The holiday season is a time for giving, and what better way to do so than through the realm of sports.
St. Ephrem parish, Dyker Heights, hosted its first-ever “Swish for Kids” basketball tournament, Dec. 27-29, to benefit children fighting cancer and those who have finished their treatment.
The tournament featured 12 teams in three divisions and also offered activities for the children who are fighting the disease.
The Sub-Novice division was made up of four second- and third-grade teams from St. Ephrem’s: White, Black, Green and Red. St. Ephrem Blue; St. Patrick, Fort Hamilton; St. Anselm, Bay Ridge; and St. Athanasius, Bensonhurst, comprised the fourth-grade Gym Rats Division, while St. Ephrem, St. Patrick, St. Athanasius and Our Lady of Angels (OLA), Bay Ridge, rounded out the fifth-grade Novice Division.
St. Anselm captured the Gym Rat Division crown, while OLA took home the Novice title.
Frank Stella, the parish athletic representative (P.A.R.) for basketball and St. Ephrem’s parishioner for 19 years, organized the event with the help of a committee of 15 volunteers. The Dyker Heights resident has coached basketball, football and baseball at the parish for 16 years.
Stella is a cancer survivor himself. He was diagnosed with stage IV-B Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995 at age 26. He went through chemotherapy and radiation, and he’s now clear of the cancer.
When he took over as PAR in May, 2010, Stella had some ideas about putting together an event that would brighten the holidays for children battling cancer.
“I remember when I was sick, there was nothing really for me to do to have fun,” Stella said. “I wanted the kids to have fun.”
Stella’s brother-in-law is St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, assistant men’s basketball coach Danny Nigro. Stella asked if the Terriers would help out at the tournament with an instructional program for the afflicted kids. Both the men’s and women’s teams were delighted to participate.
The day’s event commenced with a seven-minute full court scrimmage between members of the St. Francis men’s team. While they were merely supposed to show the children the basics of the game, players couldn’t contain their excitement and engaged in trick plays and alley-oops.
“Some of these kids are fighting battles that have a lot of adversity,” noted St. Francis men’s basketball head coach Glenn Braica. “For our guys to just come and put a smile on their face, it’s as rewarding as anything you can possibly do. I told our guys it’s probably the most rewarding thing we can do all year.”
The women’s team then took to the court and walked the children through lay-up drills under the basket. Smiles were contagious as the players instructed the children on proper techniques.
“It means more than any basketball game, any tournament play or any championship win possible,” said Terriers women’s basketball head coach Brenda Milano. “This is about life. This is so much bigger than basketball. These little kids are our heroes.”
The morning session concluded with team relay races. Each team —consisting of a men’s player, a women’s player and two children — dribbled the ball and ran up and down the court as spectators cheered.
Makes You Value Life
“Working with kids like this is not something you get to do every day, and it makes you value life more,” said St. Francis senior point guard Justin Newton. “I learned from them that when you do anything in life, do it 100% because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the day after.”
Each child received a St. Francis souvenir gift bag as well as a St. Ephrem’s T-shirt, winter hat and medal.
“Today was emotional because I remember what I was like,” said Stella. “It was a tough road, and I know the road that these kids took with their treatment so I understood what they were going through and what their families were going through.”
The teams all paid a tournament entry fee, which was donated to the Frankie Loccisano Foundation, which raises funds for pediatric cancer. Loccisano was a student at St. Ephrem’s who was diagnosed with cancer as a child. He went on to Xaverian H.S., Bay Ridge, but lost his battle four years ago.
Loccisano’s mother, Camille, started the foundation in memory of her son. Stella has been on the foundation’s committee for several months, since it stands for a cause close to his heart.
“When you hear something like pediatric cancer, people stop what they’re doing and do whatever they can just to help in whatever way,” Stella said.
St. Ephrem’s pastor of 15 years, Msgr. Peter Kain, applauded Stella’s efforts since taking over as PAR. He was thrilled that the college basketball players devoted time out of their busy schedules to emphasize the Catholic values of sports.
“It’s the idea of inviting kids in who are suffering a serious illness like cancer and making sure they know and their families know that they are welcome here,” said Msgr. Kain.
The committee hopes for an even bigger turnout next year, as the tournament becomes an annual event. Though the first time served as a learning process, Stella is confident that the tournament can become a citywide event.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this program and wanted to especially thank Msgr. Kain and the school’s coaches for their help,” Stella said
With the continued support of St. Francis College, St. Ephrem’s is excited to cement this tournament as a holiday tradition.
“It’s in giving that you receive,” Coach Milano said. “That’s what St. Francis stands for. Today is a perfect example of that.”