Pandemic Can’t Stop Rockaway Summer Hoops Tradition

The annual St. Francis de Sales Summer Basketball Classic returned to the Rockaways. (Photos: Courtesy of The Rockaway Times)

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the Rockaway peninsula in October 2012 — so much so that the following year’s annual St. Francis de Sales Summer Basketball Classic was in jeopardy due to the extensive damage to the Belle Harbor parish’s schoolyard.

Eventually though, the refurbished schoolyard was ready to go for the continuation of a Rockaway summer tradition. This year presented a similar — yet very different — scenario. As COVID-19 swept its way through New York City, hosting the Summer Classic seemed like a pipe dream. However, as the city began its phases of reopening, the tournament soon became a welcome reality.

Games started up the week of July 20, which is about a month later than a typical summer. Since games can only be held outside and not inside the parish gymnasium, the Second-Grade and Greybeards divisions could not be played. With fewer players per team, this year’s tournament field actually wound up having more teams, 65, than in previous summers. Age groups range from third-grade boys and girls to the open division, which has no specific age limit.

A slightly abridged schedule means that teams will play one fewer game than in years past before entering the playoffs, which are expected to wrap up the week before Labor Day. Contests have been occurring each weeknight, which allows the Rockaway community to enjoy its hallowed tradition.

Tournament director Keith Goldberg, who also works as a sports coordinator for the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), followed the guidance of the CDC and New York City Department of Health to put together a proposal to safely host this year’s tournament.

Safety measures include teams having to gather away from the schoolyard before their games; teams only entering and exiting through their assigned locations; spectators staying outside the fence and wearing face coverings; each bench having a supply of hand sanitizer and paper towels; rotating and sanitizing the basketballs during games; and teams refraining from the typical postgame handshakes.

“It’s working,” said Goldberg, whose astute preparation allowed for a timely start to the classic. “It’s showing that the kids can play safely and have fun and the community can enjoy it. They’re enjoying it a little bit differently. It’s a little different outside the fence, but it’s still very much what we’ve always done.”

Each week, the coaches or team captains survey their players for any health-related issues, not just COVID-19 symptoms. By remaining vigilant, the tournament staff has stayed ahead of any potential reasons that could cause a shutdown.

“I was very determined that if there was a way to do this, we were going to do it,” Goldberg said. “My plan was to be prepared to go up until the absolute moment where it would be clear that we couldn’t. Once I saw New York City moving through the phases on a timely basis, I really felt that we were definitely going to do this.”

So far, the St. Francis de Sales Summer Basketball Classic hasn’t missed a beat. It’s extremely difficult to even imagine a summer in the Rockaways without the tournament.

“When I got the email about registration, I was pleasantly shocked and also thrilled,” said John Ronayne, a coach in the boys’ Grammar/Senior and girls’ Grammar/Junior divisions. “It’s been a summer-saver. It really has.”

“For a lot of people, this is their first time playing in three or four months,” said Brayden Ronayne, a 12-year-old shooting guard who is playing in the tournament. “It’s really good for people to get back in the swing of things playing a sport they love.”

With all the uncertainty surrounding a return to work, school and just our regular everyday lives, the Summer Classic has provided some much-needed normalcy.

“When all around is upside down, you need something that’s right-side up,” Goldberg said. “The Summer Classic gives people the sense that some things are right-side up.”

Sandy couldn’t stop the Summer Classic, and neither could COVID-19. It will take more than a pandemic to end this tradition.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at