New York City residents flock to the Rockaway Peninsula each summer to enjoy some fun in the sun at beach.
However, once the sun starts to set, the Rockaways are transformed into a haven for summer basketball.
The annual St. Francis de Sales Summer Basketball Classic is once again taking place in the Belle Harbor community. Started as a series of pick-up hoops games in the mid-1980s, the classic has become a staple in the Rockaways.
For two months each summer, the St. Francis schoolyard is the place to be. More than 1,000 boys and girls ages five through 18 compete on 90 teams, making the classic one of the largest basketball leagues in the city.
“For 31 years, it’s not just been a place for people playing but also for the parish and the community to gather,” said Keith Goldberg, tournament director, who helped start the classic. “One of the great things about it is that people watching the games range from infants in carriages to seniors who are enjoying watching their grandchildren.”
The Rockaways are all about a strong sense of community, and that’s surely on display each night at the classic. The bleachers are routinely packed with spectators looking to enjoy some high-quality basketball.
“The whole community gathers here,” said Terence Mullin, the coordinator of the fourth- and fifth-grade division. “This parish has a tremendous sports program. Besides having a strong church and a strong school, this community really thrives on its athletic program.”
“The parish is really the heart of the community,” said Msgr. Jack Bracken, administrator at St. Francis de Sales. “The schoolyard and having the kids come out to play basketball is the fabric of the community.”
Sure there may be a friendly vibe on the sidelines, but once the players step on the outdoor courts, a competitive level of basketball is instantly apparent. Many of the kids who are normally teammates during their Catholic Youth Organization season wind up playing against each other as opponents in the classic.
“We all know each other so it gets very competitive,” said Teddy Stathis, who plays in the high school division. “You want to beat your teammates that you’ve played with before or played with last year. It makes it interesting because it’s all about the bragging rights.”
Each year, that competitive nature attracts some of the New York City area’s most talented players. A good number of Division I college players have played in the classic and even some professionals, including: former Xaverian H.S., Bay Ridge, standout and current St. John’s University, Jamaica, head basketball coach Chris Mullin; former Bishop Loughlin M.H.S., Fort Greene, and NBA star Mark Jackson; and former Christ the King H.S., Middle Village, and WNBA star Sue Bird.
“It’s cool because we get to play at the same place that a professional played,” said Noelle Carey, who plays in the fifth- through ninth-grade girls’ division.
While the good majority of the players likely won’t become pros, the classic is all about giving these kids a chance to play, and providing a great way for them to keep active during their summer vacation.
“During the summers, there aren’t a lot of sports, so mostly everyone plays here,” said Caitlin Mullin, Noelle’s teammate. “Even kids that don’t normally play basketball play in this tournament.”
What makes the classic so special has to be its longevity. Thanks to the efforts of Goldberg and a number of volunteers, it’s been called one of the most well organized tournaments in the New York area.
“It’s so popular because it’s been around for so long,” said Matt Tubridy, who plays in the sixth-grade division. “The parents now were kids when it started.”
Between building community spirit and offering a competitive level of basketball, the St. Francis de Sales Basketball Classic will continue to be one of New York City’s premiere summer events.
And the classic’s motto sums it up perfectly:
“After the beach, under the lights, on the clock…the tradition continues.”
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.