HBO’s “Prayer for a Perfect Season” follows NJ high school hoops team

At most public high schools around the country, the basketball team merely provides entertainment and school spirit for students and people in the community. At some Catholic schools like St. Patrick in New Jersey, the stakes are much, much higher.

Tonight on HBO (9pm ET), we get a behind-the-scenes look at those stakes thanks to acclaimed director Marc Levin’s documentary Prayer for a Perfect Season. Levin spent a year following the 2010-11 boys basketball team at the Elizabeth, NJ, school, which culminates in a thrilling showdown with rival St. Anthony of Jersey City.

For those who don’t follow high school basketball closely, the difference between public and private schools is night and day. Athletes who aspire to receive college scholarships from the top schools in the country flock to the top prep schools in order to be seen. These institutions play against the best athletes and teams, and they give players an opportunity to gain more exposure (the amount of high school games being televised by ESPN and other networks is at an all-time high).

This explains why Coach Kevin Boyle’s St. Patrick team was so stacked with talent in 2010-11. Led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (now a freshman at the University of Kentucky) and guard Derrick Gordon (Western Kentucky), the Celtics were able to compile a 26-0 record leading up to the final game. But this documentary also delves into the personal side of these stars, including Kidd-Gilcrist’s childhood (his father was murdered when he was 2) and the incarceration of Gordon’s twin brother.

Through interviews with players, family members, coaches, administrators and reporters, Levin is able to capture the personal issues and pressures the coaches and players felt over the course of the season. And with St. Patrick’s facing financial struggles, he explores the overall decline and unknown future of 100-year-old inner-city school.

And while Prayer of a Perfect Season builds up to the title game against also-undefeated St. Anthony (29-0) — led by Basketball Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr. — viewers should know this HBO special transcends basketball. Sports fans will love it, but so too will those who are merely fans of great human interest stories.