Friendship: The Promise

The strange sort-of love story of two South Philly basketball stars

The gym doors at Neumann-Goretti open off a crazy-quilt parking lot carved between the cramped backsides of rowhouses and the unimposing bulk of the high school itself. There’s no security, no guard; you walk through the lot and up the fire escape and in the doors, and you’re in the land of dusty wood floors and faded banners and foldaway bleachers. It’s any high-school gym anywhere, with the squeak of sneakers and the ballet of boys running plays. Assistant coach Aaron Abbott leads the varsity team through drills while Carl Arrigale chats with the hangers-on who always congregate at gyms.

Neumann-Goretti’s biggest rivals in the city are Roman Catholic and St. Joe’s Prep, but “We play a national-type schedule,” Arrigale explains in late December. “We lost our first two games this season. We lost this weekend to Towson Catholic” — a powerhouse in Maryland that’s Carmelo Anthony’s alma mater. He shrugs. “We’ll lose a few games at the beginning. If you play tough games up front, it prepares you for the later stages — the big crowds, the noise. You get used to it.”

In nine seasons as Neumann’s head coach, Arrigale has become a legend himself. He’s won four of the last seven Catholic League titles (and weathered the Archdiocese’s suspension of him for the first four games of this past season after a Neumann senior’s celebration of his winning basket at the 2006 title game sparked a fan fracas). Sports Illustrated ranked his team 11th in the country in this year’s pre-season high-school roundup. (USA Today only pegged it 16th.) He’d seen Scoop and Rick play in the summer leagues, and brought them into Neumann. He sensed that together, they were somehow more than one plus one.

At practice, Coach Arrigale lets out a curt fffttt! whistle, and the players pair off to shoot foul shots. Scoop scurries to the basket closest to where you sit watching in the stands; Rick strides to the hoop that’s furthest away. Coach whistles again, and the team gathers at midcourt, hunkering down for stretches. Rick sits in the middle of the circle, leading his teammates, resolutely counting off from one to 10, while Scoop chatters like a magpie.

Coach Arrigale was happy when Scoop’s skittish compass alighted on Rick’s solid north. Still, he couldn’t help but worry when he heard about The Promise. “They were just freshmen. I said, ‘You’re not at that point.’” He was being tactful. Scoop was already of intense interest to college recruiters, and shoulders above Rick in terms of talent. What if the pact held Scoop back?

But Rick just kept growing. “He was six-two when I met him,” Arrigale says, “and six-five when he came here. Then he was six-seven when he was a sophomore, with a body made for basketball.” Preposterous to suggest that Rick went on growing because Scoop needed him to. Big guys come along a little slower, that’s all. And yet …

I knew how good he was going to be,” Scoop says.

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