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February 12, 2012

Rutland Basketball Uproar Makes National Headlines

RutlandA few weeks after I chronicled Rutland's tentative renaissance in our Feb. 1 cover story, RutVegas is making headlines again — this time in a decidedly less flattering light. The New York Times on Saturday covered the story of talented high school basketball players who left the Bronx behind to attend Mount St. Joseph, Rutland's small, and by all accounts struggling, Catholic high school. 

It seemed like a win-win proposition for everyone involved: The Bronx students enrolled at the private high school and boarded with local host families. In the process, they helped the Mounties turn around a terrifically terrible basketball team. After playing to a 2-18 record in the 2009-2010 season, the Mounties clocked 16 wins last season. This year, the team is 15-1, and blazing a trail to the state playoffs.

Down-on-its-luck high school sports team? Check. Talented young athletes fighting their way out of inner city housing projects? Check. Throw in the setting — hardscrabble, blue collar Rutland — and you've got all the makings of a feel-good Hollywood flick. 

But not so fast, reports the Times:

This month they beat their archrival, Rutland High School, for the first time in five years, a 62-49 game that drew more fans to Mount St. Joseph’s small gym than it had seen in years.

“I’ve never seen that kind of school pride since I’ve been here,” said Matt Sanborn, a junior from Rutland who is captain of the Division 2 team.

Though the atmosphere that night was electric, nasty comments have flown on Facebook, at basketball games and elsewhere in town, directed not only at the players, but also at Mr. Benetatos and Cam Gilligan, a local woman who agreed to host four of the boys in a modest brick home here. Racial epithets have been directed at the boys, all five of whom are black, as well as taunts like “Go back to New York.” 

Some say Mount St. Joseph is cheating, and that the new students are shoving local kids off the court. Countering the outcry about the "imports," officials at Mount St. Joseph say the decision to enroll the four Bronx students was about fulfilling the school's mission, not about winning basketball games. What's certain is this: In a city that's trying to claw its way out of economic depression, a story about racial prejudice and small town xenophobia scores no one any points.

Photo by Caleb Kenna.

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