Finger: In a secret NBA hotbed, a Spurs fan provides an assist

NEW YORK — Chester John wants to tell you all about Tim Duncan. But this is the late-morning rush, so you’re just going to have to give him a minute.

Thirty years ago, when John and his sisters were growing up on the Caribbean island of Grenada, they waited for what seemed like forever to be granted access to the United States. These days, as far as the faculty and students of Baruch College are concerned, John is the gatekeeper, and he decides who can and can’t gain entrance.

He likes to think there are famous basketball players in just about every NBA city in America who appreciate what he does for them.

“They don’t like distractions,” John says. “I make sure there are no distractions.”

John, a 46-year-old with a stocky 5-foot-9 build, cuts an imposing figure in his blue City University security uniform. From his workstation at the corner of the Newman Vertical Campus building on Lexington Avenue, where he works every weekday until 8 or 9 at night, he sees a huge chunk of the 18,000 students who attend Baruch, a Manhattan commuter school.

Most of them swipe IDs to get through the turnstiles. But some don’t have the right privileges, or are there for appointments with professors, and John has to check his clipboard to make sure they’re cleared before he can let them through.

He can be gruff, and he is not swayed by lame excuses about lost cards. He does, however, break into a smile when a young woman emerges from an office behind him and taps him on the shoulder.

“Do you have something for me, Chester?” she asks.

John reaches behind his computer monitor and hands her a plastic container holding a slice of chocolate cake that had been delivered earlier.

“Thank you, Chester,” she says.

Understand, John is good at being discreet. Almost nobody around him realizes it, but two floors below him happens to sit one of the most star-studded practice gyms in the world. And John makes sure snooping eyes never get too close.

When teams such as the Spurs visit New York to play the Knicks or the Nets, they’re often in need of a space for an off-day practice or a morning shootaround when Madison Square Garden or the Barclay’s Center are either unavailable or inconvenient.

More than a decade ago, Baruch started renting out its nondescript, below-street-level gym for that purpose. According to the New York Times, more than 60 NBA and NCAA teams have used the Baruch courts.

James Harden and the Rockets stopped by earlier this week. The Spurs visit almost every year. They use a back entrance, entering the gym through hallways that most people can’t access without getting through John, but sometimes students catch a glimpse.

“Honestly, I don’t think most of the people here have any idea,” says Gil Daniel, an 18-year-old business administration major. “But the sports fanatics, they’re aware of it. It’s great for the school.”

Back at the security desk, John thinks so, too. He fell in love with basketball in 1991, right after he moved to New York from Grenada. His mother had been here for more than a decade by then, working in an office building, becoming a citizen, and eventually becoming a green-card sponsor for her husband and children.

The Knicks were a playoff team then, and nearing the height of their popularity, but John never quite bought into the hype.

“San Antonio always was my team,” he says.

What cinched it for him was Duncan. When the city went wild for the Knicks during their run to the 1999 NBA Finals, John was one of the locals mesmerized by the Spurs’ stoic young big man. Asked if Duncan’s island heritage had anything to do with the appeal, John laughs and shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “He’s just an amazing player.”

Then John reveals something amazing about himself. He’s worked at Baruch as a security officer since 2006, and during that time he’s occupied the same building as Duncan at least a half-dozen times, but he’s never actually seen the man in person.

The teams usually use the side entrance and a back hallway, but sometimes a player or a coach will use the front entrance — John saw Kevin Durant once, and opened the gate for John Starks during a Nike Pro City summer league event. John always misses his favorite team.

“I never go downstairs,” John says, shrugging his shoulders.

But he makes sure that only the people with proper permission get to go downstairs. Sometimes, when rumors start to spread about an NBA team using the gym, students try to come up with excuses to get past him.

But more often than not, it’s reporters.

“Lots of people from ESPN,” John says.

The Spurs canceled their scheduled practice at Baruch on Thursday, but there’s a good chance they will show up for a shootaround today before they play Brooklyn. John, as usual, will make sure there are no distractions.

And he has an extra reason to be excited about their visit.

“I heard Tim Duncan is a coach now,” he says. “I would like to see that.”

Chances are, he won’t see him in person. John never does. But if Duncan’s coaching career takes off?

In the middle of his late-morning rush, a security guard can take some pride in knowing he helped just a little.

Even if Duncan never realizes it.

Twitter: @mikefinger

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