I played Catholic Youth Organization basketball throughout grade school at St. Patrick’s School, before it combined with St. Ann’s to form All Saints Academy.

In my eighth grade season (2003-04), I wanted to win. As the elder statesman and best player on the team, it was my job to get us there. That meant outplaying the best players in the league. Players that would become my teammates at Bishop Hannan/Holy Cross high schools, including Marian Catholic’s Nico Fricchione, Cory Osborne, Jon Frye and Mike Joyce; Holy Rosary’s Joe Gibbons and Bobby Reed; and LaSalle Academy’s Adam Reese and John Lund to name a few.

At that stage in my basketball career, I didn’t like them. But I didn’t realize our eighth-grade rivalries were the beginning of a lifelong bond. A relationship that culminated in a district championship and a trip to the state quarterfinals.

In 2004, we weren’t teammates. The two players I knew we had to bring our A-game against were Fricchione and Gibbons.

It’s laughable now, but back then I thought I could stick with Nico, who ended up playing Division I basketball at Arizona State alongside NBA MVP James Harden. I couldn’t, and we never beat Marian Catholic.

Joe Gibbons’ Holy Rosary Beads couldn’t beat us. But it was always close, because we couldn’t stop Joe, or as he was known at the time by my teammates “the redhead with the fro.” It would have killed me if we ever lost to them. And if he had hit a jumper from the wing, as he had done so many times throughout his career, at the buzzer they’d have that win. I remember that well because I missed a free throw to open the door.

When we all joined forces after grade school, it was funny talking to these guys, most for the first time, and exchanging, ‘I didn’t like you,’ and ‘I didn’t like you either.’ And I realized those rivalries were the beginning of a brotherhood.

There was one player with whom I kept a chip on my shoulder — Joe Gibbons. We were battling for the same position on the high school team. But as we battled, the rivalry slowly turned to respect. He earned that spot over me. While I worked hard and it was a little disappointing to be limited to a bench role, he was a better player. A hard-nosed player with a smooth jump-shot. A basketball IQ off the charts. A guy who still respects the game as much, if not more than anybody I know. He did all this while battling a knee injury that jeopardized his playing career. He became my favorite player and a good friend. And that’s no sleight to any of the guys I played with. I think they would agree with me.

Sure, it took a little time to get used to playing alongside these guys, but it helped that we knew each others’ games. It helped that we formed a relationship in grade school, even if it was a rivalry. Because, odd as it sounds, we bonded over our rivalries. 

My senior year, that ability to welcome playing with your rivals paid off, as Bishop Hannan and Bishop O’Hara closed to form Holy Cross for the 2007-08 school year. Bishop O’Hara was our bitter rival at Bishop Hannan, but it was an easy transition as we won a District 2 title and made it to the quarterfinals of the state tournament, where we lost at the buzzer to the Lackawanna League’s worst nightmare through the years, Imhotep Charter.

As far as my basketball career is behind me, I’ll never forget that season. It was a great time in my life. Because of injuries, I got a few starts in the regular season and running through the starting lineup line and then jumping into the dog pile before the game was a thrill. And the support from schools that were rivals not even a year ago was incredible.

It all started in grade school. When we would dog pile at St. Pat’s, we thought we were really cool because we did the Ray Lewis “What time is it?!?! Game time!!!” and barked like a bunch of idiots, but it was a blast.

At St. Pat’s, we were a close-knit group, but what fascinated me more were the bonds formed with my rivals. And I think that’s what we learned through CYO basketball. Competition breeds success. It also forms rivalries, but when the game is over we have the ability to shake hands and respect each others’ games. Even if we didn’t like each other.

Today, Joe Gibbons is where he should be, coaching basketball at Mountain View High School. And when I knew the game and sports passed me by, I started writing about them.

But make no mistake about it, Joe. I’ve got a basketball in my trunk and if I see you on the street I hope you have your gear. Because I’m taking you 1-on-1…as long as my back doesn’t give out first.