By Bruce Burdett
A Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball program with a long Westport tradition has suddenly found itself without a warm place to practice.
The 48 players on five teams were evicted at the start of the season from the indoor Our Lady of Grace Church court on Sanford Road where they have practiced for many years. The only reason offered, said coach Greg Brien, had to do with his church attendance.
Coach Brien said that a week before practice was to start, he went to the church office to do the usual annual paperwork.
“That afternoon I got a call from Father (Horace) Travassos. “He said, ‘Turn in your keys — basketball is all done’ … The only reason he gave me was that he hadn’t seen me in church.”
The call caught him entirely off guard, coach Brien said. “I haven’t heard a word about any problem, anything in 12 years.”
Father Travassos agreed that the coach’s attendance at Mass played a part in his decision but not that this was new news. “I’ve been on him for years about this. It’s not that I’m looking for him in church every week but it’s pretty obvious that the coaches aren’t there” — or many of the players either.
“The purpose of this basketball should be to bring the children closer to their church … but that doesn’t seem to be happening. It doesn’t bear fruit for the faith. I like the sports here but not if it’s an end to itself … All I ask is that he or any coach set a good example by being at Mass but they won’t …”
Father Travassos said that basketball practice costs the church money for lights and heat. It also requires the constant moving of the many tables that cover the same floor for bingo nights. “It’s a lot of work for us, lots of tables — it’s constant.”
Since the CYO teams must have a sponsoring church, the coach said that St. John the Baptist Church stepped in and offered to sponsor the Westport group.
“But our jerseys will say ‘Our Lady of Grace,'” coach Brien said “The new ones we had ordered had just come in when this all happened.”
For the time being, they’ve been practicing outdoors at a playground in town, “but that is getting colder by the day.”
Practice was scheduled for Sunday afternoon when wind chills were predicted to plunge into the low teens.
“I told them to wear gloves,” coach Brien said.
The players typically practice two or three times a week and play about twice a week, usually in Fall River during the game season that runs from November through March.
The Our Lady of Grace parish house court “was perfect for us,” he said.
“Now we are out looking around for anyplace nearby to practice.” He said he still holds out hope that Our Lady of Grace will have a change of heart. Another possibility is the now-closed court at St. Vincent de Paul — “It’s a nice court … parents have offered to pitch in for electricity but we don’t know if that is possible.”
And there may be places in Fall River but the coach said he doubts parents will want to make that trip for practices in addition to the two games in Fall River each week. Westport school gyms are all booked up, he added.
“We aren’t sure how it is all going to work out but we aren’t going to give up,” coach Brien said. “It’s been a great program for many years.”
Still, families are worried, said player parent Mike Valentine.
“I think it would be very difficult to keep the program alive past this season if we can’t find somewhere to practice,” he said in a letter to Shorelines. The CYO program helps the kids learn the value of teamwork and builds their confidence and these lessons will last a lifetime. It would be a real shame if we are unable to keep it going.”
Westport CYO teams have a long winning tradition that even includes a few undefeated teams.
“More important is what it has meant to our players, the things they’ve learned about teamwork … We win a lot but the focus is on skills and teamwork — everyone plays.” Many of the local CYO players have moved on to basketball success with other teams and schools he said. “One way or another we’re going to keep it all going.”
Coach Brien said it is also disappointing because he believes the teams and players have been good ambassadors for the church.
“They are great kids and proudly wear their Our Lady of Grace sweatshirts.”