Moving on was not easy for Larry Merritt .
The former two-sport star, athletic director, and boys’ basketball coach at Cathedral High was inexplicably terminated from his position in March of 2018 for the violation of an unspecified school policy. The departure of the beloved mentor and teacher, which was protested by a student walkout, ended a relationship with a school he dreamed of attending while growing up in the South End’s Cathedral projects in the early 1980s.
“Being involved with the school since 1980, Cathedral was my life,” said Merritt. “It was by the grace of God that I was able to move on.”
With a lifetime of community service and mentoring experience under his belt, Merritt knew nothing else than to help teach and inspire young athletes through the game of basketball.
So, he volunteered as a boys’ basketball assistant at Cristo Rey, then steered the program to a state tournament berth after being named interim head coach midway through the 2018-19 season.
With the interim label since removed, Merritt now has Cristo Rey (8-3) flying high with key Catholic Central League victories over Austin Prep (39-37) and Lowell Catholic (87-71).
“If you know Larry, you knew is it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ he would get another job,” said New Mission coach Malcolm Smith. “He’s one of the most underrated coaches to ever coach high school. He puts the fear of God in those kids, without swearing or anything, he demands excellence. And he’s one of the best at getting that out of them.”
For the 46-year-old Merritt, coaching is all about positive reinforcement and accountability. Beginning in the preseason, the director of recreation at the KROC Community Center in Roxbury held 6 a.m. practices for Cristo Rey.
Resistant at first, the players have become increasingly appreciative of the extra practices, and are now asking Merritt for more workouts and weight-lifting sessions.
“As soon as Coach came in, he showed us our potential,” said junior Ray Bosquet, who ranks as the Knights’ leading scorer (21.8 points per game) and rebounder (11 per game). “We started to see the results, especially this season.
“He showed me my potential on the court, and how to respect everybody once I leave the gym.”
After scoring 1,000 points and earning Player of the Year honors at Cathedral, Merritt earned a full ride to Merrimack College. A tough 5-foot-9-inch guard, Merritt excelled during his final two collegiate seasons, then decided to return home rather than pursue a professional career overseas.
In 1998, he founded the nonprofit mentoring program, Merritting Attention, which saw exponential growth and eventually fostered the rise of a successful AAU program, MABC.
Merritt’s AAU program helped develop future NBA talents such as Wayne Selden and Shabazz Napier, while winning over 50 New England titles and four national championships.
Just as important for Merritt, his program helped put countless kids on a path toward success off the court.
“I’ve been blessed with a gift to get kids to believe in the impossible,” said Merritt. “A lot of kids live in what we call the ‘dark tunnel,’ so I try to get them through the tunnel and into the light. I just try to instill in them the confidence that they can do anything they want as long as they put forth the effort.”
Cristo Rey students are required to spend one day a week in a work-study program, and many of Merritt’s players take on additional honors courses despite the rigors of their athletic pursuits.
Senior guard Akinyele Crawford transferred to Cristo Rey after spending his freshman year at Brighton and his sophomore season with Division 2 state champion TechBoston. He decided to sit out his junior year to concentrate on academics, but is now flourishing as a student and athlete on the tight-knit basketball team.
Thanks to the team’s weekly study hall sessions in lieu of practice, Crawford’s attention to academics has become the norm, and a source of increased cohesion amongst the players.
“At the beginning of the season we didn’t have a bond,” said Crawford, who averages 9.7 points and 7 assists per game.
“Study halls and early practices brought everyone together. Now we know where each other is at and the rotation on offense and defense is a lot better.”
Last Tuesday, Cristo Rey and Bosquet hit a high point in the impressive win over red-hot Lowell Catholic. Bosquet, who poured in a career-high 43 points with 20 rebounds, showed the competitive edge that Merritt has been looking for from the 6-foot-1 forward.
“We knew [Bosquet] was going to have a breakout game, we just didn’t know when,” said Merritt. “I didn’t expect it to be against Lowell Catholic, but that’s when it came out. You saw the fire in his eyes, the passion in his face, and I knew we were going to win that game based on how he was playing.”
In mid-January, the team was denied an invitation to the Black Coaches Classic at UMass Boston. According to Merritt, the team was told they “weren’t good enough” to compete at the invitational, and the Knights responded with resounding victories over Saint Joseph’s Prep, Fenway, and Maimonides before winning at Lowell Catholic.
“We used that as motivation,” said Merritt. “Our word this season is respect. Every time you step out there, you have to earn the respect that isn’t given to a school like Cristo Rey. And it put fire in their feet.”
Behind the same smothering full court press that facilitated Cathedral’s success during Merritt’s four-year tenure there, Cristo Rey is wreaking havoc on CCL teams and aiming for a top seed in the upcoming D4 North state tournament.
Not only are his players following his lead on the court, they’re emulating Merritt’s volunteer efforts that earned him the Nelson Mandela Youth Award and MLK Community Service Award for civic engagement while in high school.
Every Sunday, his players volunteer to run a youth basketball league and clinic at the KROC, the same way Merritt once started his love affair with basketball at the Salvation Army’s South End Boys’ Club. His mentoring program is now at The BASE in Roxbury, where his door is always open to those who want to improve on and off the court.
“I always see [volunteer work] as an extension of what I’ve done growing up,” said Merritt. “It’s important that the players give back because as I say to them, ‘You’re here because of someone else,’ and with that, they’re always in debt to volunteer work.”
■ During Saturday’s home game against Hope (R.I.), New Mission honored former student Marqus Allien, who was gunned down on Jan. 23 in Boston. Allien, a member of the 2009-10 New Mission D4 state championship team, was buried Saturday and honored at halftime of the Titans’ 76-71 win. While honoring their fallen teammate, who was a senior at the College of St. Joseph in Vermont, former Titans Samir McDaniels , Osmel Odena , and Darius Davis , as well as former coach Cory McCarthy accepted a banner on his behalf. “Every one on this team, including me, has used basketball to change their trajectory in life,” said McCarthy. “We tend to forget how powerful [an impact] sports have had in the lives of our children. There are memories and events that will stay with us forever because even after the games were played, we are still together.”
■ Trailing by 17 points entering the fourth quarter, Saint Joseph’s Prep came back to force overtime and freshman Tyrese Garcia-Melo scored at the buzzer to give the Phoenix a 77-75 win at Wilmington Wednesday. Freshmen twins Nate (32) and Ethan Robertson (20) led the Phoenix in scoring.
■ Waltham senior Ryan Power topped 1,000 career points with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first half of a 67-55 win over Wayland . . . Lowell overcame a 14-point deficit in the second half to edge Lawrence, 64-63, and remain undefeated . . . Natick earned a 63-48 victory at Newton North on Friday for their third victory in four meetings over the Tigers . . . Sophomore guard Xavier McKenzie scored a career-high 28 points for Central Catholic and senior Devon Breen connected for a career-high 28 for Watertown on Friday night . . . St. Paul’s defeated Proctor Academy, 70-45, on Wednesday for the program’s first win over a NEPSAC AA opponent . . . With Acton-Boxborough grad Luke Rogers supplying 19 points and 12 rebounds, the No. 22 Tufts men’s basketball team handed No. 5 Colby its first loss, 80-67, in a Div. 3 matchup on Saturday at Cousens Gymnasium in Medford.
Games to watch
Tuesday, Franklin at Mansfield, 6:30 p.m. – It’s part two of the Hockomock battle between the Panthers and Hornets. Franklin earned a blowout home win over Mansfield in January, but will expect a challenge on the road.
Tuesday, Central Catholic at Lowell, 7 p.m. – The Red Raiders barely kept their undefeated season intact at Lawrence on Friday, and face another stiff test from Merrimack Valley Conference foe Central Catholic.
Friday, Abington at Cohasset, 6:30 p.m. – In another rematch between last year’s D4 South finalists, the Skippers can avenge a 68-59 loss at Abington on Dec. 23.
Friday, BC High at Catholic Memorial, 7 p.m. – Last year, the Eagles spoiled the Knights’ bid for an outright Catholic Conference title. Now CM looks to return the favor with a season sweep of BC High.
Sunday, Lawrence at Malden Catholic, 3 p.m. – Already facing a tough schedule within the Catholic Conference, Malden Catholic creates another tough nonconference test against an athletic Lawrence team.
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.