It’s the eighties in north Jersey with big hair and bad music, and a love story set around a Catholic junior high school girls’ basketball team.
Will and Ramona were childhood sweethearts and neighbors from age four, who tragically broke up weeks before high school graduation in 1976. Will went right into the army, Ramona to college on a basketball scholarship.
Six years later, with no interim contact, Will calls Ramona and asks if she will help him coach the girls’ basketball team at St. Ethel of the Holy Oasis Junior High School, close by where they grew up. They negotiate, they bicker, use bad language, argue, and finally she agrees. With conditions: a sixpack of Schaefers and a box of Mrs. T’s on demand.
Supporting them are a Dominican nun by way of the Navajo Nation and a Jesuit priest from Hell’s Kitchen. The season rolls along with its own dramas, parental and clerical intrigues, closeups of the girls and their families, the ethnic diversity of their environment, and a few scary racial incidents. The story reflects the ethnic diversity of the times and where they live: Irish, Polish, Slovak, Italian, African-American, Hungarian, Cornish, Cuban, and a Native American.
The coaches, as well as the girls and their parents, are tested. Will and Ramona circle each other warily in a ‘you go first’ dance that reveals both their wounds, fear of being hurt again, and their yearnings for each other. Will finally ‘goes first’ and asks Ramona out for dinner on New Year’s Eve.
The book ends with Will, Ramona, Sister Mary, and Monsignor Terrence together in New Mexico. In the epilogue, young Mary Begay, a student at Dominican Academy in Manhattan, astonishes young Jesuit student Terrence McEntee with her basketball wizardry.
I was a high girls’ basketball coach for thirteen years and taught psychology, sociology, group dynamics, and served as a guidance counselor. All of this for thirty years in Boonton High School (yes, that the town’s name, population: 8,496 in 2000) in New Jersey, into whose Hall of Fame I was inducted in 2018. I’d had a BA from Montclair State in social studies, and a MA from Columbia in sociology and education. Two years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia with my wife, Jackie.
I sat down in June 2019 to write Gaels on Three, my first book, with an opening sentence, “I was a rookie math teacher at St. Ethel . . . ” I knew a large part of it would be about kids and basketball and the people in that world. And that it would be funny. I thought I knew enough stories and characters and basketball to make it both funny and credible. In truth, I simply love the book. I couldn’t finish it because I kept going back over it, not wanting to lose touch with the people in it. I hope you will read it and like it as well.