I’ve learned many things over the past seven years while writing this sports column. But the one thing that stands out in my mind above anything else is that it always pays to listen.
I struck up a conversation recently with my girlfriend’s grandfather – a gentleman by the name of Leo Keegan – about old-time basketball in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Keegan was a guard on the St. Francis Prep, Williamsburg, hoops team from 1947 to 1951.
He asked if I knew the name Marty Bannan from when Cathedral Prep and Seminary was located in Clinton Hill. I said I did not, and he went on to explain that Bannan was known as the greatest basketball player in Cathedral history, yet he chose to become a priest rather than pursue a hoops career.
Right then and there, I knew I had to research this story, and here’s what I found.
With the help of Tablet Editor-in-Chief Ed Wilkinson, Cathedral Prep’s Development and Alumni Director Tim McCleary and legendary Crusaders coach Jim Dilg, I have been able to piece together the life of both an extraordinary basketball player and an extraordinary man of faith.
Martin P. Bannan came to Cathedral by way of St. Thomas Aquinas parish, Flatlands. He played junior varsity basketball as a freshman and the next three years on the varsity squad. He then continued playing in his fifth and sixth years (first two years of college), which were part of the Cathedral College program for priests.
He averaged 14 pts. per game during the 1946-1947 season, which was good enough for third overall in the CHSAA. Prior to the following season, he received a glowing scouting report in the Dec. 26, 1947 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle previewing the Cathedral Prep team.
“Jack Crane (the team’s coach) has come up with a basketball team at Cathedral Prep this season that is going to cause a lot of trouble before the C.H.S.A.A. championship is settled. The big ace of the colorful aggregation is Capt. Marty Bannan, who need not doff his cap to no schoolboy player in the city. Marty knows all the tricks of the game and is a master at capitalizing on the other fellow’s mistakes,” the article reads.
That season, the team captain averaged 15.2 pts. per game in the 22 games he played and 18.6 pts. per game in league contests. He was the CHSAA’s leading scorer, team M.V.P., a unanimous choice to The Tablet’s All-League First Team and was named to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s 1948 All-Brooklyn basketball team.
Keen Sense of Fair Play
Not to mention he was class president and a member of the speech and debate team as well. As the 1948 yearbook described him, he was “the rare combination of athlete, friend, and ruler. … Without a doubt ‘Marty’ Bannan, captain of the basketball team was one of the best team men in the country, possessing drive, courage, and a keen sense of fair play.”
“He (Msgr. Bannan) played the backcourt,” said Dilg, who coached multiple sports at Cathedral for 47 years. “He was six-one, six-two. In those days, someone like him was big enough to play forward. But he was a playmaker. He was a terrific passer. Everything about him was top notch. He had the ability to elevate his teammates and his team. He was so much ahead of everyone else.”
Bannan played in 14 games during the 1948-1949 season – his first in the college ranks. He continued to excel on the court, averaging 10.5 pts. per game.
“He was able to thread a needle with his whippet passes. Adept with either hand, he developed a neat, curling jump-hook shot that drove his guard frantic. He capably set up the plays both from a stationary offense and from the fast break. Truly, he led the team,” reads a passage in the 1949 yearbook.
In his final season, Bannan averaged 15 pts. per game in 18 games. He was so respected among his teammates that he capably stepped into the coaching role as well that season when the team’s head coach, Father Dan O’Connell, missed time due to illness.
Of all the glowing descriptions of Bannan’s play, the 1950 yearbook sums it up perfectly: “To mention the name of Marty Bannan is to bring up the subject of basketball. Likewise, if basketball is the subject of the conversation, the name of Marty Bannan could not be omitted without grave damage to the conversation.
“What is the cause of such a close association? Obviously, without a doubt, Marty is the greatest basketball player Cathedral has ever possessed. This is said in all honesty, and is an accepted fact throughout the school.”
Pursued Higher Calling
Despite all the accolades achieved from basketball, Bannan had a higher calling – serving God and others by pursuing the priesthood.
“In today’s day and age, how many people would be able to do that, given the media and the attention and the recruiting and all the adulation that you get as a player,” Dilg said. “I’m sure even back then it was pretty hard to say God is calling me to a different vocation. And to give up all that fame and everything else that goes with it took a special man to be able to do that.”
“Marty was one of the best high school players in the city, but he went on to Cathedral College, which at that time was a little place, because he wanted to be a priest,” said Msgr. Philip Reilly, executive director of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants who was Msgr. Bannan’s teammate at Cathedral. “And that was the cost. As a ballplayer, he could have gone anywhere.”
In fact, Msgr. Reilly recalled that Msgr. Bannan was so coveted among college coaches that the St. John’s University, Jamaica, Red Men were willing to suit up an entire team of Crusaders.
“The (junior varsity) coach at St. John’s University told Father O’Connell that he would give his whole team scholarships if he could have Marty,” the monsignor said. “Marty was that good.”
Msgr. Bannan graduated from Brooklyn’s Cathedral College in 1950, and he was ordained a priest on June 2, 1956. He served at Holy Ghost, Borough Park, from 1956-60 and then became the director of the Catholic Youth Organization.
From 1971-79, he was one of the first Episcopal Vicars of the diocese and then served as pastor of St. Ephrem, Dyker Heights, 1979-92. After a stint as the Secretary for Priests’ Personnel, 1992-97, he served as a parochial vicar at St. Patrick, Bay Ridge, until his death on Sept. 27, 2005 at the age of 75.
Msgr. Bannan was inducted into the both the CHSAA Hall of Fame and the Cathedral Prep Hall of Fame. At Cathedral, the Msgr. Bannan Scholar Athlete award is given to a student-athlete who excels in the classroom and in the realm of sport. This year’s recipient was Joel Edouard, a parishioner at St. Therese of Lisieux, Flatbush, who was a 2016-2017 Tablet All-Star in basketball and will attend St. John’s this fall.
Though Hall of Fame plaques and awards named in his honor are well deserved, it seems that given his humility, Msgr. Bannan would be more focused on guiding others in their faith than on reminiscing about his own basketball accomplishments.
“He was a wonderful person, and he was a great ballplayer,” said Msgr. Reilly, adding that it was Msgr. Bannan who inspired him to explore the priesthood. “But his example of placing his aspirations of becoming a priest before the sports and his All-City reputation, that was a big influence on others, and it showed what he thought of the priesthood at that time.”
Msgr. Bannan was living proof that Cathedral Prep produces “men for greatness.” He put others ahead of self in setting aside the round orange ball to serve as a beloved figure in the diocese.
So after conducting this research and hearing all these great old stories, I have to thank Mr. Keegan for the hat tip. Please keep ‘em coming!
Once again, sometimes all it takes is a bit of listening to stumble upon an inspirational story idea.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.