In this South Philly League, There is Faith in Basketball

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Sabrina Vourvoulias
The heavily favored team, Revolución, from Camden, N.J. took on a local Philly team, Scorpion (in blue), May 14, 2017, during the first game of the finals of the current season of the Deportes Santo Tomás League. The League — often referred to in English as the Lati-Mex League — plays in the gym of the St. Thomas Aquinas School in South Philadelphia, and holds several season finals.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
When the Deportes Santo Tomás league was formed some two or three years ago, the team members were mostly Mexican and Central American, and shorter than many of the players in other teams. Spurred by a competitive spirit and their handicap in getting rebounds, some of the teams in the league "recruited" taller, Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican, Dominican and African American players. But the players who have stuck with the Lati-Mex teams are those who are most invested in the South Philly community, and teams have gotten "shorter" again. For the Scorpions on May 14, it meant a hard-fought defeat to Camden's Revolución, 85-29.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Rosalio Luna (left) and Victor Manzanares, the leaders of the Deportes Santo Tomás League., start the basketball finals May 14, with a prayer.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Four women's basketball teams participated in the league finals on May 14 at St. Thomas Aquinas School's gym. The first game of the afternoon pitted the local team las Rebeldes (in blue), against Camden's Panteras.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
The first season of the Deportes Santo Tomás League, only men's teams played. "What about us?" the sisters, girlfriends, wives and daughters of team members asked. The women took the court during the last game of the finals that season, and wouldn't cede it until they got an agreement. The next league season, four women's teams started and played through to the finals.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Pete DeIuliis (left) and John Morrison remember that when league teams started, they were playing basketball as if they were playing soccer — only using their hands, not their feet. Both refs said they admire the determination that has led the teams to so improve their skills, but more, they are touched by how appreciative the league has been to have them refereeing the games. and have high praise for the leaders, Rosalio and Victor, who ensure that the games are family-friendly events.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Although the finals, which took place on Mother's Day, had few spectators during the early games, families and members of the community kept filing in. Before and between games, children from the community — some of them quite young — get on court to play and try their hand at shooting hoops.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Ana (right), Victor's wife, runs a concession stand like no other in the city. In addition to candies and chips, those in attendance can purchase homemade Mexican and Central American food. All of the proceeds from the concession stand are donated to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
The tamales at the concession stand at the Deportes Santo Tomás games are as good (or better) than most of the tamales for sale at Philadelphia's Mexican restaurants.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Ana makes Guatemalan-style tamales, wrapped and steamed in plantain leaf, for the concession stand — not only for the finals, but for every game the league plays at St. Thomas Aquinas.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
A great favorite of the children gathered to watch the finals on May 14, mangoes cut into flower-shape and cups full of fresh fruit are a seasonal staple of the concession stand.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
Rosalio sets out the trophies and medals for the victorious teams. The trophies are not the point of the league, he says. Rather it is the fact that the games are a family-friendly low-cost entertainment option for a community with little money to spare for such things. Still, winning the finals is a source of pride and recognition of dedication to improving skills.
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Sabrina Vourvoulias
According to Msgr. Hugh Shields, the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, Victor is a good basketball player, with skills to make him very competitive if he wanted to be. But the young husband and father would rather be a role model for the players and the young people gathered to watch them. He and his "brother" Rosalio do everything — set up folding chairs, dry mop the floors, haul basketballs and food items, keep an eye out for the toddlers, get the games started, keep score, and answer a reporter's questions while they do so. They work hard together to make their league a show of their faith. In God, certainly, but also in themselves, in the young people and players, and maybe most of all, in the strength and goodness of community.
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