CYO basketball tournament faces major challenge

High school sports in New Orleans are steeped in lore and tradition.

One of the sustainable traditions in this city’s Catholic environment is the archdiocese’s annual CYO basketball tournament, which, in December, will tip the ball for the 65th year.

Age 65 is a year most men and women retire. Hopefully, that won’t hold true for this storied tournament, which is the longest continuously running high school tournament in Louisiana history and one of the longest prep tournaments in the U.S.

Begun as a football “bowl” game in 1943, the CYO morphed its annual product into a basketball tournament in 1950. Now sponsored by the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the CYO Classic has taken place every year through 1966, and was revitalized in 1971 after a four-year hiatus. 

But one worries that the storied tournament might soon be writing its last chapter.

Two years ago, 10-time champion St. Augustine dropped out. And now, two-time champ Brother Martin told the CYO to count them out this year.

For the past several years the tournament has created seeding issues with the basketball coaches who have kept it going. Scheduling games for 16 teams had been an arduous task for former tournament director Armand Bertin.

He tried to rank the teams from top to bottom. But the bottom-dwellers weren’t happy about playing the top-ranked teams in the first round. So he let the coaches seed themselves. There were still grumblings.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the CYO Tournament has suffered unintended consequences when the Louisiana High School Athletic Association voted to have separate playoffs for private/Catholic and public schools.

Coaches said the prospect of some local Catholic schools having to play each other twice in the regular season, a third time in the CYO Tournament and then again in the playoffs was senseless. If there is an odd-man-out, it unfortunately could be the CYO Tournament.

A renewed commitment

If the tournament can be saved, it will be up to the new director of the CYO/Youth and Young Adult Ministry, Timmy McCaffery, who is well aware of the importance of preserving Catholic schools history.

McCaffery, a former theology teacher at Jesuit, his alma mater, has made the salvation of the tournament one of his main missions. He just needs to hire the right person to honcho the annual fundraiser.

“The goal is to have someone younger and basketball-minded who understands coaches and how coaches work,” McCaffery said, detailing the qualities of the person who will replace Bertin as tournament director.

“Armand will be aboard to help and give any direction. But I’ve made myself the primary point of contact.”

McCaffery knows the value of this annual event and how important it is to the mission of his office.

“It’s difficult for an office like ours, and even the church, to figure out ways to integrate and connect older and younger generations,” he said. “But I think a 65-year-old tournament in New Orleans is a good way to do that.

“It’s a good, common language. Every year we have the potential of a kid whose dad and granddad played in the CYO Tournament following them. There are not many positive things like that anymore.”

Conversely, he understands why the classic has lost some luster.

“Some teams pulled out for their reasons, and that’s OK,” McCaffery said. “But it’s my goal to try to reunite them, and I think it’s possible. It’s about conversations and everybody coming to the table to see what needs to happen. And I think we can do that.”

As the tournament’s title sponsor, the Allstate Sugar Bowl contributes $5,000 annually to the CYO.

Coaches and principals of the local Catholic schools may need to step back to consider that the revenue from the Sugar Bowl and the gate receipts that the games generate help support the CYO’s ministry. If playing an opponent multiple times – or just being part of the event is an inconvenience – the school’s participation is one Catholic entity helping another. And isn’t that what our Catholic faith is all about?

McCaffery continues to focus on the future.

“My goal is to bring it beyond 16 teams,” he said. “There is promise, and I think a lot of it rests on history. Schools should want to be part of that history.”

The CYO director said local sports fans associate the tournament with the Catholic Church.

“And that speaks of the memory of the Catholic League (as it used to exist),” he said. “It speaks of the Catholic history of New Orleans. But it also says that it’s good for Catholic schools to be together. Being part of something that is bigger than ourselves is good for young people, and the basketball tournament is a good, historical way to do that.”

From its meager beginnings in 1950 as a four-team roundball tournament to proclaim a “Catholic school champion” – when Jesuit, St. Aloysius, Holy Cross and Redemptorist were the principals – the Classic has withstood the test of time … for now.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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