If you’re a basketball fan, there’s a non-zero chance you’ve heard of St. Benedict’s Preparatory Academy. An all-boys Benedictine prep school established in 1868 in Newark, New Jersey, St. Benedict’s has earned a reputation for being one of the nation’s top high school basketball programs, even before current head coach Mark Taylor took over in 2011. Alums like J.R. Smith and Lance Thomas have made it to the league, but few schools in the nation can match the years-long record of success boasted by the Gray Bees.
The program finds itself under the spotlight in Benedict Men, a new docuseries from Quibi that features Steph Curry as an executive producer and a presenter. On and off the court, viewers are give a glimpse into life at St. Benedict’s, a school that is oftentimes made up of students from underprivileged backgrounds. Still, whether they have NBA aspirations or not, everyone is expected to uphold the school’s motto: “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me; whatever helps my brother helps me.”
Benedict Men makes its debut on Quibi on Monday, Sept. 21. But before then, Dime has your exclusive first look at the series’ trailer.
Additionally, we sat down with Jonathan Hock, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who directed this project, to discuss the film, Curry’s involvement, and what it is about basketball that makes it such a great vehicle for storytelling.
How did you get brought on board with this project?
Mark Ciardi is one of the executive producers and he’s a producer who’s done a million amazing, esteemed projects from Miracle to Invincible, Secretariat, and he’s also done some great things in documentaries. We’ve crossed paths over 30 for 30 and have been looking for an opportunity to collaborate. And he was working with the folks at Whistle Studios to try to develop even what they call “premium content,” meaning just more like the kinds of documentaries you might see on ESPN or HBO. And when he told me about St. Benedict’s, I knew about St. Benedict’s, I didn’t know as much as I was about to learn about them, but I was very intrigued.
We went out in August to shoot a couple of days at the end of what’s their summer session. It just blew my mind between Father Ed, this radical old monk who came out of the ’60s all full of fire and piss and vinegar, and the kids were so interesting and so diverse. You had the African kids, you had the Newark kids, you had the suburban kids, and yet they’re so incredibly talented. They were just so interesting to me, the kids. You work with kids sometimes and they’re shy and you’re just an old guy and they’re not too comfortable around you, but these young men were incredibly self-possessed and had a way of dealing with one another and a way of being on camera that was just really compelling and the energy in the school was extraordinary. We knew we had a great project on our hands after those two days and cut together some footage that we’d shot and took it around and happy to find a home with Quibi.
You mentioned that you knew a little bit about St. Benedict’s going in. I feel like if you live in the Tristate area — St. Benedict’s, St. Anthony, St. Patrick — you know the big basketball programs. Was there anything specific based off of the knowledge that you had that you were eager to highlight as you got this project and then started seeing this project through?
Mark shared with me the 60 Minutes piece about Saint Benedict’s and Father Ed, that had aired a few years before, and that was something that I hadn’t known about. I just knew about them for basketball and J.R. Smith and then the other great teams that they’ve had. But what I saw in the 60 Minutes piece was this really radical approach to education and the education of young men of color, based on the idea that the biggest issue they have is living in a world that denies them their own value. That denies them their own definitional authority, meaning young Black and Brown men never get to set the terms of their own existence and never get to be trusted as witnesses to their own existence.
Then here was a school that was dedicated to not only giving them a voice that is heard, but giving them control over how their school is run, how the daily life of the school unfolds is determined by the students at St. Benedict’s. So you are handing the students the reins, to a large degree, in their own lives, and that’s something that young people rarely get anywhere and young people of color never get. I sensed that would be sort of just fascinating to examine, but how that would happen once they go inside the gym doors, because a sports team is a place where the individual voice has to be sublimated to the collective good. This was going to be a challenge to say the least. It was going to be a conflict more than likely, and sure enough, that’s what happened.
That’s why it was super interesting for me, because I knew that this core philosophy of the school and their motto, “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me,” but that’s not really true in youth basketball. Like, my buckets help me, your buckets don’t do nothing for me. That’s the unfortunate reality of youth basketball, and that’s not what they’re trying to teach or coach at St. Benedict’s. A real interesting little laboratory of basketball and society.
There’s a line that I really like in the trailer, “We’re an advanced placement course in basketball.” Looking back in the doc now that you’ve created it, what does that mean to you?
“We’re an advanced placement course in basketball” means that you are in high school, but we are going to treat you as if you are in college and you are going to have a set of expectations that you haven’t had before as a 16 or 17 year old. You are going to be treated as men and we are going to have expectations about you as if you are a man. So you better grow up and get with the program, and that’s a challenge with 16 year olds.
How important was it for you to find that balance between highlighting this power basketball program and what it means for the kids in the program who oftentimes come from backgrounds that, as Steph said, are getting opportunities that are historically denied to them?
That’s the essence of what we were looking for and what we were interested in. This idea of opportunity vs. false hope, and this idea of shared responsibility vs. individual desire. The idea that these kids were expected to be part of both a high-octane, high-performance basketball program, and a high-octane, high-performance educational program, they were going to have to make the accommodations in their lives that would be very difficult for even very privileged young people. For most of these players, they’re not coming from a position of privilege. They’re coming from a whole range of positions, some struggling and their families are struggling, and the family’s hope is in the future of the young men as basketball players and the burden that they have to carry, and the three pillars of their lives: the athletic, the academic, and the family. What a burden they carry. Not a lot of fun, not a fun teenagehood.
Can you run me through Steph’s role in this project?
As executive producer, Steph and Erick [Peyton], and the folks at Unanimous were our guardian angels. What we did was shared content with them to make sure we’re getting the basketball right, for one thing, because Steph Curry is not going to put his name on something where the basketball isn’t right.
Also, Stephen Curry is a really sort of deeply feeling person. It wasn’t that long ago in his life that he was an underdog high school kid. He wasn’t poor, his father was a well-paid NBA athlete, but he was undersized and under-appreciated and underestimated. So that underdog idea, that underdog feeling that he embodied for so long before he became an MVP in the NBA, he spent his life as an underdog.
I think the other thing about him is that he’s a very principled person and it comes from a place of deep faith. St. Benedict’s and Father Ed also coming from a place of deep faith and commitment to a very meaningful sense of morality, a very strong moral compass. As our guardian angels, Stephen and the folks at Unanimous were helping us to keep the right things in focus, because when you shoot 80, 90 days, you get all kinds of stories and all kinds of amazing content that you want to get in there, but we needed to stick to our core story, and those guys really helped with that.
I think with Stephen himself doing the on-camera introductions to the series and an episode in the middle of the series, and later in the series sort of introducing the first act, second act, and third act. I hope it brings the story we were hoping to tell into focus for the audience in a way that not just clues them in, but gets them excited about how profound this all really turned out to be.
You’ve done a ton of sports documentaries in your career, particularly a number of revered basketball documentaries, The Dominican Dream, Unguarded, I have friends who to this day say people need to watch Through the Fire. What is it about sports and particularly basketball that makes them such a great medium for telling stories?
Well, the key to the good sports documentaries in my estimation is that they’re never about the sport. 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. Survive and Advance, and Unguarded, and Dominican Dream, and Through the Fire, certainly — that’s what Through the Fire the title of it was, because these kids really go through that crucible. Basketball, I think, is so great because the characters are so bare, literally. Football makes for beautiful stories and films, but you don’t see the players really when they’re playing, right? Baseball, you’re really far from the players when they’re playing and the action is not as dynamic.
Boxing is the closest thing to basketball in filmmaking because you really see the person as close to naked as possible, and that’s what you’re looking to do in a documentary, you’re looking to reveal the inner truth of a person, and the more exposed they are in their chosen path of performance, the more clearly you can see them and the more truth can be revealed about them.
I think that’s part of why basketball stories tend to be a little more interesting, and to be honest, the African-American story — I know Unguarded certainly wasn’t an African-American story and Surviving and Advance was not a particularly African-American story, although certainly a lot of African-American characters and important players in that — but the-African American story and the challenges of making it in this American society as an African-American person is a much more difficult, and a much more challenging, and a much more interesting predicament for a story. Because every time a young Black man emerges from a situation, whether it’s Coney Island or Newark, he is needing to overcome so much more than just getting good grades and getting some buckets. He’s battling against institutional racism and deeply-seated, conscious and unconscious mistreatment by the mainstream sector of society.
To see young African-American men struggle through that, I think to be honest, that’s something that’s special about basketball stories that you tend to get more in basketball stories than you do in some of the other sports.