The 11th annual James Gillespie, Sr. Memorial Benefit will take place this Saturday at P.J. Whelihan’s in Cherry Hill, to support Camden’s young students and athletes.
Called “Educating Our Athletes,” the event is sponsored by the Catholic Partnership Schools (CPS), a non-profit organization that is responsible for the four Catholic K-8 schools in Camden (Holy Name, Sacred Heart, Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral) and one in Pennsauken (Saint Cecilia).
CPS provides athletics programs such as intramural and traveling boys and girls basketball, baseball and cross-country for the youth of Camden, who grow up in a city where it is difficult to participate in organized sports.
Helping these students develop the skills of hard work, leadership and teamwork on the basketball court, are three men with a last name familiar to anyone who has followed South Jersey basketball in the past 40 years.
Dennis Crawford and his two sons, Connor and Tim, coach the in-house clinic and traveling teams, respectively, for Catholic Partnership Schools.
For the last four years, Dennis has run once-a-week basketball instruction and scrimmages for fourth-eighth grade partnership students, from the end of September until Christmas.
“As a kid growing up, I took for granted these opportunities” to play basketball, he said.
Dennis played all four years with the boys’ varsity basketball team at Haddonfield High School, including their 1972-73 state championship. Before his evenings at the clinic, he spends his days as a civil trial attorney.
(The basketball blood runs thick in his family. His father, Jim, Sr., coached over 40 years at Haddonfield’s Christ the King elementary. Dennis’ brother, Jim, Jr., guided Camden Catholic High School to over 700 wins and three state titles in a 35-year head coaching tenure. Today, Jim is an assistant to the Camden Catholic squad under his son, and Dennis’ nephew, Matt.)
With Camden’s young residents on the court, Dennis knows that, without the clinic, they would “stay inside because of violence. The opportunities for them are few and far between, and the Catholic Partnership Schools has opened doors for them.”
His eldest child, Connor, 28, an insurance adjuster, coaches the fifth and sixth grade boys’ partnership traveling team, with Nancy Jerome and Joe DelDuca. The Angels’ season (beginning of December to mid-March) includes two games a week against other Catholic schools in South Jersey, including every Sunday at Saint Cecilia.
“Growing up, it was great to be coached by my father, and my uncle,” Connor said. He was on the court at Camden Catholic with Uncle Jim.
“The kids like to get out” and play, he said, adding that as some of them are still learning fundamentals, and with high school hoop dreams further away than the seventh and eighth graders, the “fun” component is what keeps them coming back.
The spiritual component is also ever-present, he said. “We pray the Our Father before every game,” he said.
His younger brother Tim, 25 years old, coaches the CPS West boys’ squad for the seventh and eighth graders with Joe Nardi. Whereas there is only one team for the fifth and sixth graders, there are two (CPS East and CPS West) for the seventh and eighth graders.
Together with the girls’ sixth-eighth traveling team, there are currently 65 youth participating in the fifth-eighth traveling teams, and 40 in the fourth-eighth intramural clinics.
“I’m excited to be passing on what I know,” Tim said. He also played under his uncle at Camden Catholic.
Tim acknowledged that although these youth first walk onto the court as students from various schools in Camden and Pennsauken, “they, through the CPS, learn how to become a unified team through hard work and preparation. At the end of the season they get it.”
Oddly enough, Connor and Tim both tried different sports in college —Connor with football at Lehigh University, and Tim with baseball at Belmont Abbey— before returning to the family love.
Besides Connor and Tim, Dennis and Marianne Crawford’s other three children are active on the court. Brendan is currently a sophomore on the University of Sciences team, Brian helps his father with the clinic, and Colleen is a sophomore on the Camden Catholic squad.
“The family is always talking basketball,” Tim noted.
“Pretty soon we’ll be arguing about the NCAA tournament.”
Tickets for CPS’ James Gillespie, Sr. Memorial Benefit at P.J. Whelihan’s this Saturday, Feb. 25, are $30 in advance, and $35 at the door, and include an all-you-can-eat buffet and unlimited drinks. Purchase tickets at catholicpartnershipschools.org