On a few occasions during Benedict Men, the 12-episode Quibi docuseries executive produced by Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, I went back to something that the series’ director, Jonathan Hock, told me about sports documentaries before I dove in. As he explained, sports documentaries need to strike a balance.
“Well, the key to the good sports documentaries in my estimation is that they’re never about the sport,” Hock said. “And yet at the same time, the sport itself does provide a crucible for our characters to endure, to pass through, and to take the measure of themselves as individuals. ”
It’s hard not to consider that second point in just about any portrayal of high school basketball in America, particularly when it’s a vehicle like Benedict Men, which follows the basketball program at prestigious New Jersey prep school St. Benedict’s in Newark. In addition to its radical approach to education — which was featured on 60 Minutes in 2016 and puts students in charge of how the school functions — St. Benedict’s is an athletic powerhouse in the state. The soccer program, for example, has produced multiple members of the United States Men’s National Team, including former captain Claudio Reyna and one of his teammates at the school, current national team manager Gregg Berhalter.
But for Garden State natives like myself, the school has always been synonymous with its basketball program. St. Benedict’s just wins basketball games, including this past year’s State Prep A title, and sends dudes to college and the pros. J.R. Smith is a Gray Bee. Lance Thomas is, too. A handful of other dudes (Isaiah Briscoe, Trevon Duval, Tyler Ennis) who have had cups of coffee in the Association call the school home.
At the head of the school, someone with whom all the aforementioned names is assuredly familiar, is a Benedictine monk named Ed Leahy (affectionately known to the students and the viewers of Benedict Men as Father Ed). An alumnus of the St. Benedict’s — who, in a powerfully New Jersey moment, told me he went to school with much older relatives of mine — Leahy graduated in 1963, and since 1973, when the school reopened following a brief closure in the aftermath of the infamous Newark Race Riots in the late-60s, he’s been at the helm.
He also, as we learn in the second episode of the series, isn’t a particularly big fan of the way basketball, oftentimes dangled as golden ticket to the league for young men of color who have aspirations of a better life for them and their families, works in the United States. He makes a jarring comparison between high school basketball and slavery, and excoriated the myriad of voices in a young man’s life who are actively attempting to get them to buy into the thought of them having what it takes to become the next LeBron James some day.
“No 16 or 17 year old kids should be in a position of thinking that he’s got the whole burden of supporting his family and getting them out a poverty-stricken or worse misery situation,” Leahy tells me. “No kids should have on them, but the system stinks. The whole system stinks, which keeps people of color stuck in the situations that they’re in.”
It doesn’t help that basketball can run pretty antithetically to the way St. Benedict’s looks to operate. The school’s motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me,” and in the world of high-level high school hoops, viewing yourself as a member of a collective isn’t always easy. There are moments in the documentary where the program, led by head coach Mark Taylor, has to reckon with this. The on-court stuff you expect (players falling asleep on defense, or making terrible decisions with the ball, or deciding to shoot themselves out of slumps) pops up, as do things like showing up late to practices or struggling in school.
All of this is what inherently got me thinking about Hock’s quote.
Benedict Men is, at its core, about basketball’s role in something much larger: a community made up of kids who will, one day, go on to do something other than play basketball. While the school — and, by extension, the basketball program — teaches its students everything you might expect, there’s also an emphasis placed on understanding that your best interests and someone else’s best interests are two in one the same, something that Leahy believes important to emphasize in general.
“Whatever hurts my brother hurts me, or whatever hurts my sister hurts me, is what the place is built on,” Leahy says. “That’s how you create community, and what we’ve lost in this country, what’s been destroyed in this country, is the sense of community. We suffer from it horribly. And if we can’t figure it out, there’s going to be big, big problems beyond us, in the not too distant future, is my belief. So we work overtime on creating community and constantly communicating this sense of community, and that’s what a team is built on it.”
The season the team goes through in the documentary tests the sense of community the program is built on. A collection of its players go through their own ups-and-downs, whether it’s current Xavier guard C.J. Wilcher hurting his ankle, Eastern Illinois big man Madani Diarra working to get healthy after missing a year and a half due to a knee injury, or St. Peter’s wing Zarique Nutter hitting a collection of bumps in the road during his time with the team. The Gray Bees have squad-wide affirmations after wins, major heart-to-hearts following low points, and with a season culminating in a loss to a rival in the state title game (it’s not a spoiler since it’s several years old and something you can Google), the ethos of the program and of the school at large are put to the test.
It’s a really interesting documentary, one that gives a glimpse into a basketball program that is a microcosm of a school that features a vast, diverse population. Students from all backgrounds — different races, different religions, different classes, etc. — are part of a radical experiment to try and figure out what happens when you believe in the power of a community to overcome, a rising tide to lift all boats. Should one boat get a hole in it, there is a sea filled with others ready, willing, and able to assist.
And at the center of it all — although this is surely a depiction he’d dislike — is a septuagenarian Benedictine monk with a thick Jersey accent and an overwhelming belief in the inherent good his students possess. Basketball is merely a way to build bridges to unite them in that inherent good.
This is on display in the final scene of the documentary. It takes place at the school’s graduation ceremony, and Leahy’s arms are wrapped around a pair of members of the team — Diarra and starting guard Jake Betlow. The former is a practicing Muslim, the latter is Jewish, and Leahy, of course, is Christian, something that he points out to the duo’s delight.
As a man of unshakeable faith, Leahy wants to teach his students that the divisions that exist because of things like the version of God they believe in are unnecessary.
What gets us in trouble, Bill, as you know, is religion in this world. We kill each other over religion, but there’s a difference between religion and faith. Faith has to do with a relationship with the mystery of what we in English called G-O-D, God. Of course, the problem is that once you name that mystery, you’ve already limited it, right? Limited the mystery, which you can’t do, but we have to use words. So this mystery of divine love is part of every major religion, certainly there is religions of the book — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — and I describe it, I think, for people usually is we’re all climbing the same mountain of faith, but we’re just climbing it from different sides. Islam coming from one side, Judaism kind of close to us coming up. But the great news is that we all meet in the eternal embrace of the mystery of love, of the mystery of the divine, of God, on the top of the mountain.
That’s the shocker. That’ll be the shocker for some people, they’ll get up there and they’ll say, ‘How the hell did you get here? You’re not Christian, or you’re not Muslim, or whatever.’ But so, if you can focus on faith and helping kids to realize that God’s love for them as they are, and God loves all of us as we are, that’s the the good news, especially if you know how you are and that you realize that God loves you, anyway.
That’s what we’re trying to communicate, not so much religion. Religion is the rules that kind of support the belief. But if you get focused on all the rules and everything, that’s what allows us to start hurting one another. So yeah, guys like Mandani and Jake Betlow, that’s critical to who we are. And these kids, why do we do it? Why? Because we want to be a sign of faith. People come to faith by seeing signs of faith. The signs of faith essentially are two things: love and unity. Not unison, but, unity, accepting the other the way the other the way the other is and love for yourself. And to do that, you have to understand the other person’s suffering. It’s super important. And that’s what we can’t do, we can’t do that as a country in our relationships with other countries, and we can’t do that in this country with one another, understand the suffering of the other and the reality of the other.
Benedict Men is, of course, a documentary about a basketball team, a very, very good one at that. But it’d be a bit inaccurate to say that it’s a documentary about basketball. It wouldn’t have been in the school’s spirit if it was.