“In the last 10 years,” begins Prayer for a Perfect Season, “over 1,000 Catholic schools have closed in the United States. Basketball has helped to keep some of their doors open.” This epigraph sets up for the story of a season that follows, focused on New Jersey’s St. Patrick Celtics. The coach is ferocious, the players dedicated, and the games—per the pattern of the sports doc—are frequently thrilling.
The film—premiering this week on HBO—provides a familiar basic architecture, introducing the school by way of a tracking shot into “the industrial swamplands of New Jersey,” the campus church (angled shots of religious figures and long shots of players in the aisle carrying donations baskets), and the court. St. Pat’s doesn’t have a court big enough for games (the school has only 215 students), its fans are devoted (“New Jersey high school basketball,” testifies one, “is by far the best in the country!”) and it attracts high profile players (including 2011’s top NBA draft pick, Kyrie Irving, and a likely star for 2012, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). “The entire season comes down to this moment,” offers a game commentator over a montage of cheering fans and players in motion. Of course it does.
Following this strikingly regular opening, the documentary refocuses on its storylines, divided primarily between head coach Kevin Boyle and Kidd-Gilchrist. Each has a backstory that includes tragedy: Boyle was caught illegally coaching last year’s team’s practices before Thanksgiving, leading to a “bitter disqualification from the state tournament” (he’s videotaped at a practice in October, against all high school football rules, an infraction the film glosses over, perhaps rightly, as New Jersey Star reporters here hint it’s common practice among high school coaches). And he lost his father and brother during the year, events reduced to a brief comment by his son, Brendon (“It was heartbreaking for my father”) and amplified by narrator Bobby Cannavale, who notes that Brendan “feels the pressure for his father for a season of redemption”).
To start that season—which they hope will be “perfect,” with no losses—Boyle appears on the practice court (legally) as players dive for the ball and screech along the floor. “If you don’t have tissue hemorrhage damage,” he instructs, pointing to his own misshapen joint and the camera cuts to a player with his jaw dropped, “If you don’t have swollen elbow, then you need to be in another sport.”
At the same time, Marc Levin’s film follows the season for Kidd-Gilchrist, re-introduced in the back yard with his family, rapping about a great final three minutes in a game to the delight of his mother Cindy Richardson, stepfather Vincent, and beloved uncle Darrin Kidd. Cannavale asserts that Cindy means to protect her son’s privacy (apparently, apart from the current film project) and also that Michael deals daily with his own loss: when he was two, his father was shot to death on the streets of Camden. Darrin encourages his nephew to” show people he’s going to be a leader,” and a teammate, Austin Colbert, extols his explosive skills on the court.
Taking a page from the bible of high school basketball documentaries, Hoop Dreams (recently named the top documentary you need to see before you die), Prayer for a Perfect Season documents the long journey Michael takes each morning, rising (thanks to mom) at 5am, then taking a train and a bus to get to school at five minutes to eight. His commitment is shared by his teammates, exemplified in the film by game footage: they play hard, they win, and they listen to coach hold forth in the locker room—and they keep in mind their primary rivals, two other New Jersey schools, St. Anthony’s in Jersey City and St. Benedict’s in Newark.
As these teams (known as “the Bermuda Triangle” in the tristate area) are destined to meet over the course of the season, their coaches describe their feelings about the rivalries and also Coach Boyle. St. Anthony Friars head coach Bob Hurley, Sr. sees Boyle as “the new kid on the block,” making recent seasons increasingly competitive. His son Bobby, former star point guard at St. Anthony’s and then Duke, notes that he sometimes feels caught between the coaches: “I find myself trying to explain the other guy to the other guy a lot, trying to get them to become friendly rivals.” Bob Jr. smiles as he doubts his success at this endeavor.
While the film surely keeps focus on the competition’s intensity, it is most compelling when it detours, however briefly. One such moment occurs when Kidd-Gilchrist loses another family member on the very day he’s supposed to sign his letter of intent for the college draft. Under a sad piano soundtrack, Cindy notes the terrible contradictions of the day for her son, as he’s “been playing organized basketball every day of his life since he was five,” all leading to this day. It’s still “special,” she says, as the camera shows her son barely holding back tears.
As Michael and the Celtics play through the rest of the season (and contend with the loss of a senior teammate to a concussion, a point the film doesn’t develop, but which is increasingly visible in high school sports), the film turns again to Coach Hurley, who notes, almost in passing, the point with which Prayer for a Perfect Season, that Catholic schools are having money troubles. “In the Catholic church,” Hurley says, “We’re settling lawsuits in the diocese and all over the country with the religious and sexual abuse cases, which is really taking away any reserve of money that would have normally been used to keep schools open.” Whoa: what?
While Hurley’s observation here serves to describe only one more obstacle the teams must overcome, the broader issue barely introduced by it hangs unaddressed. Even apart from the church’s crimes, this is a crucial issue concerning high school sports, which bring in money for schools that otherwise don’t have it, and not only those schools with big-budgeted NCAA programs. As much as the institution of high school basketball benefits individual players—who can go on to college and perhaps the NBA—it also benefits from them, whether their seasons are perfect or not.