Interview: Father Leahy on “Benedict Men”

Posted on September 30, 2020 at 11:45 am

copyright quibi 2020
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.

I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.

What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?

The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.

So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.

I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.

When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.

I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.

The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.

Copyright QUIBI 2020

We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?

It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.

You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.

We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.

I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.

Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.

Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.

They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”

So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.

The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.

The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”

They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.

It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.

What do you want people to learn from watching this series?

I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.

To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that

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Jump Shot

Posted on April 16, 2020 at 9:14 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to hunting, illness, sad death
Diversity Issues: References to opportunities for women in sports
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2020
Kenny Sailors jump shot. Copyright 1941 LIFE Magazine

Those feeling most sharply the loss of NCAA March Madness this year will be able to get some of what they miss with “Jump Shot,” a documentary produced by one of the all-time NBA greats, Steph Curry, about the man he considers one of his most significant forbears,  the late Kenny Sailors, who invented the jump shot. Yes, someone invented the jump shot, and almost as remarkable as trying to imagine basketball without jump shots, this documentary will satisfy those who don’t know who Steph Curry is as well as those who can recite the stats from his career going back to his college days at Davidson. Kenny Sailors invented the jump shot when he was a teenager. But then he went on to a life well-lived, in which the jump shot and basketball were only one part. And to pay tribute to his example, a portion of every payment for watching the film will go to helping provide food to people in need as a result of COVID-19.

Did Sailors really invent the jump shot? Here’s what the New York Times said.

People of reliable authority have said that if they had to pick the one whose prototypical jump shot was the purest, whose mechanics set in motion a scoring technique that thrilled fans and helped transform a two-handed, flat-footed, essentially earthbound affair into the vertical game it is today — giving rise, quite literally, to marksmen like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — it would be Sailors.

Copyright 2020 Altavod

Sailors grew up in a Wyoming small town. He loved basketball and played one-on-one with his big brother every day. His brother was big, 6’5″. Sailors was only 5’7″. He couldn’t get past his big brother. So, he began to jump. And as someone once said in a movie, he had the hang time of a helium balloon.

The documentary has archival footage and contemporary comments from athletes, including Curry and Kevin Durant, sports journalists, and Sailors’ family and friends. Sailors took his college team to a national championship as he and all of the other players knew they would not be continuing to play basketball; they were all going into the military to fight in WWII. Sailors became a captain in the Marines, and then, after the war, played professional basketball long enough to qualify for a pension. And then, for his wife’s health, they moved to rural Alaska, where he coached high school students in every sport they offered plus girls’ basketball, which was not offered until he insisted on it.

It is a touchng love story, and it is a story of a life of grace, integrity, and service, with a quality we do not see very often, decency. Sailors’ quiet humility and selfless dedication are even more inspiring than his innovations in basketball.

Parents should know the movie has references to illness and aging and a sad death.

Family discussion: What was most important to Kenny Sailors? What would you like to change about sports?

If you like this, try: “Dogtown and Z-Boys” about some teenagers who also transformed their sport

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Family Movies for the Homebound VI: Kids Playing Sports

Posted on April 13, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2002

It’s tough for kids to be unable to play their favorite sports due to the restrictions from social distancing. It might help to watch some classic and beloved films about kids and teenagers playing sports.

Baseball

The Sandlot:  In the 1960s, a boy whose mother has just remarried moves to a new town and begins to make friends when he joins in a sandlot baseball game. The boy’s challenges include developing some baseball skills, trying to achieve a comfortable relationship with his new stepfather (Denis Leary), and finding a way to triumph over “The Beast ” (a junkyard dog) and the bigger, tougher kids who challenge his friends to a game. All are well handled in this exceptionally perceptive story of growing up.

Rookie of the Year: In this fantasy film Thomas Ian Nicholas plays a so-so Little League player until he breaks his arm and finds that his “tendons have healed too tight” making him, suddenly, a Major League-level pitcher.  As a hitter? Well, he benefits from a very small strike zone.

Basketball

Like Mike: The script is right out of the Hollywood formula box, with everything from two different “shoes not there at the crucial moment” scenes and important lessons about teamwork to the winning shot going into the basket just as the buzzer goes off., but it is sweet and fun.

The Mighty Macs: This uplifting film is based on the real-life story of Cathy Rush, a powerhouse basketball coach at a tiny Catholic women’s college who took her team all the way to the top.

Coach Carter:  We all love movies about underdog teams that come from behind because they (1) learn the importance of teamwork, (2) learn the importance of discipline and of respect for themselves and each other, (3) are galvanized by an inspiring leader, or, even better, (4) all of the above. This movie, based on a true story, takes it a step further, with an emphasis on schoolwork as well.

Swimming

Pride: Like all sports stories, this is about teamwork, but the team that matters here is Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac who bring such conviction and authenticity to this story of an inner-city Pennsylvania 70’s swim team that you can smell the chlorine and half expect Fat Albert to wander in with Mushmouth.

Touch the Wall: The documentary about champion swimmer Missy Franklin is a candid portrayal of the hard work — and the conflicts of loyalty and friendship — that are a part of competitive sports.

Surfing

Soul Surfer: AnnaSophia Robb stars as Bethany Hamilton, a competitive surfer who came back better than ever after a shark attack.

Soccer

Believe: Brian Cox plays real-life superstar soccer (football) manager Sir Matt Busby, who survived the tragic plane crash when eight of his players did not. When he encounters a gifted young player from an unruly kids’ team, both he and the team have something to learn.

Hockey

The Mighty Ducks: A slick lawyer is caught driving drunk and ordered by the court to coach a rag-tag kids’ hockey team in this beloved Disney film starring Emilio Estavez.

Martial Arts

Three Ninjas: Three sons of an FBI agent are kidnapped and use their martial arts skills to defeat the bad guys.

The Karate Kid: The classic original and the 2010 remake are both terrific stories about boys who use the discipline and training of martial arts to triumph over an arrogant bully. Fans can also enjoy the sequels and the current Cobra Kai series.

Figure Skating

Ice Princess: A straight-A student brings math to ice skating in this charming Disney film.

Gymnastics

An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars: Real-life Olympics star Cathy Rigby stars as the coach in this heartwarming story about friendship, family, and gymnastics.

Stick It: This film about a girl forced to return to gymnastics after she gets into trouble is pure delight — smart, funny, gorgeously cinematic, and all about real girl power.

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Creed II

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 10:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic fight scenes, serious injury, fighter killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 20, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 4, 2019
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Like a Timex watch and like Rocky himself, the Rocky franchise takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Here we are, four decades later, and Rocky Balboa is still going. “Creed,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler in between “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther,” was an unexpected upgrade, as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s opponent in the original Oscar-winning film took over, angry, with a chip on his shoulder, and itching for a fight. Michael B. Jordan is a brilliant actor with sizzling screen charisma, and it was, well, a knockout. He was on his way to becoming a champ and to making a life with a beautiful hearing-impaired singer (Tessa Thompson).

Coogler produced this next chapter, Creed 2, written by the original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, who returns as Creed’s coach and mentor, the guy you always want in your corner. And one thing Stallone knows how to do is step up the stakes. Entertainment Weekly once wrote that “It’s hard to find anything more 80’s than Rocky IV.” Just before the Cold War would draw to a close, “Rocky IV” had Stallone battling a Soviet fighting machine named Drago (Dolph Lundgren) with an ice queen of a wife (Brigitte Nielsen, who would be Mrs. Stallone briefly).  After Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring, Rocky fights him on behalf of Apollo and of course on behalf of America and freedom, and Rocky-ism.

And now, in the eighth film in the series, Drago’s son, trained by his bitter, brutal father (Lundgren again), challenges Adonis, newly crowned heavyweight champion, to a fight on behalf of Apollo, America, freedom, and Rocky-ism.  One fighter is bigger and tougher, but he has been trained with hate. The other has been trained with heart . Time for the classic Bill Conti score again.

Michael B. Jordan is mesmerizing on screen and so completely authentic that he makes even the soapiest moments real and engrossing.  Is Rocky going to refuse to train Adonis to fight Drago’s son (Florian Munteanu) just to create an opportunity for extra drama? Will there be ten-counts? Will there be a proposal, a baby, a reconciliation? Maybe two? Cornerman pep talks about “this is your house” and commentary on the business side of boxing (“The belt ain’t enough — you need a narrative, something that sticks to the ribs”)?  Decadent Russian oligarchs in a dining room that looks like it belongs to Count Dracula?  A camera shot that makes us feel like one of Drago, Jr.’s fists is coming right at us?  Callbacks to “Rocky IV?”  (In that film, Lundgren said only 46 words. In this one, he says a few more but some of them are the same words. Nielsen, on the other hand, is in the film but her ex-husband did not give her more than a few words to say.)  Dramatic moments in the audience, as women watch the fights — or don’t?  All of that, plus, in case we miss anything, a lot of expository narration from the sports announcers. 

Oh sure, it’s cheese.  But it’s Rocky, and it still works.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and graphic scenes of boxing with severe injuries, references to a boxer who died following a fight, brief strong language, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How did the different goals Adonis and Viktor had for the fight affect them? What made Ivan Drago change his mind? What do we learn from Adonis’ night with the baby?

If you like this, try: the “Rocky” movies and “Warrior”

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Uncle Drew

Posted on June 28, 2018 at 5:58 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of aging, medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 29, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 24, 2018
Copyright Lionsgate 2018

There are a lot of movies based on books and plays, and many movies based on songs and video games. And now, apparently, we’ve got a movie based on a television commercial. “Uncle Drew” is inspired by a 2012 series of Pepsi ads written and directed by and featuring real-life NBA player and science skeptic Kyrie Irving, disguised as an old man, astonishing some neighborhood hoopsters with his sweet moves. This version expands the story by adding more real-life players and upping the stakes to the $100,000 prize at the real-life Rucker Park competition in Harlem.

Basically, the serviceable script by Jay Longino and spirited direction from Charles Stone III (“Drumline”) follows the classic formula of all underdog sports movies, but it does so with three key assets. First, there’s an awesome dance-off scene, always a good thing, and here it is especially delightful because it turns out that people who are the best in the world at basketball have some sweet moves off the court as well.  Second, even for someone who is not a sports fan, the skills they show off here are not just impressive; they are truly aesthetically beautiful. Third is the fun these athletes are clearly having, so palpable it is genuinely infectious.  And for those who are sports fans, there are lots of inside jokes including one about too many time outs.

And they have the able support of “Get Short’s” Lil Rel Howery, “Girls Trip’s” Tiffany Haddish, and Nick Kroll, who must be getting a kick out of seeing someone else in old age makeup after wearing it every night in his “Oh, Hello” show on Broadway with John Mulaney.

So, no surprise here, Howery plays Dax, a coach who has put everything into his team in hopes of winning at Rucker Park. When his players and his gold-digging girlfriend (Haddish) are swiped by his rival (Kroll), the same guy whose block in a high school game shamed Dax into deciding never to play again.

Desperate, Dax invites veteran player Uncle Drew (Irving) to put a team together to compete for the prize. This means a road trip to visit each of the former members of what was once the Harlem Buckets. There’s a preacher who holds a baby about to be baptized as though he was a basketball (Chris Webber), a legally blind assisted living resident (Reggie Miller), a silent grandfather in a wheelchair (Nate Robinson), and a martial arts instructor (Shaquille O’Neal).  The preacher also has a wife who does not want him to go.  She is very tall.  She is also played by former WNBA player Lisa Leslie, so don’t be surprised if she gets called in as a replacement at a crucial moment.

It’s very silly, but surprisingly sweet and its unpretentiousness makes this at least a two-pointer.

Parents should know that this film includes crude humor, sexual references, a brief image of a bare butt, and some medical/aging issues.

Family discussion: Why did one bad experience make Dax quit playing basketball?  Why was it so hard for Uncle Drew to apologize?

If you like this, try: “Like Mike”

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