The afternoon was too warm, too bright for staying indoors. James Philbrook headed across the Saint Joseph’s College campus to the outdoor basketball court. He found plenty of company.
Philbrook found a bit of joy, too, after two years of intermittent grief. He was playing on Clark’s Court, named for Clark Noonan, who was his teammate and roommate.
They came to Saint Joseph’s four years ago as freshmen, Philbrook from Edward Little High School in Auburn and Noonan from Bangor. They quickly found friendship in their love of basketball.
They were to graduate together. Instead, Noonan’s presence will be marked Saturday by a single white rose on an empty chair. He died as a passenger in a car accident in April 2012, during their sophomore year. Philbrook was a passenger in the same car, which another classmate was driving.
Philbrook recovered from the injuries he suffered in the crash and was back playing for coach Rob Sanicola the next season. Recovering from the loss of his friend was much more difficult.
Standing 6-foot-6, Noonan was a big man on the court. Away from the game, he was larger than life. He spread his arms wide to pull those around him closer.
That’s why Philbrook’s grief was shared by his teammates and classmates Nich Jobin of Westbrook and Matt Medeiros of Westport, Massachusetts. And why many others on this campus of about 1,000 students felt the same. If you come to Saint Joseph’s, you come to be part of the family.
In the weeks and months after the accident, Sanicola didn’t know which players would return to the team.
“On a small campus like this, everywhere you turned there were memories of Clark. There was nowhere to hide,” said Sanicola, a former Saint Joseph’s student. “There’s no book on how to handle a situation like this. James had every reason to walk away.”
Philbrook thought about leaving and couldn’t. “If I went anywhere else, I would have had a tougher time (dealing with the sorrow),” he said. “My family’s here, my teammates.”
He got deeply involved in the process of finding a way to remember Noonan, and then acting on the vision that became Clark’s Court.
The idea seemed perfect. Build a court where everyone could gather to shoot hoops or play three-on-three or simply hang out.
“Clark loved being outside and around people,” Philbrook said. “He loved having fun. It’s who he was.”
Money had to be raised for the construction, and it was. Clark’s Court was ready when students returned for the start of the school year last fall. It was dedicated Tuesday. Close to 200 people gathered for the moment.
“If you look closely at the photo (of the dedication), you can see (several students) playing on the court,” Sanicola said. “I went by the other day and saw two boys, maybe 10 or 11, having a great time. They had lowered one of the baskets and they were dunking.”
Noonan would have loved to watch them. He probably would have joined them.
“Clark was like a WWE wrestler when he played,” said Sanicola, referring to games, not pickup basketball with young kids. “He had his own persona. He was all business, driven. He only knew one way to play. He wasn’t the guy to make excuses. Off the court, he was a big teddy bear.”
Saint Joseph’s had a successful basketball season by some measures, finishing 15-3 in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference and 18-10 overall.
With the team trailing in the conference semifinals with three seconds left, Philbrook rebounded a missed Saint Joseph’s foul shot and passed to Medeiros, who was fouled while attempting a buzzer-beating 3-point shot. Medeiros went to the foul line and hit all three foul shots. Saint Joseph’s won, 66-64.
Noonan and his presence were on his teammates’ minds that night.
The season ended in the championship game that followed, with a loss to Albertus Magnus.
This week, the senior athletes at Saint Joseph’s gathered for an awards dinner in Portland’s Old Port. When it came time to present the Chris Kiernan Award, named for the college’s first athletic director, Sanicola walked to the podium and had to clear this throat.
The Kiernan Award is presented to the athlete who has shown uncommon perseverance and the willingness to work through and overcome adversity. In presenting the award, Sanicola realized his emotions were welling up. He looked at his audience of about 90 seniors and called Philbrook’s name.
“I saw (Sanicola) look at our table but I had no idea I was getting the award,” Philbrook said. “When he started talking about overcoming adversity, it hit me pretty hard. I walked to the front of the room and coach was teary-eyed. I was teary-eyed. He told me he loved me.”
Sanicola looked quickly around the room at the other athletes and coaches. “Some were crying, some were proud, some were laughing,” he said. “I mean, it was a no-brainer. This award was for James. He was front and center after what happened. When you’re on our campus, you’re full of life.”
Clark Noonan was full of life. He and Philbrook were opposite personalities, of course. Philbrook was the quiet one with the quick smile, comfortable in his own skin and in his role as a team leader.
Not all graduates return to Saint Joseph’s. Life can get very busy very quickly. Philbrook will find his way back. There’s a cool place on campus to shoot baskets, to laugh and to remember.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: