When the phrase “heart and soul” of a team comes to mind, it usually involves a player or coach who exemplifies what the team is all about, and provides a shot of energy to the team when it needs it the most.
But for the Newton North High School (MA) basketball team, the heart and soul of the team is sitting right on the bench.
That man is team manager Brendan Durkin.
Durkin has made an impact on the program that goes far beyond the court. His presence alone has propelled him into the main morale booster and joy to the program for over a decade.
To outsiders, he might seem like someone who helps out the players and coaches.
But he is so much more than that.
Durkin, 28, was born with Down’s syndrome. He became infatuated with the game of basketball early on. He moved from Denver to Newton, Mass., in 2008 during his sophomore year of high school. He was new at the school, and didn’t know how it would go.
After the move, the prospect of being a team manager never crossed Durkin’s mind, but he knew one thing: he loved basketball.
He doesn’t just cherish the game, but he loves everything about it. From Jayson Tatum’s spin move (his favorite), to all the crazy dunks and everything in between.
“I fell in love,” Durkin said. “It’s taught me to be a team leader…[out of all the sports] basketball is my huge favorite.”
When Walter Lyons, the former principal of Newton North, approached head coach Paul Connolly about a possible role on the team for Durkin, Connolly, a special education teacher, did not hesitate.
“[Lyons] introduced me to his mom and said that the family had just moved from Denver and Brendan, their son, loves basketball,” Connolly said. “And he asked if maybe there’s any way we could get Brendan involved in our program. I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Durkin became a student-manager while still in high school, fulfilling his dream of being around basketball all the time. However, that was just the beginning.
He received his certificate of retainment from Newton North, completed the Transition Scholars Program at MassBay Community College in Wellesley, Mass. and now works at Boston College as an equipment desk attendant.
But even with a job at BC, Durkin kept his manager position with the basketball team, allowing him to chase his dreams.
“He’s the guy who brings so much joy and love to our team,” Connolly said. “He motivates the guys, he comes to practice with us, he even raps with the kids on bus rides.”
Durkin has befriended many of his teammates over the years – teammates who turn into family.
“I’ve had so many players come through our system that are his friends,” Connolly said. “Over time, his support system became his teammates.”
The impact Durkin makes has been felt by all his teammates, both past and present.
“The overall energy rises when he’s around,” senior Adam Landry said. “When he’s in a good mood, he puts the whole team in a good mood…I just love the kid.”
Out of all the memories that he’s made over the years, one seems to stick out the most: getting to play at TD Garden.
In 2014, against Needham High School, Connolly subbed Durkin into the game. Durkin then proceeded to make a basket, and the team rushed around him. He even did post-game interviews.
“In 2014, I went to TD Garden,” Durkin said. “ I never got to be on the court playing for Newton North [before]… so it was awesome.”
Just prior to their game at Hoophall, the Newton North basketball team toured the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, where Durkin gave a speech in front of the whole team as it “inducted” him into the Hall of Fame.
“Last year Brendan was awarded a hall of fame award in our Hall of Fame,” Connolly said. “So he’s kind of a Newton North Hall of Famer, and now, a Basketball Hall of Famer.”
During his visit to the Hall of Fame, Durkin continuously displayed his favorite spin move on center court, as well as dunked on a lowered rim with many of his teammates looking on. The infectious joy on their faces captured the essence of what Durkin means to this team. Each player went over to take videos, pictures and cheer him on as his bright smile never dropped.
Day one of the Hoophall Classic tipped off with the Newton North basketball team battling it out with Northwest Catholic. They emerged victorious with a thrilling 67-59 win in double overtime.
As the Tigers warmed up pregame, Durkin, sporting a bright orange “Newton North” tank top, took shots with the team.
And during the game, that same man could be seen getting water for all his teammates, and cheering hard on the bench at every made basket.
“He’s definitely the heart of the team,” senior Jose Padilla said. “He brings us all together, and we all love him.”
Photo: Luke Whitehouse/The Student