game up, they follow suit.” Coach Mel draws his inspiration from mentors, elders in his own life, people that didn’t give up on him, and human rights activist and revolutionary, Malcolm X. “He was a man with a vision. He stood for what he believed was right, and was true to himself”, said Mel while discussing the civil rights leader’s role in his own upbringing and inspiration. So many times Mel wanted to throw in the towel, but he drew his inspiration from his purpose, Team Positive Energy.

For some, summer activities are just a way of passing the time. For Coach Mel’s boys, playing for Positive Energy means opportunity.  Basketball is their passion. So, a lot stems from the tournaments. And, for the fortunate ones who get to wear that jersey, there is no doubt Coach Mel will lead them towards a more meaningful, respectful, and positive future. That is not limited to scholarships and drafts to play on more pro teams.

Behind every legendary team, inspiring athlete, in history is a coach with the strength and heart to push an all star to reach their potential.  And, behind them, a community that believes in the vision. A coach like Mr. Melvin Martin is one in a million, and a story we all know and need to inspire us to do better, be better. Coach Mel has given so much of himself so that his boys and their families never have had to worry whether or not this is the last season for team Positive Energy. He hasn’t asked for a dollar. But, with the encouragement of one of his very own mentors, Yael Glick, he is giving the community a chance to play a part in the success of these young men’s lives, and share the financial load.

Last year, Coach Mel had a successful GoFundMe fundraiser, and Positive Energy brought home a championship! This year, they are reaching higher and dreaming bigger. GoFundMe is up again, and more than a third of the way to its goal. But, Coach Mel knows it can’t stop there. This is a community effort. With a sponsorship, this AAU team can use their platform to give back to the community as well. Everyone in a village plays a role in the success of an individual. It takes a strong community to support and nurture a visionary. Go to and do your part for Harlem’s finest.

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