January 3 – Salute to Amsterdam Church-based Youth Basketball

mtCarmelI could not find an Amsterdam birthday for this date but on January 3, 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther from the Catholic Church. What sort of impact did this have on Amsterdam, NY? Here’s one.

If Leo and Luther could have somehow seen eye-to-eye on things, Christiandom in the western world and youth basketball in the Rug City would have played out much differently. But the birth of Protestantism gave rise to many different denominations, several of which took hold in Amsterdam in the form of wonderfully designed and solidly constructed church buildings. Not to be outdone, their Roman Catholic brethren in our community built beautiful churches of their own and eventually from each of these glorious edifices emerged team’s of young boys chosen to represent their congregation and parish in the official favorite sport of Jesus, youth basketball. But because Pope Leo and Martin Luther had that big disagreement four plus centuries earlier, these teams of little Catholics and little Protestants were not permitted to compete against each other.

Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball started in Amsterdam in 1941, when five local Catholic Parishes, Mt Carmel, St. Michael’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Casmir’s and St. Mary’s fielded six teams. St. Mary’s was large enough to field two teams. Eventually, St. John’s, St. Stan’s, St Stephen’s in Hagaman and even St. Joseph’s in Broadalbin added squads.

The Amsterdam Church League was a much older organization, getting its start as a YMCA funded activity at the turn of the 20th Century. Back then, the teams representing the City’s Protestant parishes competed against not only each other but also other squads representing various Amsterdam neighborhoods and social clubs.

By the 1950’s however, it was the Church League and CYO that had become primarily responsible for developing and churning out the talent that would one day propel the freshman, JV and Varsity teams representing Amsterdam High, St. Mary’s Institute and eventually Bishop Scully interscholastic hoops programs. This explains why former coaches of those school teams like John Varsoke, Alex Isabel, Tony Greco, Dutch Howlan and Rick Cetnar could often be found in the crowds that gathered at venues such as the Y, the Armory and the old St. John’s Club to watch these church-based ball clubs compete against each other. They knew that the next Harrison Wilson, Jake Labate, Ralph Fedullo, Tim Kolodziej or Todd Cetnar might be among the little uniform-clad rug-rats scrambling up and down those well worn hardwood floors.

The games themselves were not what you would call things of beauty. Teams rarely scored more than 20-30 points and there were usually more turnovers and fouls than baskets but for generations of Amsterdam kids like me, CYO and Church League basketball was a cherished part of our childhood.

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