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First Class to Gym Class

Joe Carbone looks at the clock and steadies himself. They are coming.

He goes down his checklist: tables folded, gymnastics mats down, squares of carpet arranged like fuzzy archipelagoes on the linoleum floor, one for each student in his makeshift gym. If not for the snow dusting the bodegas and row houses in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, he'd be outside on the track. Instead he's in this tiny converted classroom, no larger than most living rooms, with 31 fifth-graders about to make land. Did I mention it's Friday afternoon, the equivalent of Mardi Gras for 10-year-olds?

The bell rings, the door opens and, within minutes, girls are cartwheeling into cackling heaps. Boys fly ass-over-ankles as attempted roundoffs go comically awry. Carbone, a short, thick 45-year-old who brings to mind an enthusiastic bear, tries to keep order while spotting cartwheels. He yells. He blows a whistle. And, when it gets cataclysmically anarchic, he turns off the lights. By the end of the 45-minute period he's sweating and a little hoarse, his back is sore and he's concerned that one student might have made a mess in the bathroom. Riding in the charter jet with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, it is not.

That's how Carbone used to roll, when he was Los Angeles's strength and conditioning coach, a job he held for four years after nine as Bryant's personal trainer. He worked with multimillionaire athletes, stayed in fancy hotels, sat fist-bumping distance from Jack Nicholson. Sure, there were challenges—like persuading Pau Gasol to get into the weight room and Bryant to get out—but it's nothing compared to what he does now. Up at 5 a.m., wrangling 10-year-olds in class, serving grilled cheese at lunch, tracking school attendance. His old NBA buddies think he's crazy. So might you at first glance.

After all, who chooses to leave the Lakers? That's like telling Letterman you'd rather go work for a cable access show. At a time when people are always trying to climb the ladder—of fame, of success—Carbone chose to simply step off. He can recall clearly when he decided to make a career change two years ago. It was the day he heard his youngest son say, "I want to play basketball, but my dad hasn't taught me yet."

Funny thing is, expectations in Carbone's new job, which he got after doing private training, are higher than they ever were in L.A. The charter school where he works, The Equity Project, is a grand educational experiment. Serving a low-income, predominantly Hispanic area, it's founded on the idea that teachers, not facilities or systems or administrators, make the biggest difference in students' development. So the eight staffers earn $125,000 to $150,000—holy-crap astronomical salaries for the grade-school world—that are possible on public funding only because there is so little school bureaucracy. To get the gigs they had to survive nationwide tryouts that The New York Times called "almost the American Idol of education." They are, in essence, a teaching Dream Team.

So Carbone has gone from one extreme to another. With the Lakers, he had access to state-of-the-art facilities, used highly technical training strategies and worked with athletes who needed neither dietary guidance nor, in most cases, motivation. And now? He uses make-do equipment in dingy classrooms because the school is still raising funds for a new building, which will allow TEP to add a grade per year until it goes from five through eight. He deals with kids who subsist on Creamsicles, not creatine. What's more, since these are fifth-graders not high schoolers, as TEP founder and principal Zeke Vanderhoek says, "I think his Kobe connection bought Joe about five seconds of credibility before they were on to the next thing." Or, as Carbone puts it, "If you don't know what you're doing, they're going to step all over you."

He's also teaching advanced athletic concepts to an obesity-prone population that might never otherwise encounter them. This means proper running stance through film analysis ("You should see their mile times improve!"), nutrition ("They come to school telling me they counted calories!") and physiology (recent whiteboard discussion topic: LACTIC ACID). Even those cartwheels, for all their apparent chaos, were a step forward, as many of the kids have received so little instruction they weren't comfortable enough even to attempt one just two weeks earlier. "I'm trying to undo five grade levels of people not paying attention to these kids," Carbone says. "That doesn't happen overnight."

No, it doesn't. So instead of late nights at Staples Center or road trips to five cities, he goes home "fried" most days—though he still has found the energy to coach each of his three kids. And if he were to occasionally dwell on his old life, well, who could blame him? He traded prestige for anonymity, a pay cut for harder work, the California coast for a commute through the Bronx. "At first in L.A., it was incredible," Carbone says. "You're thinking, I'm sitting here watching a Lakers game sitting behind Phil Jackson. But after all those years, I was tired of sitting behind that bench, just watching."

Now he's on the front lines—and in the right place. "With the Lakers, I was mainly fine-tuning," Carbone says. "I mean, it doesn't really matter who trains Kobe at this point." He pauses. "Here, I might be teaching the basics, but you know what I've learned? The basics are pretty important."

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Sure, Joe Carbone had challenges as the Lakers' strength and conditioning coach, but they were nothing next to wrangling out-of-shape, high-energy fifth-graders.