We know the sport of basketball is a staple of summer tradition in the Rockaways.
And the great thing about it is that hoops can be enjoyed by players of all ages – from young to old … or “more experienced” as they’d like to call it!
The Graybeards Basketball League was formed in 1995 as a way to allow men who may have lost a step or two on the court to continue playing the game they love.
Since the Men’s Open League of the annual St. Francis de Sales (SFDS), Belle Harbor, Summer Classic was and still is very competitive, this league provided a more relaxed atmosphere.
“It was started by coaches in SFDS CYO and Summer Classic who still wanted to play but felt they could no longer compete in the Men’s Open League and preferred the relatively less wearing on the body of a wood gym floor compared to the playground asphalt,” said Keith “Bugsy” Goldberg, who played 10 years for the Graybeards and has run the SFDS Summer Classic for the past 33 years.
The league began with four teams playing on Thursday nights at the SFDS gymnasium. The games quickly became a social gathering, as the players who played in the first game would sit on the stage to watch the second game.
Bonded Over Basketball
“It became a very social league, which was the objective,” said Steve “Poppa” Stathis, the former president of the Graybeards nonprofit charity organization, which was formed from the basketball league following Sept. 11, 2001. “Guys that would walk past each other in the streets would now recognize each other.
“It was kind of a bonding thing. The one thing we all had was a passion to play basketball.”
Four teams quickly grew to six teams, and there are currently 10 teams in the league split into specific age groups. The spry 35-49-year-olds play in the Young Guns Division, while the “more experienced” 50-plus-year-olds suit up in the Legends Division. With the expansion, games are now also played at St. Camillus, Rockaway Park, in addition to SFDS.
The regular season is typically comprised of 10 games during the summer followed by semifinals and finals in each division. The team members that win the championship are awarded the coveted long-sleeved T-shirt and proudly display those around the neighborhood.
The pace may not be as fast as the Summer Classic’s Men’s Open League, but the Graybeards still manage to play a competitive style of hoops.
Range of Styles
“Guys will watch our games and say you guys play very basic basketball,” Stathis said. “You set picks. The younger guys still do a little bit of the run-and-gun stuff, but the older teams are more traditional basketball.”
The skill level in the league stretches from players who played college basketball to players who may not have even played in high school but just enjoy the game. A total of 182 men have played in the league since its inception, and each year there seem to be a few new faces.
“We never excluded anybody,” said Stathis. “If guys wanted to play, they played.”
“I saw a bunch of guys that came together and truly cared for one another, heckling aside,” said John “Hammer” Hammersley, a summer parishioner at Blessed Trinity, Breezy Point, who was a member of the Young Guns championship team in his first year in the league.
“I was accepted right away and felt like I knew these guys forever,” he said.
After 22 seasons, the league has developed some notable traditions. Almost every player has a nickname, different rules are named after different players and many father/son combos or other family connections have played together.
Each week, Stathis produces the “Heard on the Hardwood” newsletter featuring the league standings as well as funny quotes that were said at the previous week’s games.
In what has also become a Thursday tradition after the games, the players attend a different local bar that has supported the youth groups and sports programs in the Rockaways. It’s the Graybeards’ way of saying thank you for the support.
The group also holds donations, fundraisers and raffles for anyone in need in the community. This was especially evident in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“It was so much more than basketball,” Hammersley said. “I think the Rockaways is about coming together and having a good time while still making sure you are giving back to the community. I found that in the Graybeards.”
The purpose of the league can be summed up well by “Poppa:”
“Since 1995, the Graybeards Basketball League has provided an opportunity for the basketball legends in our neighborhood to relive their glory days if only for a brief Thursday run.”
While there is plenty of reliving of memories that takes place between Young Guns and Legends alike, the Graybeards league allows for the forging of new summer memories that won’t soon be forgotten.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.