By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Every dribble they make, every shot they take, every pump move they fake, Cardinal Newman’s basketball players know they’ll be watched, studied, judged. They know they have never lived in a vacuum here, performed in a bubble, isolated and apart from the alumni, from the history.
“When you come here to Newman,” said center Sebastian Rodrigues, “you learn, if you already don’t know, the culture here is bigger than any one player.”
Standing outside the John Fitzgerald Memorial Gymnasium Thursday with guards Tim McCullough and Kenny Love, Rodrigues said the word culture matter-of-factly. For Rodrigues, the word was a known, a given, as if the word “culture” was a tattoo on their arm that they carried with them everywhere, to display when called upon. Not so much as a word of arrogance, but one that signified a point of reference, from which all future discussions emanate.
“What is that culture?” I asked. I was expecting at least a long sentence, containing multiple phrases and talking points. I mean, Rodrigues was referring to the core belief of his high school basketball team.
“To win,” McCullough said.
“To win? That’s it?”
“Yes,” McCullough said. “It’s pretty simple.”
To win or not to win, that is the question which surfaces, floats and saturates Newman’s campus. The Cardinals are just two victories away from winning the Division 4 CIF State Championship, their NorCal final this afternoon at American Canyon High School against Archbishop Riordan. It is heady stuff indeed, being so close to the mountain’s summit. The moment carries even a more dramatic layer: If Cardinal Newman wins, it will its 32nd victory of the season. Newman will set a large school record in the Empire for most victories in a season.
“We know it (the record) is out there,” Love said, “but, we really haven’t paid much attention to it. We are focusing on preparing for the game.”
Athletes everywhere in every sport say the same thing Long just said. Take-‘em-one-game-at-a-time. Stay in the moment. Don’t look ahead because you may not get there. All of it sounds like it came out of the Put Me To Sleep Cliché Handbook, the one used by coaches in an attempt to keep their athletes from losing focus.
“Saying those words, does it feel like a mental trick you’re playing on yourselves?”
“If I’m tricking myself,” McCullough said, “I’m doing a pretty good job of it.”
Newman is a basketball coach’s dream. Not because it is has a 31-3 record. Rather, it has learned to do what we ask of two-year olds and 20-year olds and 40somethings and 60somethings. It is something asked often but not always welcomed or valued.
You might even say it’s a glaring fault of the species, a flaw in being human. It even invites snickers, especially in the NBA.
The Cardinals know how to share.
They share without disagreement. They keep their pride but let go of their ego. They understand the value of being together rather than apart.
“I actually feel honored at being asked to rebound and being a defensive presence in the paint,” Rodrigues said.
That last sentence is something Tom Bonfigli should print out in 72-point Bodini MT Black, place it on a streamer and hang it over the entrance to his locker room. Bonfigli is the Newman coach and nothing pleases him more than five teenagers sharing one basketball. And rarely has anything pleased him more than the way his 16 teenagers have given it up this season.
“Is this team one of the four most talented D4 teams in Northern California?” Bonfigli asked. “Probably not. But is this team one of the four most unselfish, balanced teams in Northern California? Oh yeah. Of the 31 teams I have coached in high school, this team is right there at the top in balance. I don’t need a McDonald’s All-American to be successful.”
What Bonfigli does need are the skins on the wall to prove that teams win. Individuals don’t. Philosophies in sport, as it turns out, are only as believable as the success they produce. Newman has won eight of the last nine NBL basketball titles, and 21 of 43 if you want to go back to the days before computers. In their 47 years of boys varsity basketball Newman owns a 992-370 record, a 72.9 percent winning percentage. They have won three NorCal titles (1989, 1996, 2007) and lost a fourth (1992).
With great enthusiasm Bonfigli has extended the coaching philosophy of John Fitzgerald, Newman’s first coach. Bonfigli played for Fitzgerald for two seasons in 1970-71 and 1971-72 and learned early in his life that everyone on a basketball team needs to push the wagon. No one sits.
No one stands to the side, admiring someone’s sweat.
“We have a drill called ‘Blood and Guts,’” Bonfigli said. “It’s 2-on-2 full court. The team that scores first get a water break. The team that doesn’t keeps playing until they score first.”
Prima donnas don’t do well in Blood and Guts. After all, like McCullough said, it’s about winning at Cardinal Newman. It’s not about talking smack or not passing ball or taking 10 shots in a row or impressing a D1 scout. It’s about the reason the players are out there. To win.
Which brings up my last point.
The Cardinals are tied for the most victories in a season by a Large School team. They are tied with what team? That would be the Cardinal Newman team of 1989. That’s 24 years ago.
The players on this team? They weren’t even a giggle yet between Mommy and Daddy. No matter. The way Bonfigli tells the stories, at Newman there is no such thing as ancient history.
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.