I won’t often admit to it, but I was sleeping. Literally and figuratively. Scheduled to leave for Orchard Beach in The Bronx at a little after 11:30 this morning, I instead smacked my alarm clock upside the face when its preset message yelled at me to get my ass out of bed. When I finally came to several hours later and pulled myself upright, it was a minute before midday, and I was late for a tournament I didn’t know much about, and which I’d considered skipping altogether.
Coming to the end of a cramped, sweaty journey from East Harlem to what’s known by locals as the “Bronx Riviera”, I immediately realised that this would have been an Isiah Thomas-level mistake. In less than an hour, I’d gone from the Manhattan bustle to a beach overflowing with all manner of ladies whose only universal connection was a lack of clothes. Reaching for my notepad, I wrote and underlined “Orchard Beach: yes – bikinis and ball.”
In essence, that’s the appeal of this tournament. Pegged as the Venice Beach of the east, it might be the only spot in the city where you can hoop, swim, sunbathe and, uh, see the sights, in one place. Don’t get it twisted, though: Thanks to the work of the Cruz family (keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming interview), Orchard Beach is more than just a pretty face. Right next to the sun, sea and sand of the beach are the blood, sweat and tears of the streetball court.
The set-up is as professional as any I’ve seen for a streetball tournament, with the oversized electronic scoreboard, shot clocks and announcer giving it the feel of a high school gym with the roof torn off. As I make my way to the main court, the first game of the young-but-legendary Hoops in the Sun tournament is already in the second quarter. We’ll pick up coverage from there.
Day One, Game One: Hoop Stars versus Back 2 Basics
Posting up on the sort of creaky bleachers you’d expect at any good streetball venue, my first observation is that the game before me is more free-flowing than most outdoor hoops, with the majority of buckets coming from college-type plays rather than the sort of interior banging you’ll normally find at the park. As I see things, the teams look as if they should be within a few points of one another, but I can’t verify this due to a tree between me and the scoreboard. As I move to a seat at halfcourt, I see that the scoreboard disagrees with me: 42-26 to the Hoop Stars. That’ll teach me to miss the first quarter.
After a string of jumpers fail to find the net, both teams revert to the style of play better associated with The Cage, throwing the ball inside at the first opportunity to big men who barrel into the lane and force up shots amongst a sea of arms. Although it seems to pay off for a few minutes, Back 2 Basics soon decide to ignore their name and fire up hopeful threes, few of which look to have any chance of finding the target.
Following stern words (many of them unprintable) from their coach, Back 2 Basics start to set up isolation plays for the mercurial point guard, sub-six-footer Kenny “The Jet” Jones, whose forays to the bucket are initially met with limited success. Hoop Street capitalise on their opposition’s misses, turning every defensive board into fastbreaks and easy buckets, stretching their lead to twenty.
Putting in the dirty work for Hoop Street late in the second is a long-limbed specimen going by the name of “Too Tall” Paul Nelson, whose curly hair and sideburns are cause for some good-natured heckling by the announcer. With a standing reach at least five inches beyond that of anyone else on the floor, he’s snatching rebounds left and right, blocking shots and generally doing as big men do.
Despite his best efforts, five of Back 2 Basics’ buckets in as many minutes are second-chance plays, without which they’d have fallen behind even further. However, their final effort of the first half is an embarrassing play which sees them lose control of the ball several times before committing a shot-clock violation. Hoop Street are unable to do much better, and an airball from beyond the arc by their Roy Williams (not that one) closes out the first half, at which point Hoop Street lead, 52-32.
It’s evident that it’s the tournament’s opening day, with the halftime interval seeing adjustments to a malfunctioning shot clock and the hoops at both ends. With these minor errors corrected, things are set for the second half to go ahead, although a bird stubbornly perched on the top of one of the backboards seems to wish it wouldn’t. By the looks of it, Back 2 Basics share this feeling, looking downtrodden and sluggish, at one point throwing up three consecutive airballs in a shooting drill.
Nonetheless, the third quarter goes ahead as planned, with Back 2 Basics starting with a cat by the name of Dante Thrasher running the point, whose stature (or lack thereof) is shown to be both a gift and a curse. While his first trip down the floor sees him weaving in and out of a sea of bodies, dribbling mere inches from the ground and using his low centre of gravity to absorb countless bumps, seconds later he’s matched up with an opposing forward of at least 6’4’’ for a jump-ball. He decides not to affirm the inevitable, instead choosing to stay on the floor and allow his opponent to tap it downcourt, which leads to another tie-up which sees the aforementioned Paul Nelson get a little excited and slap the ball nearly into the adjacent tennis courts.
The next few minutes feature see Neville “Star” Store and “Not Your Average” Joe Perinello making their way to the bucket repeatedly, the former with graceful stutter-steps and hop-stops, and the latter with moves that remind me of a clip I once saw of a bull throwing a hapless matador into the stands. Meanwhile, Paul Nelson continues to patrol the paint, once blocking two shots in as many seconds before knocking a loose ball to a teammate. Between his swats and the rest of the team’s commitment to help defence, Hoop Stars have the paint locked down, and Back 2 Basics are throwing up any shot that won’t get rejected, as well as many that do.
Having managed to snap their drought, however, they return to the pass-and-cut game they used previously, executing consistently and cutting their deficit by the minute in spite of the best efforts of Hoop Stars’ Neville Store, whose points in the paint are helping to stop the bleeding. By the end of the third, it’s a fourteen-point game, and Back 2 Basics are playing as if they want to win again.
Although Back 2 Basics carry their momentum into the fourth and begin the period with an and-one from their stocky swingman Manchild, Hoop Stars quickly regain their composure and stretch their lead back out to twenty. Managing to sustain the continued drives of Kenny Jones as well as an apparent injury to nimble slasher Leon Martinez, Hoop Stars keep a cushion of at least Gary Payton’s jersey (that’s twenty for you kids), and by Back 2 Basics’ timeout with 3:02 left, the game is all but over.
By 2:35, several members of Back 2 Basics have already changed out of their uniforms, and even the players left on the floor seem to be finished, at one point allowing Ron Wyatt to saunter through the lane for an uncontested one-hand jam. The game ends on a corner three from Dante Thrasher (the first I’ve seen since I arrived) followed by a forty-foot alley-oop to Too Tall with four seconds left, the buzzer sounding to warm cheers from Hoop Street’s supporters.
Final Score: Hoop Stars 96 – 72 Back 2 Basics
My Play of the Game: “Too Tall” Paul Nelson with the catch-and-cram off the long pass.
My Player of the Game
: Kenny “The Jet Jones” (Back 2 Basics) for his numerous assists and ability to get to the line seemingly at will.