No one can really say if the CYO basketball tournament is the longest ongoing event of its kind in the state, but this pre-district classic will tip off this week for the 64th time since its inception in 1950.
Sponsored by the Allstate Sugar Bowl for the 10th year, the 16-team tournament was scheduled from Nov. 29-Dec. 2 at four Catholic school gyms. The semifinal and final games will be played at Jesuit’s renovated fieldhouse.
Sadly, it will be played for the second year without one of its most successful schools participating in the games.
St. Augustine, which has won the tournament 10 times since its first title in 1966, and has produced 11 most valuable player honorees, has opted out to host its own tournament.
The only other CYO tournament regular to challenge the Purple Knights for “most” categories is Jesuit, winner of 11 tournament titles since its first in 1962, and 10 MVPs.
From gridiron to hardwood
This classic is steeped in lore. Before becoming a four-team basketball tournament, the CYO Classic was an annual post-season football game that matched New Orleans’ best Catholic school team against a national Catholic school power.
There was no “Catholic” or “Public” league at that time. Catholic (St. Aloysius, Holy Cross and Jesuit) schools were in a common “Prep” league with their local counterparts (Warren Easton, Fortier, Nicholls and Peters). In 1949, Redemptorist joined the league.
From 1943 until its end in 1949, the football game, played to benefit the endeavors of the CYO, followed the state championship game by a week or sometimes more.
High school football in New Orleans drew enormous crowds. The public schools in the Prep League were as popular as their parochial brethren.
Spectators came by the thousands to see teams like Mount Carmel (Chicago), LaSalle (Providence, R.I.), Gonzaga (D.C.), St. James (San Antonio) and Loyola (Baltimore) play the best local Catholic schools, even though the football season had concluded.
To the victor went the Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel Cup, usually presented by a local bishop or monsignor on the archbishop’s behalf.
The tradition was interrupted in 1944, ironically when legendary football coach William “Buck” Seeber (who led De La Salle into its only state finals in 1961 before Ryan Manale came along to do so this season) coached Nicholls High to 6-0-2 record.
Holy Cross was the local football power that year, ending Jesuit’s reign on championships in the decade of the wartime 1940s. (The Blue Jays won state in 1940, 1941 and 1943.)
But one game stuck in the craws of Holy Cross fans and its head coach Lou Brownson. Seeber’s Nicholls team tied mighty Holy Cross, 0-0, on the final week of the season and left the Tigers with a 7-0-2 record.
Seeber was bitterly disappointed when the league selected Holy Cross to represent the city in the LHSAA playoffs. The Tigers didn’t last long, losing to Baton Rouge High, 26-19.
CYO Director Father Patrick Quinn saw a rare and profitable opportunity. The first meeting between the Ninth Ward opponents had drawn 18,480 spectators at City Park Stadium. Father Quinn invited Brown and Seeber to engage in a post-season rematch.
“With the understanding that the contest in no way be interpreted as a championship game, but a game of genuine sportsmanship and cooperation between two outstanding institutions that all fellow citizens will enjoy,” the smooth-talking Father Quinn said before soliciting the principals of the two schools to sign on the dotted line.
Anticipating another exciting, hard-fought battle on the City Park horseshoe, the crowd count also exceeded 18,000.
But what they witnessed was shockingly one-sided. Holy Cross piled up 373 yards rushing and another 154 passing, and routed the Rebels, 46-0.
Not all CYO Classics were as successful.
As history entered the 1950s, the CYO Classic had become too expensive to pay transportation, lodging and other expenses to visiting teams.
The formation of the Catholic League was still five years away, so the CYO devised a new “Classic” format in the form of a four-team basketball tournament to crown a mythical Catholic school champion. The participants were Jesuit, St. Aloysius, Holy Cross and Redemptorist.
Coached by future hall of famer Johnny Altobello, St. Aloysius won the first three.
Altobello accepted a similar post at four-year-old De La Salle in 1953 and coached the Cavaliers to three consecutive CYO titles.
From 1950-58 the CYO trophy was handed back and forth to De La Salle or St. Aloysius, later coached by Sacred Heart Brother Ralph McGarry.
Closed since 2005, Booker T. Washington was the first public school team to win a CYO trophy. The school, currently being reconstructed on its Treme neighborhood site, claimed the team hardware in 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1983.
St. Augustine made its CYO debut in 1966 in a big way. Led by MVP Harold Sylvester and a talented roster, the Purple Knights won their first title and changed the nature of the game on a local scale.
Under coaches Nick Connors, Cirilo Manego, Watson Jones, Bernard Griffith, Clifford Barthe and now Mitchell Johnson, the name St. Augustine has become synonymous with prep basketball in New Orleans.
Hopefully, the Purple Knights and their fandom will return to the CYO tournament in the near future.
All-time CYO MVPs
Selected by the Clarion Herald
Name, school, year MVP
Pete Gaudin, De La Salle (1953)
Johnny Arthurs, De La Salle (1965)
Harold Sylvester, St. Augustine (1966)
Kerry Kittles, St. Augustine (1991)
D.J. Augustin, Brother Martin (2002, 2004)
Fabian Mang, Jesuit (1964)
Jeff Cummings, Abp. Rummel (1971)
Graylin Warner, B.T. Washington (1978, 1979)
Dwayne Lewis, St. Augustine (1982)
Pointer Williams, St. Augustine (1989)
Jimmy Harwell, De La Salle (1955)
Carlos Zuniga, Holy Cross
Sean Tuohy, Newman (1976)
Dean Carpenter, Abp. Rummel (1977)
Neil Reed, East Jefferson (1993)
Bobby Delpit, St. Aloysius (1950, 1951)
Peter Michell, Jesuit (1962)
Steve Martin, St. Augustine (1973)
Jordy Hultberg, De La Salle (1974)
Craig Victor, St. Augustine (2010, 2011)
Harriman Morgan, De La Salle (1954)
Michael Pittman, Carver (1972)
Eric Burdett, West Jefferson (2001)
Shaquille Preston, East Jefferson (2013)
Mitchell Robinson, Chalmette (2016)
OTHER CYO MVPS – Paul Zinser, St. Aloysius (1952); Bobby Weber, St. Aloysius (1956); Gaspar Cardinale, St. Aloysius (1957); Merrill Vitter, De La Salle (1958); Billy Johnson, Holy Cross (1959); Henry Arceneaux, St. Aloysius (1960); Don Gunalda, Redemptorist (1961); Herbie Mang, Jesuit (1963); Dale Smith, Jesuit (1980); Wayne Campbell, B.T. Washington (1981); Keith Augustine, B.T. Washington (1983); Anthony Harris, Jesuit (1984); Darwin Alexander, Brother Martin (1985); Tim Singleton, Cohen (1986); Greg Christian, Cohen (1987); Jay Fazande, De La Salle (1988); Jason McKain, St. Augustine (1990); Troy Wharton, St. Augustine (1992); Wade Mason, St. Augustine (1994); DeJuan Daniel, Edna Karr (1995); Michael Johnson, Fortier (1996); Brandon Spann, Jesuit (1998, 1999); Brandon Vincent, John Ehret (1999); Byron La Salle, Abp. Shaw (2000); Sam LeBruyere, Jesuit (2003); Rickey Coffee, Jesuit (2005); Jon Anderson, Country Day (2006); Russell Moore, St. Augustine (2007); Colby Carr, O.P. Walker (2008); Colby Kiefer, Jesuit (2009); Duke Douglas, Newman (2012); Tre’von Jasmine, East. St. John (2014), Devonte Allen, St. Paul’s (2015).