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Basketball a big draw at Newark school, but there's much more to it

092429BENEDICTMEN

This is a scene from the documentary "Benedict Men." (CNS photo/Whistle Studios, Quibi)

 

By Mark Pattison

Catholic News Service

 

      WASHINGTON (CNS) - Benedictine Father Edwin Leahy, the headmaster of St. Benedict School in Newark, New Jersey, is not one for small talk. It may give him more time to express his love for the boys and teens who are in his care.

      Every school day at 8 a.m., there is a convocation in the high school. As Father Leahy said in the new documentary series "Benedict Men," "We teach history, we teach math. But to teach togetherness? It's built into the fabric here."

      "Benedict Men" - executive-produced and introduced by Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, who's not an alumnus of the school - focuses on the school's basketball team. As head coach Mark Taylor puts it, "We're an advanced placement course in basketball."

      But it's more than just the ups and downs of one team's season. "Benedict Men" probes, if only gently, into the backgrounds of some of the team's top players. Many of them come from hardscrabble backgrounds, but have unmistakable roundball talent.

      "Benedict Men" appears on the new streaming service Quibi, which puts the "short" in short-form and the "mini" in miniseries. Quibi's aim is to keep every episode of every show within 10 minutes. Otherwise, it'd be the casual viewer's equivalent of watching the movie "Titanic." All 12 episodes of "Benedict Men," if watched one after the other, can be seen in less than two hours.

      But is St. Benedict a hoops factory? "The reason we play on such a high level is because it's much easier to deal with 12 delusional teenagers than to deal with 450 delusional teenagers," Father Leahy told Catholic News Service in a Sept. 23 phone interview.

      "All the other kids who think they're going to play in the NBA - they're 5'7" and they think they're going to play in the NBA - so I say, 'Go out there, on the court, play with these guys, see if you can do it,' and they can't do it. Then they become interested in other activities."

      He pointed to one student who wanted to play on the St. Benedict soccer team but wasn't cut out for the sport. He joined the cross-country team and in the spring graduated from Harvard. A couple of boys to whom Father Leahy had suggested "you might be better for track" also graduated with degrees this year from the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina.

      Father Leahy utters what turns out be a prophetic quote early on in "Benedict Men" when he says, "There's no loyalty in high school basketball. None." The final episode reveals that two junior starters, one of them a team co-captain, head elsewhere to play their senior year.

      "The kids are great kids and they happen to have talent, which is very important to remember," Father Leahy told CNS, adding the lack of loyalty is not the students' fault.

      "They didn't ask to have this talent. God gave it to them. They have an obligation, therefore, to develop that talent," the priest said. "The problem comes when adults come in and try to use the kids as an investment. When your kids become an asset, you've got a big problem."

      Father Leahy said he has heard far too often, "I'm his uncle and I'm trying to protect him."

      "That really becomes crazy," the priest said. "They get moved around like chess pieces."

      The priest is prophetic in another sense. While "Benedict Men" was filmed in early 2019, Father Leahy's remarks in various episodes drive home a host of salient points raised anew in the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that started this summer in response to police shootings.

      "The kids that are sitting in front of me, I'm not telling them what they don't already know," Father Leahy said. "Nobody is just going to cede power. You have to be out there with your own voice, making meaningful change. To do that, you have to understand their reality and their fears, and they have to understand your reality and your fears."

      St. Benedict, which educates boys as young as age 5, is partially open during the pandemic.

      "We're like Navy SEALs, we're like a SEAL team. We'll be where you are," said Father Leahy, who has been at the school since 1969. "We're partly virtual, we have kids on the grounds," as there is a residential component to the school as well, "some in multigenerational housing. We're concerned as well, and their parents are concerned, that we don't infect the parents."

      Another change came to St. Benedict after the film crew left. "We're a single all-boys school for 152 years, and we now have a girls' division. We're not coed, but we have a girls' division. This is the first year," Father Leahy told CNS.

      Catholic Church leaders "are pros at closing schools," he said in explaining the new division. "They do it better than anybody else. Two Catholic schools closed near us. They didn't come to us, they came to our guys and said you've got to start a girls' division here.

      "We said we didn't have enough room, and they wouldn't hear it. We've got 78 girls in a girls' division and we hope to grow," he continued. "The girls are going, and we're hoping to amplify it with the guys. We lost 230 seats for girls (with the school closings). We have 78. There's another 160 kids out there somewhere that don't have a Catholic school."

      Father Leahy said that, despite the notable accomplishments achieved by St. Benedict students, his role remains "sharing faith and building community."

      "The paradigm for the mystery of God, the word made flesh, is Jesus of Nazareth and his love is demonstrated on a cross - the death of a criminal, in love," the priest said. "Our call is to love each other the way they are. He loves me the way I am. If we get kids to understand it, we've done something great to understand each other 's suffering.

      "And they trust us," he continued. "We live here in this community. We suffer what everybody else suffers. Just being present with the people."

      That ethos forms the basis for the adage that adorns the school's entrance: "Whatever hurts my brother or sister hurts me."

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