Friendship: The Promise

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

Rick is six-foot-nine and growing. When you ask what it was like to get so tall, he looks at you again, puzzled, because he recognizes, even if you don’t, that it’s a foolish question, since it’s the way he grew up, and how could he know anything else? But all he says is, “I just went along with it.”

It’s a given in basketball that big men come along more slowly. That’s the way it was with Rick. It took him more time to grow into his body than most folk, and to grow into himself. He didn’t have a raging need inside him; he was a work in progress when he and Scoop met. 

Scoop was already a playground legend: “I’d pretend to be Michael Jordan. I believed I was Michael Jordan.” But he’d gotten himself thrown out of three schools, and the middle school he ended up at, Thomas FitzSimons, didn’t even have a basketball team. To get him away from the North Philly ’hood, Scoop’s mom sent him to live with her mom, at 24th and Moore in South Philly. That was just a few blocks from where Rick lived.

“He was close to the edge,” Coach Arrigale says of Scoop. “He had to decide whether he was going to go the right way or the wrong way.” Having Rick nearby helped Scoop decide.

And it turned out that Scoop’s neediness molded Rick, or else Rick expanded to fill it. If Scoop was Allen Iverson — surely the neediest soul ever to suit up for hoops — Rick would grow into that summer season’s other hero, Dikembe Mutombo, regal and self-possessed and mysterious, with a voice as deep as the Congo River.

Defining himself in opposition to Scoop might have proven limiting to Rick — if Scoop’s neediness hadn’t been so vast. The more Rick sought to fill it, the bigger and stronger he became, until he was the unshakable hub — figuratively and literally — of Scoop’s world. Point guard Scoop is all over the court in a game, but he always knows where he’ll find Rick: at center. Rick is Scoop’s One Sure Thing. “He’s never fake with me,” Scoop says. “He knows me like no one else does. He’ll tell me when I’m doing good and when I’m messing up.”

Rick pays him back in a voice as rich and measured as Mutombo’s: “Scoop’s there for me.”

IN JULY OF 2004, St. John Neumann High School, with all its rich history and basketball tradition, merged with St. Maria Goretti High School, at 10th and Moore. The merger brought together an all-boys school named for a Bohemian ex-pro wrestler who spoke six languages and organized the Catholic school system in the United States, and an all-girls school named for a 12-year-old Italian peasant who was stabbed to death by a sex-crazed neighbor. They’re used to odd couples here.