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Requiem for a Friar

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In the tiny halls where dreams are made and potential is realized, a funeral procession has arrived.  It has arrived in the form of a a swarm of reporters, half reporting on the demise of St Anthony High School, and half mourning it.  For the school which has inspired millions not only with its play on the court, but with its unrelenting commitment to its students and the community, is officially closing its doors.  

To the Garden State sports fan, this news is devastating.  The Friars didn’t just win, they put New Jersey on the map.  The numbers are staggering: 28 state titles, 12 Tournament of Champions titles, four national titles, over 1200 wins for Head Coach and school president Bob Hurley Sr., and over 200 players playing for Division 1 schools.  And of course, the Naismith Hall of Fame induction for Hurley.  They garnered enormous national attention, from the book The Miracle of St.Anthony by NBA guru Adrian Wojnarowski, to the documentary The Street Stops Here, to countless newspaper profiles.  Today’s announcement made it to the front page of every major news and sports website.  

Much of that attention centered around the greatness of the basketball team.  However, the true miracle at work was what went on in the classroom.  St. Anthony provided the most affordable alternate to neighborhood public schools at just over $6,000 per student.  The bang for the buck is enormous.  For the past 20 years, 100% of St. Anthony students have graduated and gone to college.  With the vast majority of students coming from the inner city streets, this number is nothing short of astonishing. 

This success, however, came at a great financial cost.  The school lost roughly $8,000 for every student it admitted.  The school had been asked to raise tuition in order to cover its debt to the Newark Archdiocese.  It had even been offered millions and a new building to turn into a charter school and lose its religious affiliation.  But throughout all the years, St. Anthony stood firm in its mission of providing a quality Catholic education at the lowest possible price.  

This is the epitome of the Catholic mission.  Serving the least of society at their own financial burden is exactly what is taught in the Bible.  The archdiocese, however, seemed to not care all that much.  Their demands were stark: $500,000 upfront for this year, and even more money to pay off existing debt.  For a school with less than 200 students, this was too much to ask for.  Even so, the effort put forth by the school was unbelievable, as they managed to raise $1.2 million this year alone.  But even this was not enough for the archdiocese.  Mind you this is an archdiocese which three years ago paid for a $500,000 home renovation for their then archbishop.  

This begs the question: Why else would the archdiocese exist if not to serve the neediest of children?  Isn't that what we are called on to do?  Is that not the Catholic mission?  At the end of the day, those who did the dirty work were left hanging by those with all the power.  And thus is cruelest of ironies: The school which admitted all students regardless of finances is done in because of money.

All this led to the scene today in the St. Anthony auditorium.  Holding back tears, Coach Hurley announced the closure in his usual dignified manner, before holding court with reporters for about an hour.  He reminisced about old times and championship teams.  He talked about his future, which unsurprisingly he says will be in Jersey City and nowhere else, speculating that he will spend his days working with the youth of the city in some capacity.  He lamented the loss of what has been a part of himself for nearly 45 years, yet he still answered every question with the dignity and class that he has always carried, even in the wake of his greatest defeat.

After all the other reporters left, I approached Coach Hurley.  The first thing I asked was how his wife was doing.  Chris Hurley has had as much to do with the success of the Friars as her husband.  Aside from being his scorekeeper, she has also been the backbone of not just the team, but the family.  Bob responded that talking to everyone there has made her feel better, which is understandable considering the amount of support that the Hurley's received at the press conference.  

I then told Coach Hurley a story of my own.  A story about an 11 year old boy who was taken to a basketball game one day.  His father had read about St. Anthony and Bob Hurley and decided that he had to see them.  So he took his two kids to see the Friars play Science Park in the TOC Final.  The oldest of those kids was fascinated by everything that the Friars did, from the way they warmed up to the way they played defense, to the coach screaming on the sideline.  This boy from that point forward was hooked on basketball.  He went on to play varsity basketball for his school, then after high school he worked his way up to broadcast the game. And then, nine years after the initial game, he had the honor on two separate occasions to interview the man who had inspired him as a member of the media.

Upon telling Hurley this story, he turned to me, his eyes red from a long day of mourning, and he thanked that boy.  He shook my hand, and later he went off to talk to his players.  His next few days and weeks are pivotal, for he not only needs to find new homes for his players, but for all the returning students of the school.  The fundraising is not over.  The phone calls will not end.  The only difference will be the goal, which is for everyone to land on their feet.

The real victims here are not those who will land on their feet, but the hundreds of those, both born and unborn, who will never know the miracle of St. Anthony.  The children who would otherwise have gone to St. Anthony for the same reason all of those who came before did: to find a better education at the lowest price, with the hope of going to college.  What becomes of these children is now a mystery far greater than the question of how the NJ basketball scene will look without the Friars.

As I left the school, I stopped to look at the statue of St. Anthony, who devoted his life to the downtrodden.  I began to think of what we had just lost as a society.  We have just lost not just a basketball team, and not just an institution, but a dream.  We have lost a piece of the American Dream, which is supposed to state that if you work hard you will succeed, regardless of social class.  We have lost the hope provided by all who have come before.  And we have lost a sanctuary, an oasis if you will, where all is welcome and nobody is more important than the next.  

I looked at the words next to the statue.  They read: " You are entering a special and safe place, and the street stops here."  That message has stood for the past 65 years, and is as rigid as the institution that it stands in.  Upon going outside, I stared at the street, which today more so than any day seemed to go on forever.