Keeping a Summer Tradition Alive

During the summer months on the Rockaway peninsula, two things are constants: the beach and the St. Francis de Sales Summer Basketball Classic.

And even after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area, both traditions are expected to continue this summer.

The tireless dedication from parishioners at the Belle Harbor parish has made the possibility of reviving the summer classic a reality. If all goes according to plan, the tipoff of the first basketball game will occur in early July.

“That would be a big step in coming back to normality,” said Msgr. John Brown, pastor, who attends summer classic games every year. “It’s a big summer experience down here in Rockaway. Getting that up and running will be a good sign for the parish and neighborhood.”

Summer Classic Origins

The outdoor basketball courts at St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, suffered extensive damage in Hurricane Sandy, including crooked hoops. (Photo by Jim Mancari)
The outdoor basketball courts at St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, suffered extensive damage in Hurricane Sandy, including crooked hoops. (Photo by Jim Mancari)

The tournament started 30 years ago, when parish Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) director Flip Mullen brought together a few parishioners that had been playing pick-up basketball games in the schoolyard after they had graduated college.

A committee comprised of Mullen, Keith Goldberg, Bernie Heeran, Billy Ryan, Steve Stathis, Terry Winters and later Kenny and Roseann Whelan created a structure in which both kids and adults could participate in a community-related sports event.

Very quickly, the two-month-long tournament grew into the marquee summer league in the diocese. Each year, over 1,000 kids, ages five to 18, from all over the five boroughs compete on 80 teams. The classic has attracted the area’s top talent, including players that even reached the NBA.

“It’s not just about the basketball,” said Goldberg, a lifelong parishioner at the parish and the commissioner of the summer classic, as well as a director for CYO. “It becomes almost the community gathering place.”

Schoolyard Damaged in Sandy

Just a few months after the conclusion of the 29th annual summer classic, the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy severely damaged the St. Francis parish buildings as well as the schoolyard. In the aftermath of the storm, the schoolyard served as a recovery center, providing food and supplies to up to 10,000 people each day.

The center operated out of a huge tent in the middle of the schoolyard. The surrounding fences were cut to accommodate some of the heavy machinery, and the tent left holes in the outdoor basketball courts.

“We knew that when it (Sandy) occurred, the most important thing was that the parish was able to take care of the broader community,” Goldberg said. “We knew that whatever had to go on in the schoolyard had to occur and that we would figure out afterwards what we had to do.”

Sinkholes began springing up in the asphalt, and the foundation under the asphalt was damaged extensively. Three light posts were lost, and the basketball hoops were left crooked.

Successful Fundraising

After assessing the damage, the St. Francis community took action. Goldberg said that parishioner Terence Mullin, brother of Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, has been invaluable in acquiring funds for the rebuilding project.

Mullin – who played in the summer classic while at St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands, and Xaverian H.S., Bay Ridge – set a goal to raise over $100,000 to restore the schoolyard. The plan includes completely repaving the surface, which itself will cost $80,000.

“It’s not like this schoolyard is something that’s used once in a while,” Mullin said. “It’s constantly in use, especially for the summer classic, which from Monday through Thursday from six to 10 o’clock at night is pretty much the center of the community.”

The project received sizable donations from several foundations. The Relief for Rockaway fundraiser sponsored by Michael Sheinman of ReSette Restaurant in Manhattan contributed $40,000. John Lugano of the Friends of Sean Lugano Foundation donated $50,000. John is the brother of Sean, who passed away in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Rockefeller Foundation also sent a $20,000 grant.

The athletic company AND1 donated $5,000 as seed money to the project and will also provide basketball uniforms to this summer’s tournament participants. The company will also replace the St. Francis CYO uniforms washed away in the storm.

“Nothing is more pure than rebuilding a schoolyard for the summer league and for the kids to get together, have fun and be with one another,” Mullin said.

Bigger and Better

Once work commences on the schoolyard in the next few weeks, the basketball courts will have an entirely different look. In addition to repaving the surface, plans call for new light posts, adjustable fiberglass backboards, portable scoreboards and new higher fencing.

Msgr. Brown said he is lucky to have parishioners that are so dedicated to the parish and that have fought valiantly to keep a summer tradition alive.

“We’ll work together to make something happen that we know is important to us, not just for the sports but for the community as a whole,” Goldberg said.

Donations to the rebuilding project are still being accepted. Visit for more information.

“The neighborhood’s been through a lot and has always bounced back bigger and better than before,” Mullin said. “That’s just the way it is down here.”