It was an eerie feeling entering St. Anthony High School last week for one last time.
They’re putting the padlocks on the door at the end of the month. The process of cleaning out the place for good was in full bloom, with school books stacked high on tables like it was the first day of school in a college library.
And the books were there for anyone to take and keep.
There were also scrapbooks, filled with photos and memories of years gone by, especially of the famed basketball teams that I got to watch, first as a beloved fan growing up as a kid, then getting to cover as a sportswriter for the last three decades.
All totaled, St. Anthony basketball was a part of my life for the last 45 years, back to the days when I jumped into the back of the Rochford family station wagon with my best friend John Rochford to go watch his older brothers Pat and Danny, as well as my childhood idol and neighbor Bobby Kilduff weave magic on the hardwood in 1973.
So when I heard that they were giving away all the trophies and banners and awards attained by the fabulous Friars over the years, I had to see it all transpire.
So walking into the auditorium and seeing the textbooks stacked high was one thing. Seeing the state championship trophies just sitting there for the taking was another.
And the night became an impromptu reunion for many alumni, who had to come back and see the place for one last time.
I couldn’t understand how Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley could simply allow anyone to come and take a trophy. But Hurley didn’t want any of it.
“We have such a tiny place where we live,” Hurley explained. “We have no room for it. I have a plate from the 1989 team. Melissa [Ursic, the Hurleys’ daughter] took the trophy from the first state championship team [in 1973]. And that was it. I was hoping some of our players would take the ones from their teams.”
However, most of the trophies were gobbled up by fans and alumni. Only a handful of the players took home any hardware. Ike Williams, the powerful forward and enforcer from the 1996 team, took home the Tournament of Champions trophy his team won, capping one of the eight undefeated state champions the school produced.
The fabulous Friars – it’s almost painful to think it’s the last time I’ll write those words – won 28 NJSIAA state titles, the most in New Jersey history, so there was a lot of bronze to be dished out.
The best aspect of the evening was just the alumni getting together to share a drink or two and reminisce about being part of the St. Anthony family.
My friend “Roch,” who has been my best friend for over 50 years, brought his wife and two of his daughters to the unplanned celebration. He got to meet Terry Dehere, the all-time leading scorer in Seton Hall history before having a career in the NBA. Both Roch and Dehere wore No. 24 as Friars.
Roch also got his memory, the trophy from the 1977 Parochial B state championship, No. 5 in the list of 28, a team he played for.
“It’s very sad, because of what St. Anthony did for so many people,” Rochford said. “But I’m relieved for Coach Hurley and what he had to do every year, trying to raise money. It was stressful for everyone who worked there. Now, it’s a relief.”
The alumni shared a laugh through their obvious sadness that St. Anthony is now part of history.
“I got to see so many people, like Alice Schmidt [DeFazio, the New Jersey City University athletic director] and [Cathy] B.C. Meyers [O’Callahan], then seeing Jerry Walker and Terry Dehere. It’s generational. It’s the relationships we all shared. We got to know people on a deep level because the school was so small.”
“It’s a very tough day,” said Rich Freda, who had great success in basketball at St. Anthony before Hurley arrived in 1972. “I knew that when they announced the school was closing that I had to be here for the last day. We lost a little bit of a safe haven here. Kids from all nationalities would come here. There was always good discipline, good education and good basketball.”
Freda grew up in the Marion section of Jersey City. He had a choice of a handful of schools to attend. He chose St. Anthony because the school’s athletic director at the time, the late great Tony Nocera was a good friend with Freda’s father.
After Freda graduated from St. Anthony, he attended Mercer County College, where he won a national basketball junior college championship with a team whose starting lineup was comprised of all Hudson County players. Freda went on to play at Hartwick College.
Freda has been an avid fan of the Friars ever since.
“What will I do during the winter now?” Freda asked. “This really leaves a hole in my heart. I have nothing but great memories of this place.”
Friar legend Jerry Walker, who just recently won the Democratic primary for a seat on the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, was also in attendance.
“I’m sad,” Walker said. “I feel like a big part of my life has been taken away from me. St. Anthony was part of my development as a mature man. It meant so much to me. I mean, I never even went to a restaurant before I came here. I learned a lot of life skills. I came from a big family, so I had to learn a lot of things.”
Walker said that he has a weird sense of what will happen now that St. Anthony is closed.
“I’m worried that it’s going to hurt a lot of kids,” Walker said. “St. Anthony used to attract the best college coaches and they would get both St. Anthony and other kids scholarships. Well, who’s going to get those scholarships now?”
Walker said that he plans on supporting Hurley’s plan to revitalize youth basketball in Jersey City. The legendary coach plans on organizing a basketball foundation where he will nurture young players and give them a chance to play. The school might be going away, but Hurley is not going anywhere. Jersey City is in his blood.
Willie Banks played basketball for the Friars, but his fame came from baseball, where he was a standout pitcher during his days at St. Anthony and was eventually drafted by the Minnesota Twins with the No. 3 pick overall in the 1987 draft, the same draft that produced Ken Griffey, Jr. Banks played nine years in the major leagues.
“I didn’t get a chance to go to a place like Duke or Seton Hall,” Banks said. “So St. Anthony was a lot like my college. When I found out they were shutting it down, I had to be here. I have a lot of good memories from here. I’m going to miss it. I’m seeing so many people here that I went to school with. I hate to see it close.”
Banks said that his biggest memory is the day he got drafted.
“I had Sister [Mary] Alan handling everything for me, the press and all,” Banks said. “It was a great day.”
Banks spent the day at the home of his friend and teammate Rubin Rodriguez, got the call from the Twins, handled all the media buzzing about, then went to Pershing Field to pitch a state playoff game, one where he hit a monstrous homer, standing there at home plate and watching it fly like he was Reggie Jackson.
I remember that day well. It was June 2, 1987 – my 26th birthday. I spent the whole day with the kid who I first met when he was 14 years old, pitching for Greenville Babe Ruth. Now, he was the No. 3 pick overall in the country. It was amazing, much like the way Willie was in high school. The days he pitched were like rock concerts, with so much attention. You simply had to be there to watch him throw.
I asked Roch what his finest memory was.
“The hard work at practice,” Rochford said. “That’s what I’ll remember. The practices were so much harder than the games. And the amount that I learned was incredible.”
A lot people feel the same way. I learned so much about basketball just being around the fabulous Friars and their Hall of Fame coach. It leaves a huge void for a lot of people.