‘Playing basketball is my ticket,” Jio Fontan tells the camera of a small film company called Teamworks Media.
His testimony is a scene in a documentary called The Street Stops Here, airing on PBS tonight.
Jio is a student at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City during the 2007–08 school year. Three miles from Wall Street, it’s a place where, we’re told, kids like Jio frequently “don’t even have dreams” about what they could achieve in the near or far term. Jio, who makes the National Honor Society before graduation, could easily have been that kid, and he knows it. And, mercifully, his father knows it, too.
That’s why Jorge opened his home to Jio’s classmate Travon Woodall, whose single mother was diagnosed with HIV after a long battle with alcohol and drug addiction. Jorge is a walking redemption story who personifies the importance of male role models in young men’s lives. Jorge has been to jail and sees Travon on the road he used to be on: “If this kid goes the wrong way, he’s going to focus on being a good criminal.” But now Jorge’s a single dad putting his son through Catholic high school, and he’s the No. 1 fan of the school’s basketball team, for which his son is co-captain. Because Jorge knows that a faulty foundation can send even the smoothest shot skittering off the rim.
As does the head coach of the St. Anthony Friars, Bob Hurley Sr. “If you lose tomorrow, you’ll be the laughingstock of high-school basketball,” he tells his team at an especially pivotal moment. No senior class had ever graduated from St. Anthony’s without a championship; the Friars had just won nine state championships in a row. This class, however, didn’t look to be on the road to the victory.
“If every once in a while I flip out, so be it. If I didn’t, these kids would get swallowed up by the streets.” A three-decades’ veteran probation officer, Hurley’s role at St. Anthony’s — a bare-bones school without even its own basketball court — is to prevent what he spent his professional career dealing with outside. And he does so by demonstrating and encouraging unabashed discipline, sacrifice, and tough love.
Now retired, Hurley has been the most successful high-school coach in the country. In 36 years at St. Anthony’s, exactly two of his players didn’t go on to college. He has graduated NBA first-round draft picks, NCAA All Americans and McDonald’s All Stars. These are among the many reasons Hurley declares: “The Bloods are red. The Crips are blue. I still think the strongest colors in Jersey City are maroon and gold.”
For Hurley, it’s a family affair. His wife is the official scorekeeper. His sons have played for him — Bobby graduated to be a two-time national champion at Duke before joining the NBA, and Dan is a coach at another Garden State Catholic school. Neither got any special treatment along the way; that would have been teaching the wrong lesson.
“In life, you want people to know that there is a consequence for everything you do,” Hurley says. His goal with his teams is to leave them able “to look back and say, ‘Wow, we really did the best we could to reach out potential.’”
Proselytizing does not play a prominent role in the documentary, although the team’s mission and identity are inescapable — from the Friars’ name to the St. Anthony statute to the religious sisters who are still there. Christian feeling is manifest in the mutual respect displayed by each student, staff member, and family member we meet. Hurley announces his view of the big picture toward the end of the story: “We got everything done that we need to get done. And we have to get them out the door with the fear of the Lord.”
He’s talking about the game. But it works on a bigger scale.
Indeed, one of the things you can’t help but be struck by in The Street Stops Here is the universality of it all. In one scene, as the team is on the verge of crashing and burning, there’s a player-to-player pep talk about the importance of controlling the ego. No one is bigger than the team. “Yesterday was yesterday and today is today.” Don’t rest on your laurels, and don’t be dragged down by your past.
It’s a reminder, too, as we live our lives, try to make ends meet, debate policy — whatever we do — that there are faith-based institutions all around us that are perpetually short of resources but are nonetheless saving lives, literally. “The kids here need this school,” says Hurley. “They need a place that keeps them off the street, but every year it’s a struggle just to keep our doors open.” St. Anthony’s received a $100,000 donation this past fall and will benefit from the sales of The Street Stops Here DVD, but other schools serving inner-city youth aren’t as fortunate. Just this weekend, I learned of one school in my native Manhattan that’s lost the struggle and is closing its doors this June. And the sad fate of St. Michael’s is an all-too-familiar story.
Much of the documentary focused, naturally, on raising boys to be responsible men and the crucial role of male role models in that. But women are always nearby in The Street Stops Here, offering something different and just as important. The vice president of the school, Sister Alan, struggling with cancer, provides motherly encouragement. One learns outside the documentary that St. Anthony’s not only changed Travon Woodall’s life, but his mother’s too. And the importance of the feminine isn’t lost on the men from the Street. At graduation time, Mike Rosario, who we’re told was also on the fast track to bad news prior to his Friars career, hugs his mother in a way that looks almost like a reverse Pietà: the son holding the mother who has suffered and sacrificed so much, receiving her with great love and appreciation for the tremendous opportunity her love has put before him.
After the key win of the season, Jio’s dad embraces him and announces: “I’m proud of you. . . . I love you, man. I couldn’t ask for better.” May every Travan and Jio have that. And if not, may they at least have a Coach Hurley.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at email@example.com.