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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Watching the Spirituality show, I thought of another spiritual moment of a different kind. Some years ago, my friend Gerard Papa needed a parish to sponsor his team in the Catholic Youth Organization's prestigious basketball program and found the Rev. Vincent J. Termine, at Most Precious Blood in Bensonhurst. A crusty, twinkly Brooklynite in his early 50s, a kind of movie priest - "Celibacy was never a problem," he told me once, "and I didn't take a vow of poverty. But obedience, ah...."

He helped Papa paint white lines on the linoleum floor of his bingo hall and erected portable backboards. They held open tryouts. Black kids from the nearby Marlboro projects ventured across Avenue X, the black-white borderline. When the team was assembled, it was more than half black.

Racial integration was never the primary mission, Papa has maintained all these years. Blacks, he told me, "weren't relevant to where I lived. I had essentially no contact with black people and I didn't really think about 'em too much." Papa just wanted a good team. He wanted to win. He says he was surprised when the neighborhood freaked. At the first integrated practice, a van screeched up and a gang of young white men piled out swinging bats. One of them was the son of the local "man of respect." The Flames piled into Gerard's Thunderbird and raced off to Coney Island, figuring correctly that their attackers would not follow them into a black neighborhood.

That season there were telephoned death threats, and Papa's tires were slashed. His black players were beaten and most white players were pressured to quit. But he refused to disband the team. He believed in his own righteousness. Apparently, so did Father Termine. Remembering a piece of advice from his own mother - "Better a dead priest than a bad one" - he stormed into the back room of the local social club. Cards and chips flew as Father Termine ("I can be dramatic when necessary") roared about Jesus and justice. When he was finished, the team and Papa were promised safe conduct.

That was more than 30 years ago. Father Termine is retired. Papa and the Flames are still beacons of integration and youth basketball in New York City.



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