St. Joe's trio impacted by NY return

St. Joseph's Hawks players Ronald Roberts Jr., Halil Kanacevic and Chris Coyne welcome return to home area of New York for first time since Hurricane Sandy.

The St. Joseph’s University basketball team came up short in its pursuit of a Coaches vs. Cancer Classic title Saturday night in Brooklyn, losing 73-66 to Florida State in the championship game at Barclays Center. But for a number of Hawks players whose families were affected by Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked havoc on New York City when it ravaged the East Coast in late October, just being home for the first time since the disaster felt like something to celebrate.

Junior forwards Ronald Roberts Jr. and Halil Kanacevic and senior guard Chris Coyne all grew up in the New York City area, and each of them — like so many others on their blocks, in their neighborhoods and across this devastated region — has a story to tell. For Kanacevic, a former star at Curtis High School in Staten Island, it’s a harrowing tale of a near miss.

Kanacevic grew up in the South Beach area of New York’s southernmost borough, one of the hardest-hit areas in the city. His house, on a hill at the top of Sand Avenue, just blocks from the beach, lost power. But it was far enough up that hill, which leads down to Father Capodanno Boulevard, along the shore, that the floodwaters never reached his parents’ doorstep.

Others in the South Beach weren’t so fortunate.

On Mills Avenue, two blocks over from Kanacevic’s parents’ house, a 61-year-old man named Andrew Sammarco drowned in the floodwaters that inundated his home. Artur Kasprzak, a 28-year-old off-duty police officer, was killed in a house off of Doty Avenue, just a few blocks closer to the beach. In a marsh on the corner of Olympia Boulevard and McLaughlin Street, just a half-mile from Kanacevic's house, police discovered the bodies of two brothers — 2-year old Brendan Moore and 4-year-old Connor Moore.

Nearly 100 people in the greater New York City area died in Sandy’s wake, and at least 43 of them were killed in the city. Nearly half of those deaths occurred in coastal Staten Island, alone.

“It really hit close to home,” Kanacevic said. “To have that happen, but then we didn’t get affected, it hurts.”

Outside of Staten Island, perhaps the most jarring images from the aftermath of Sandy came from Breezy Point in Queens, where more than 100 homes were destroyed by fire — most of them burned beyond recognition, leaving a charred pit where the quaint Rockaway Peninsula neighborhood used to be.

Coyne, a walk-on at St. Joseph’s, grew up in Marine Park, Brooklyn, and played his high school ball at Xavier High School in Manhattan. His aunt and uncle live in Breezy Point, though, and were displaced by the storm and forced to live with Coyne’s parents. The Coyne family’s summer house was one of the few in his area of Breezy Point to be spared by the flames, but it didn’t escape the wreckage altogether.

“My entire block burned down except for four or five houses,” Coyne said. “My house didn’t burn, but the whole thing was flooded and was basically destroyed. We’re going to have to start from scratch.

“There were so many childhood memories from growing up there, and it was always a place to go in the summer, and now it’s like, ‘What are we going to do?’ For my aunt and uncle, what are they going to do? They’ve lived there their whole lives.”

Roberts came to St. Joseph’s from Bayonne, N.J. and attended St. Peter’s Prep across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in Jersey City, two more areas hit hard by Sandy. Roberts’ Bayonne home, where 11 of his family members still live, lost power for more than a week but was otherwise spared. Still, that provided little comfort for the star big man, who averaged 18 points and 13.5 rebounds for the tournament.

“It was real hard being away, and that’s why I felt like I needed to call them to tell them I love them and that everything’s going to be all right,” he said. “I made sure I called every single day.”

Between classes and the busy schedule of the Hawks basketball team, Roberts, Kanacevic and Coyne were unable to make the trip from the St. Joe’s campus in Philadelphia back to New York until this weekend’s tournament, and they still have yet to return to their respective homes and neighborhoods. But just being in town and being around family and friends at the Barclays Center was a meaningful step toward normalcy for both the players and their families.

“My aunt was at the game last night, and she was like, ‘I needed that,’ ” Coyne said. “It lifted her spirits. She’s 60 years old, and she’s got nowhere to go, and it didn’t hit me until she texted me last night to thank me for the tickets. She said it was nice to get out and just have some joy.”

Kanacevic, who averaged 10.5 points and five rebounds for the tournament, said he received more ticket requests than he could accommodate, but he did his best to make sure everyone who wanted to come got a seat.

“For my friends that came up (from Staten Island), it took their mind off of things,” Kanacevic said. “They got to come watch a basketball game and enjoy it and forget about what happened for a little bit.”

At the end of the day, however, a basketball tournament won’t rebuild Coyne’s Breezy Point house, and it won’t bring back the neighbors Kanacevic lost when Sandy swept through Staten Island. Sports won’t help get the Jersey Shore back on its feet, and the St. Joseph’s players understand that.

After the game Saturday, the Hawks still had to board a bus headed for Philadelphia and their friends and family had to return home to the disasters they’d left behind, a heart-wrenching reminder of the mass devastation Sandy caused and the pain it continues to inflict on this community.

But a fleeting distraction from the carnage also doesn’t hurt, and to be part of the healing process in their own small way — even in defeat — made the latest homecoming for the New York-based St. Joe’s players that much more special.

“When a tragedy like that happens outside a major city, the whole country looks at it like, ‘We’ve got to help them,’ but people look at New York and think, ‘Oh, they’ll get through it.’ ” Kanacevic said.

“As New Yorkers, we’re a little different, though. We help each other. We’re a close-knit group, and when I look at it, I’m happy because I hear these stories of people helping one another. It’s sad, and it’s devastating what happened, but I’m so glad to hear what people are doing.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

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