By Dave Hoffenberg
Many know Duane Carleton for his incredible music playing. He’s known as the “Human Jukebox.” Fans can request just about anything and good odds are that he’ll know it.
What many may not know is that Carleton is also a filmmaker with two documentaries to his credit. His first film, “Overtaken by Darkness,” is a well-researched and thoughtful documentary chronicling the tragic and mysterious homicide of local golf pro Sarah Hunter from the Manchester Country Club. This is a 30-year-old cold case. Carelton dug deep in his research for the film and many believe, after watching it, that he solved the case—unfortunately it still remains unsolved.
His second film, “Divided by Diversity,” will be screened Wednesday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. in Manchester, Vt., at the Village Picture Show Cinemas. In this film, Carlton features five students from New York City who were accepted to Mount St. Joseph Academy, a private school in Rutland. Their participation on the basketball team sparked a statewide controversy.
Carlton’s film reveals the resistance they endured, both publicly and behind the scenes. It also exposes many of the contemporary elements fueling modern day racism.
“It promises to be eye-opening,” Carleton said of his second film.
The impetus for this film started three and a half years ago. Carleton had just finished his first film and was seeking a good lead for his second. He met with radio personality “Uncle Dave,” who gave him the an idea, and put him in touch with ex-basketball coach Mark Benetatos who had already expressed interest in the saga becoming film. The three had lunch, discussed it, and Carleton was onto his next project.
Carleton hopes to show this film in more areas soon, including in Rutland, but there is some resistance to him doing so that he’ll have to overcome first.
Everyone in the film was very willing to tell their story but others Carleton had hoped to feature were not. For example, Carleton approached the current principal at MSJ, the athletic director who had been there for 40 years and the former principal who was there when the story happened. One would only talk off the record, one ignored the request and the other person declined, Carleton said.
NYC to Rutland
Five young men from the Wiz Kids Basketball Program in New York City were brought to MSJ to play basketball, learn and enrich their lives. Clarence “Mugsy” Leggett founded Wiz Kids and is the head coach there. He and his fellow coaches develop players at a young age teaching them to compete at the highest level of basketball but also teaching them respect and the importance of education. Their goal is to help all of their athletes earn high school and college scholarships through basketball. Their motto is “Respect all, fear none.”
Coming to MSJ, might literally have saved the lives of John Dewey, Jahnathan Mitchell, Shannon Murray, Jaskin Melendez and Rob Cassell.
“Vermont was great because we got a chance to escape,” Mitchell said.
The five boys all had lived in the Edenwald housing project in the Bronx. The crime rate there was enormous so coming to Vermont was expected to be a bleesing. No one would have expect Mitchell to be jumped in Rutland or Murray to be starved by his host family but unfortunately those things did happen, according to testimony in Carleton’s documentary.
In 2009, MSJ brought in coach Mark Benetatos to help turn the basketball program around. Benetatos brought in Assistant Coach Jim Madgwick to help him coach the Varsity team. (Prior to their arrival, winning two games in a row was huge!)
On Feb. 17, 2010, Clarence “Mugsy” Leggett brought 11 kids up to visit and everyone loved it.
“They scrimmaged us and they destroyed us,” said Benetatos laughing.
With five of the talented athletes on the team the following year, they started to win, but so started the racism, too.
Mitchell was jumped in the park two months after his arrival; it was set-up by a girl’s boyfriend, he later learned. While Mitchell was the victim, he was at first treated like the assailant.
“I felt like I was in the 60s,” he said. “I thought movies exaggerated stuff but 50 years later, they’re saying the same stuff like ‘We don’t know why niggers are here’ and ‘This is a white people area’,” he recalled.
Murray and some of the other boys others lived in Mount Holly with host families. They had to walk to school and they were starved. Murray was frail and sick and nobody did anything, the documentary recounts. As a result, he was hospitalized with Bronchitis. Then, Cam Whittemore stepped up to host four of the four boys. They considered her a second mom. Then someone accused her of molesting the boys. Her home was searched and she had to be fingerprinted at the police station.
“They tried ruining her life,” Leggett recounted. “That shows how much they hate blacks.”
“That’s not a Catholic way of living,” Coach Benetatos commented. “It’s disgusting.”
Basketball and rascim
The will to win went up. In their first season, 2010-11, they went 16-7.
“Entitlement is a four letter word. You ‘earn’ your spot on the team,” said Assistant Coach Jim Madgwick.
But some parents got upset because their kids were not getting the playing time they once had. Originally Coach Benetatos was given free reign to coach as he saw fit, but by year two, most of the board was against him and he was required to tell them his entire game plan, about everything all the time. When Benetatos proposed bringing another Wiz Kid boy Nigel into the program, the board refused.
The ironic part is that most MSJ students are not from Rutland. Former Rutland Herald sports writer Chuck Clarino commented that, “Nobody is upset about the Chinese kid from Dorset because he doesn’t play basketball.”
Team member Matt Sanborn said, “White kids were considered ‘local’ even if they were not from here. I’m from Georgia and should’ve been treated like them (blacks) but was not.”
The racism got a lot worse in that second year of the program and people were blasting the Coach Benetatos every which way. And students tried antagonizing the five to get them to swing, so that they’d then be kicked out.
The five students successfully held their composure, but it was tough at times, they shared.
The fan behavior at the games got worse, too. They used to give out a fan award but stopped it because all were bad. In the MSJ vs. Burton Academy game, fans started a “KFC” chant. In one game, two students came dressed as a gorilla and a banana. In other game they brought African flags and were chanting “USA.”
A teammate challenged Dewey to a hoops game and Dewey jokingly said he’d ‘kill him,’ meaning on the court, of course. But the kid told his parents that Mitchell threatened to kill him, physically. The parents wanted him kicked out of school and said they didn’t feel safe. That got Dewey suspended.
Despite the taunts and hardshops, the team improved. In their second year, they won their division championship and went 22-2 for the season.
“Everyone on that team was equal. Everyone liked everyone. It was special,” Cassell said fo his team. But they could hardly enjoy the title. Although they were given a hero’s welcome on the bus ride home, that is where the celebrations stopped.
They were denied a banquet (even though every other sport had one), and even the banner was not hung until almost two years later. They did get championship jackets but unlike other sports where teammates are honored at the banquet, they got theirs dropped in a box outside the school.
The money that was collected at games (and it was a lot of money since they were selling out games) was not distributed back to the basketball program. Coach Benetatos bought jerseys for the team out of his own pocket— $2,200 a year for the coaching job.
Under immense pressure, Coach Benetatos resigned in May 2012. The Championship was tainted. People treated the title with an asterisk because it was not a ‘Vermont team’ win. Principal Paolo Zancanaro resigned shortly after. Benetatos said he believes Zancanaro had good intentions but had a gun to his head.
“These young men were perfect examples of young men. I was so proud of them for all the crap they took,” Benetatos said. “These guys were first class and represented MSJ exceptionally.”
Coach Benetatos went on to coach at Mill River and after one season, brought the team to the semis with two Wiz Kids. He brought in two more and then was done there, too. He held open practices all summer and every kid had an equal chance of making the team. A group of parents went to the principal and accused him of being a bully and that he yelled at the kids. They had not renewed his contract for the upcoming season so they chose not to.
“They chose the path of least resistance,” Carleton explained.
Coach Mark Benetatos is no longer coaching as a result of the widespread racism he experienced in our Vermont communities.