Basketball finds redemption a world away from lure of the lucre

LAST night was due to be the start of the new NBA season in the US.

Instead the controversial lockout of its increasingly tetchy players will begin its 125th day this morning.

The nightmare scenario for fans became all the more definitive on Friday when commissioner David Stern cancelled the rest of this month’s games, confirming what everyone knew or feared: a full 82-game regular NBA season was now not going to happen “under any circumstances”.

So it came as a welcome antidote to this familiar struggle between millionaires and billionaires when, on returning to New York on Monday, I caught a rerun of last week’s much anticipated HBO documentary, “Prayer for a Perfect Season,” a look at high school basketball in one deprived area of Northern New Jersey and how the popularity of the game is battling to maintain the presence of the Catholic church in many neighbourhoods.

We’re told in the opening sequence that during the last 10 years, 1,000 Catholic schools have closed in the US, the many lawsuits depleting the church’s reserves. The popularity of high school basketball has apparently helped keep a lot of the remaining doors ajar.

One case in point is the iconic New Jersey high school, St Patrick’s HS, which is located in the industrial town of Elizabeth. With just 215 students and an airtight budget, their Celtics have enjoyed almost quarter of a century of success under the guidance of Irish-American coach Kevin Boyle.

Whereas once it was the New York schools that dominated the tri-state area, now it’s the schools of this part of New Jersey which rule the nation and therefore are able to attract the top players who dream of a college scholarship and even beyond. But the scope of their influence is not matched by the humble gym in which they practise, the tight space leaving no room for a safe fall over the foul-line while up behind the basket, a crucifix looms large, a sort of guide for the 16 and 17-year-olds shooting from deep.

Forty graduates who have passed through here have made it to top colleges while nine of those have gone on to an NBA career, most recently Kyrie Irving, the Duke University point guard who was the 2011 number-one draft pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Prayer for a Perfect Season” sees St Pat’s begin the 2010-11 season ranked 11 in the nation before going on an unbeaten run that takes them all the way to number one. The number two team at that point? Their local rivals from Jersey City, St Anthony’s High School.

The coach there is Bob Hurley Sr, a zero tolerance, no-nonsense man of the old school whose 1,000 wins at this level have contributed to his nomination to the basketball Hall of Fame, one of just three High School coaches to attain that honour.

Now, Boyle is trying to emulate his arch-rival Hurley whose 2003-04 team went undefeated and became the subject of “The Miracle of St Anthony”, a best-selling book by Adrian Wojnarowski.

But that’s all these schools have got going for them, residing as they do in cities which rank high (or low, depending on which way you look at it) among the nation’s most troubled. Michael Gilchrist is the other star of the show, not just because he’s the star of the team and possibly of the future but also because his uncle, who speaks quite eloquently about his nephew in the early stages of the documentary, dies halfway through the season. Director Marc Levin manages to get uncomfortable levels of access during this tragic time as the charismatic forward grapples with the loss of a second adult presence in his life, his father having been shot dead over a decade before.

His mother proves to be an equally strong presence, however, and is responsible for the film’s best line when describing the conservative nature of her son’s school (founded in 1868): “It’s an old-fashioned Catholic high school. The only thing they don’t do is beat your kids.”

This well-made documentary, following in the steps of Hoop Dreams, is propelled towards the inevitable showdown between the big two, a regional winner-takes-all contest on the way to a potential national title. And what better day for this clash to occur than on Ash Wednesday. I won’t ruin the ending. But it’s many times more rewarding than watching the so-called adults arguing over dollar signs.

njohn.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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