Joe Picaro took it all in, his eyes welling up with tears, because he was too smart not to. The buttoned-up, long-time principal who has spent 40 years as an educator at St. Patrick glanced at the scoreboard, which didn’t present good news for his beloved team, and realized it was over.
He gazed slowly at the stands, packed with clapping supporters who wore green from head to toe. He also made time to close his eyes momentarily to perhaps force a smile at the flashing pictures of many years that brought joy to all who comprised the St. Patrick community.
The seconds melted off the clock, as Gill St. Bernard’s dribbled out its 63-45 victory over St. Patrick in the state playoffs, and Picaro still sat and accepted sympathetic hand-shakes from those who slowly trotted out the gymnasium on Thursday night and witnessed the end of a golden era.
It’s hard to believe St. Patrick, the home of one of the finest high school basketball programs in the United States, is reportedly closing at the end of the school year. It’s harder to believe the team very well could have just played its final game. Ever.
Those green, white and yellow jerseys with the trademark Air Jordan logo on the right shoulder loop won’t be seen again on the hardwood. A tumultuous week began on Saturday, when MSG Varsity first reported the Elizabeth institution –- the oldest parochial high school in New Jersey which was erected in 1868 –- will be forced to shut its doors in June due to a mountain of financial issues and a supposed decrease in enrollment.
“The basketball landscape has changed dramatically over the last three years. Basketball as we knew it for the last 20 years has changed,” MSG Varsity’s Mike Quick said, also citing the folding of Paterson Catholic and Rice (N.Y.). “St. Patrick had the ability to make this time of year very special. It’s a big hit.”
For the last few years, it had been rumored the school would close its doors or merge with St. Mary. Despite surviving a scare two years ago, the place on 221 Court Street fell into more bad times lately and the archdiocese saw enough dooming evidence to raise a red flag.
"It's heart-wrenching. It hurts," St. Patrick athletic director Red Migliore said. "I've been through a lot in my life, and I'll be 76 in July, so I've been around, but this tests your faith."
The Celtics’ boys basketball program had risen to the top of the high school landscape over the last 23 years under the direction of former coach Kevin Boyle, the reigning National Coach of the Year who left this past summer for a lucrative, sunnier place just outside Orlando, Florida at Montverde Academy.
Boyle had developed several future NBA players, including former Knick Al Harrington, Samuel Dalembert, Derrick Caracter and, most recently, Kyrie Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA Draft.
He also produced over 100 Division I student-athletes, such as Shaheen Holloway (Seton Hall), Mike Nardi (Villanova), Grant Billmeier (Seton Hall), Corey Fisher (Villanova) and Dexter Strickland (North Carolina). Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Western Kentucky’s Derrick Gordon – also St. Patrick alumni -- are two current freshmen making waves at the NCAA level.
Before Boyle, St. Patrick established itself as one of the state’s prized jewels when it came to basketball. The Celtics had won state titles in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s before experiencing a drought leading up to the time Boyle, the fiery kid from Clark, took over the reigns and turned the program into the lone worthy rival of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley and his St. Anthony Friars.
But that’s just one part that touches the hearts of those in New Jersey who yearn to spend their nights marveling at slam-dunks and other highlights on the hardwood. The real miracle of St. Patrick High School, oddly enough, turned out to be one of its downfalls.
According to multiple sources, the school is being closed partially because it has recently produced the lowest SAT scores in the region. What many fail to recognize is that St. Patrick embraces the less-than-fortunate children with fourth- or fifth-grade reading levels – and eventually sends those groomed men and women to college. That’s more impressive than any Tournament of Champions crown.
This story is so much more about basketball; don’t let that slip the mind.
Picaro, as old-school as they come but one of the most entertaining, comical story-tellers you'll ever come across, once told me: “We have kids who come in as underachievers and leave as overachievers. The success of the people here is amazing.”
That’s why this is a sad day. Yes, one of the most heralded high school basketball names in America will likely be a memory. But the state of New Jersey also lost one of its staples in adolescent education, a place where kids from the inner cities called a safe haven.
Picaro, Migliore and the rest of the St. Patrick family are in the beginning stages of protesting the archdiocese ruling. Even the Elizabeth mayor, J. Christian Bollwage, has gotten involved. Though the closing is likely to be upheld, there’s still a chance, many proclaim.
“I’m an old-fashioned guy,” Migliore said this week, “so I still believe in miracles.”
Based on the facts, the school will likely still close. But, of course, St. Patrick’s basketball team -- like the school's supporters -- wouldn’t go down without a fight. The Celtics were trailing Marist by two points at halftime in the opening round of the state tournament on Tuesday night, but went on a tear in the fourth quarter to eventually win big.
Then, on this noteworthy evening in a posh gym much nicer than the place St. Patrick used to practice over the last century, they took one of the most talented teams in the nation to the brink.
St. Patrick led, 28-25, at the half and forged a 34-32 lead with 1:15 to go in the third quarter, making many wonder if divine intervention was in line and maybe, just maybe, these Celtics carrying a there’s-no-tomorrow rally cry would pull off the unthinkable and win it all in the last year of existence.
It turned out that Gill St. Bernard’s and its group of sharpshooters woke up and constructed a 17-0 run that spanned from the final minute of the third all the way to the middle of the fourth and put away the team that ended their season last winter. Forever.
The romantic, dream run never transpired, basketball fans are saying this morning. That’s the misconception.
Picaro sat with his arms crossed and lips pursed as the game ended and St. Patrick became the subject of an obituary. He knew, though, that something wonderful had already happened, something more than just basketball. A tiny, poverty-stricken school helped save lives.
It was a miracle that lasted just short of 150 years, and it’s one we will never forget.
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter