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Champion of basketball integration battles church for job

February 7, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Gerard Papa’s idea that black kids could play basketball in a white Brooklyn neighborhood once roused a bat-wielding mob.

``This was the 1970s, you know,″ Papa recalled. ``It was war.″

Papa, a white lawyer, emerged a local hero, and his youth basketball program became a model of interracial harmony and helped keep kids off the street. But now, he says, lingering racism could destroy his life’s work.

His unlikely foe: the Catholic Church.

A parish in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn _ which sanctioned Papa’s program for more than 20 years _ has dumped him as its athletic director amid a dispute between Papa and the new parish priest, Monsignor Joseph Rosa. It also has barred his teams, The Flames, from playing in the Catholic Youth Organization league.

Papa, 43, claims his ouster reflects resentment within the Most Precious Blood parish toward the minority youths who still crowd into the parish gym on evenings and weekends.

``There is an undercurrent of racism,″ said Papa, a feisty, fast-talking Brooklyn native who once won a multimillion-dollar police brutality suit against the city.

Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, called the claims ``reprehensible.″

``Monsignor Rosa has chosen a new (athletic director) he can work with in a harmonious way,″ DeRosa said.

On Thursday, Papa and his supporters delivered petitions with about 1,000 signatures to the Brooklyn bishop demanding his reinstatement. Church officials had no immediate response.

``Gerard is very much like a priest himself,″ said backer Ray Haskins, the Long Island University basketball coach. ``He brings together kids of all colors to learn how to play. That’s what sports is all about.″

Papa, who called himself a ``lousy basketball player who wanted to coach,″ put together an all-white team for a youth league in 1974. The team lost _ often. The next season, he began recruiting black and Hispanic players from a housing project. The response was swift and ugly.

A group of men with bats interrupted the first integrated practice. The tires on Papa’s car were slashed. Black players were beaten. White players were pressured to quit.

The Flames survived, he said, thanks to the Rev. Vincent Termine, Rosa’s predecessor. Termine gave the team sanctuary in its third season, allowing Papa to turn a parish bingo hall into a gym.

After that, The Flames grew into a community institution. Hundreds of players ages 8 to 20 blossomed under a corps of volunteer coaches and referees.

``Every mother knows about The Flames,″ said Khadijah Shaheed, whose 14-year-old son, Ahmad, is in the program. ``It keeps the kids off the streets.″

The best of The Flames played in the Catholic Youth Organization under the banner of Most Precious Blood _ until this season.

After taking over last year, Rosa warned Papa he would have to make room for an expanded sports program for both boy and girls, Papa said. Papa argued there was room for other sports elsewhere in the parish complex.

Rosa responded by installing a new athletic director and ending league sponsorship of The Flames until Papa gives up control.

Papa claims the priest fell under the spell of ``certain unenlightened elements in the parish. ... This is an attempt to kill the program.″

Rosa did not return a phone call for comment. But last month he told the Daily News that Papa ``branded me a racist, stabbed me in the back. ... The problem isn’t race. The problem is Gerard.″

The parish has allowed The Flames to continue practicing at the parish. But without league play, it’s become a program without a purpose, Papa said.

``I don’t make any claims to sainthood. Our kids aren’t all angels,″ he said. ``But we try to give them a chance in life. They shouldn’t take that away.″

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