By Elmo Rodrigopulle
St Benedicts College, Kotahena, easily the leading Christian Brothers school in the country is celebrated its 150th year in its glorious existence few years ago.
Since its inception, the school has produced brilliant alumni and continues that way. Not only in studies, but also in sport there are a number of cricketers, footballers, basketballers and hockey players, produced by the green, white and green school, who could have equalled or held their own against the best in the world.
What I intend doing here is to feature the brilliant basketball, football and hockey stalwarts produced by the school. I am talking about the late 1950s and the early 1960s when I was fortunate to be a student during those glorious years under the directorships of Bro. Oliver, Bro. Alban Patrick and Bro. Athanasius – an illustrious Frenchman. I had the good fortune of later playing cricket for the school and captaining the cricket team in 1960.
In that era, SBC produced two of the finest basketball players who were stunning who shook the school, club and national scene with their magic on court and who later represented the country. Their superb play was watched, savoured and followed as examples.
I start with COSMAS MAHAGAMA PERERA and PERCY PERERA. They were not related, but were wonderful buddies of mine and it was my God-given fortune to be closely associated with them, along with my other legion of schoolmates and dear friends.
Cosmas, Percy and my other dear friends Kenneth Dabrera, the first Ben to introduce a cheer squad to cricket, Patrick Perera, Edward Sumanasekera, Milroy Pieris and Dr Clement de Silva grew up in the wonderful environment that was Kotahena which was then the preserve of the happy-go-luck Burgher community to whom singing, merry making and enjoying life was the ultimate.
Also born and bred in this environment were the record-breaking sets of hockey brothers Stanley, Homer and Subash Fernando and Lovellyn, Joyce and ‘CP’ Rayen and also the footballing brothers Sampoornam and Nithi Nicholas and my classmate Denzil Walles who had magic in their hockey wands and feet. The two sets of hockey brothers had the rare honour of representing the country and playing with distinction.
Firstly to basketball and if my sporting brain serves me right, basketball was first introduced to the school in the early 1950s. The game which is believed to be the fastest on planet earth, continued to spiral with St Benedict’s indulging in inter-school tournaments, not with much success, but serving notice that it would be a tremendous force to be reckoned with in the not too distant future.
After struggling in its formative years, the basketball at SBC hit the big time when that coach of all coaches Ram Suntheralingam joined the teaching staff in the mid-1950s. He was a product of a leading school in Jaffna during its glory days and was an outstanding basketballer and a wicket-keeper batsman and brought with him addition to his educational qualifications, and vey importantly, credentials as a top-notch basketball coach.
In lighter vein a little anecdote: I was in the English stream which had Tamil as the second language. Suntheralingam was the Tamil teacher for a few boys in a majority that was a Burgher class. In the term test even without me answering the Tamil paper, “Suntha”, as he was fondly called, would give me 80 to 90 marks for Tamil.
My class teachers, especially Nathan Emmanuel and Tom Wilson were astounded imagining that here was a Tamil scholar in the making when in fact I did not know to even write my name in Tamil. Came the then Senior School Certificate Examination where I had to sit the Tamil paper.
When the question paper was given to me, I gave my answers in double quick time and beat a hasty retreat. My classmates who were there told me later that the invigilator had remarked “That guy seems to be a Professor in Tamil. Otherwise no way could a student could finish his paper in double quick time”, much to the amusement of my pals among whom was Ranjit Perumal, now a much sought-after doctor of medicine and who was my left-arm leg spinner when I captained SBC in 1960.
After that bit of amusement and to get back to serious business, Cosmas Mahagama Perera captained the Bens and later the Old Bens. He was a champion in whatever position he played on court. However, he excelled in defence and could initiate attacking moves with his high-class dribbling; which moves fooled the opposing defence and culminated in baskets from any angles.
He was a dream of any team and captain. By example he showed and led the school and the Old Bens to many a championship and trophy. It was he who led the Bens to latch on to basketball fever and what breathtaking play he put on court.
In fact, it is said that he was like a moth to a flame, able to attract thousands of spectators to watch his amazing acts with the ball. I must recall what his teammate Percy Perera once told me. During the reign of the Bens as kings of local basketball there came to the scene a few basketballers from the home of basketball – United States of America – who entered tournaments tagging themselves as Peace Corp.
In that Peace Corp team was a pencil-slim highly talented shooter named Fennel who brought a new dimension to the game here with his bulls-eye shooting of baskets from whatever angles. Having watched Cosmas’ brilliant all court play he had told Percy that if Cosmas had been in the US, he would have easily fitted into any NBA team there. Now that was a compliment that had never ever or would ever be said of a Benedictine or a Sri Lankan. Great pride to every Benedictine and Benedictines to come.
Despite those rich accolades that flowed freely, Cosmas remained the simple and unassuming character that he was and still is, enjoying life in a far of land – California in the United States of America as a successful entrepreneur and on his many visits always to the land of his roots endeavouring to help his school and the country’s basketball with his rich experience and knowledge.
Percy Perera who teamed up with Cosmas to provide the champagne and glory days of basketball in the school, club and country was a shooter par excellence. Also pencil-slim, he had flamboyance and was like a coiled cobra waiting to spit venom and paralyse all opponents , breaching their defence and plonking baskets from all angles in the court that were always match winners. His crowning moment was when with his stupendous shooting he was adjudged “Asia’s Best Shooter” at the conclusion of the basketball championships at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1966.
They were rare achievements from Cosmas and Percy that deserve to be etched in the school’s and country’s history.
But the saddest moment after Percy’s glorious achievement and the excitement he provided was when a request to fly the school flag at half-mast at the Old Bens Sports Club was turned down on the day of his funeral in faraway Melbourne. A “cyclops” at the club had refused the request saying that Percy was not a member of the Sports Club. Now if that was not so, I would like to ask how come he played for the Old Bens SC at basketball? That was gratitude for one who served the school with honour to put it on the world basketball map.
Now a request has been made and a deserving one at that by Percy’s family members to name the basketball court at the college quadrangular in memory of Percy Perera. At the time of writing nothing has got moving in this matter. It is hoped the authorities will show courage and respect to a champion basketballer by acceding to this request.
Percy’s father P.W. and brother Earl played cricket for SBC.
Percy believed that “You only live once.” I would like to add: But if you do it right, then once is enough.”
Note: This article was first published on 5th edition of Quadrangle, in 2016