Ever play basketball against much taller opponents who — regardless of your determination — win every tip off and get every rebound? Did you quit the game? No? Neither did members of the South Philly community league that plays and competes in the gym of St. Thomas Aquinas School on Morris Street in Philadelphia.
The teams of the Deportes Santo Tomás — informally referred to as the Lati-Mex league of South Philly — recently held the finals of their current season. Most of the players I saw on the court during the May 14 tourney were of average height for Mexicans and Central Americans — about 5' 7" give or take an inch or two — and quite a few (especially on the women's teams) were folks with whom I (5' 2") had no problem seeing eye-to-eye.
I had heard from reliable sources that in their first year of competitive play, some teams in the Lati-Mex league got tired of losing every tip off and rebound, and so had gone into North Philadelphia to "recruit" much taller Puerto Rican and Afro-Latino Spanish-speakers as ringers for the teams.
Yes, the story is true, Victor Manzanares admits, a bit reluctantly.
Along with Rosalio Luna, Manzanares leads and coordinates the Deportes Santo Tomás league, and agrees to speak to me about the league only after he and Luna set up folding chairs, dry mop the gym floor, haul and unpack everything needed from basketballs to tamales (more about those later) in advance of the games.
According to Msgr. Hugh Shields, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish which hosts the local basketball leagues at its adjacent school, Manzanares is himself a good basketball player. And a pretty competitive one. Nevertheless, Manzanares tells me, the imported players are (for the most part) no longer playing on the Lati-Mex teams because “people had gotten too focused on simply winning trophies.”
In fact, at the first game of these finals, between Camden’s highly favored Revolución and the local Scorpions, the tallest Camden player — “Coco,” by the name on his jersey — out jumps and effectively blocks many of his shorter opponents’ shots. He leads his team to an 85-29 victory.
When I ask the average height of the local players now that the “ringers” are no longer a factor, Manzanares demurs. “It wouldn’t be moral for me to say.”
He also won’t tell me the average age of the players, and when pressed, he explains that just saying that such-and-such is the average will automatically make some people feel like they can't participate, and that exclusion is what violates his beliefs.
“The league has always been about something greater than winning,” Manzanares explains.
The idea for the league originated at a meeting at the parish, where the leaders wondered what they could do for Latinos in the community that would provide safe, wholesome fun without being costly. There were already some established community basketball leagues that played in the school gym, and Luna, in particular, saw the formation of the Lati-Mex league as a way to be “in community” and to provide role models for the young people.
“Our faith and the basketball are connected,” Luna tells me when he and Manzanares switch places during the interview. (They do this with the scorekeeping during the games too — switch off after each game — so they each carry an equal share of the responsibility.)
“We start by praying,” Luna continues, “and as the players see us, they see the respect with which we treat the games, the equipment, the referees, the community … and we are modeling something important.”
The referees for the league’s games, Pete DeIuliis and John Morrison, have noticed. “The players of this league are really appreciative of our coming here,” DeIuliis says, “and we appreciate the respect they show us when we make a call. These folks have something really good.”
It wasn’t always easy. Neither Luna nor Manzanares knew how to score or keep the official records of league games, but they weren’t scared of the effort it would take to learn.
Likewise, none of the team members actually knew how to play basketball when they started. “They essentially played basketball like you play soccer,” Morrison says, “only using their hands instead of their feet. When they first started they wouldn’t really pass the ball, they’d let it glance off their hands in the direction they wanted.”
But all of them, leaders and players, have greatly improved according to the refs, and both of them mention that at most winter season games the gym fills to overflowing with community members who have come to watch and enjoy the Lati-Mex league's basketball and the festive, family-friendly atmosphere.
The day I’m there — Mother’s Day — isn’t that packed, but there are still dozens of children and teens who take to the courts between games to try shooting hoops like the big boys. And girls.
During the league's first season, there were no women’s teams. At the finals, after the last game, the sisters, wives, girlfriends, friends and daughters of team members and audience reportedly took the court and refused to cede it.
“What about us?” they asked. By the next season, there were four women’s teams in the league.
I watch a little of the game between the local Rebeldes (Rebels) versus the Camden, New Jersey, Panteras (Panthers). There is very little height difference on the women’s side, and the teams seem fierce and evenly matched.
I don’t stay for the remainder of the games, but I do make a beeline for the concession stand before I leave. The delicious smell of homemade tamales and tacos de plancha has been wafting across the court for the three hours I've been watching the games and conducting the interviews, and I can't wait to try the fare. When I discover I have my debit card but no cash, Ana — Victor’s wife — loads a plateful for me anyway.
“We never let someone go hungry if they have no money,” she tells me. "We're a community, and we look out for everyone."
The others working the stand with Ana offer me mangoes cut into flower shapes, chicharrones loaded with avocado slices, beans and cheese, water … without a moment's hesitation. They run the concession stand to raise funds for the parish, and Msgr. Shields tells me the group donates approximately $4,000 to $5,000 a year. "But they never forget what really matters," he says.
The folks at the concession stand are kind and make every toddler and child around them (and there are a lot) come up to me and formally shake my hand. They all thank me, repeatedly, simply for having been witness — for a few hours — of what they've built here in South Philly.
So I arrive at the gym thinking I’m going to be writing about a quirky and astute sports league, and as I leave what I find is that the story is instead about what can be (and is) built on faith — a league, sure, but more resonantly, a community.