A streetball rivalry was seething on the basketball courts of Oak Bluffs’ Niantic Park this past weekend. On Saturday, July 4, the Edgartown defending champions, the Cheezits, were preparing to take on the tough and much-hyped WBA, a four-man team from Boston and North Carolina.
Basketball legend Julius (Dr. J) Erving also made an appearance at the annual Streetball Classic, but at this point in the tournament, as a half-court, three-point shooting competition momentarily suspended the fiercely competitive atmosphere, the hometown Cheezits were busy getting psyched up for their own big game.
“It might be easier this year,” Cheezit Steve Handy, 17, predicted. Last year, Handy and his teammates, Austin DeChulas and Justin Mercier, both 17, went up against players who were 18 and over. This year, the tournament organizers changed the age format, cultivating the under-18 competition. “It was better competition last year,” Handy confidently appraised, “and there were more teams.”
There has been a shift in focus for the Vineyard Streetball Classic this year, according to tournament director Omar Daniels: “It’s really about the kids.”
In its seventh year, the Streetball Classic has changed the age range of the competition, eliminating the 18-plus group, and bolstering the under-18 competition. “The kids kept saying, ‘We wanna play.’ So the tournament directors got our heads together, and this is what we came up with,” Mr. Daniels said, recounting the off-season recalibrations.
Mr. Daniels, a native of Ossining, N.Y., who lives in Georgia with his wife and children, has fond recollections of his summers on the Vineyard, where he spent time at his grandmother’s house. “The eighties were the peak of basketball on the Vineyard . . . when I became an adult, I wanted to duplicate my memories.”
So began his streetball classic, a tournament that serves as a family reunion via an enriching community service project. Mr. Daniels’ wife noted that everyone wearing Streetball-staff purple was family. For many Oak Bluffs residents and visitors during the July 4 weekend, the tournament is now a tradition.
This year, Mr. Daniels and the Vineyard Streetball Classic, with the support of the entire Daniels family, reaffirmed an already strong commitment to the Island and its youth basketball resources. Not only were this year’s participants younger, but the organization’s focus was more dedicated to Island youth. The proceeds from the tournament will go towards improving the conditions of the basketball court in Niantic Park (Mr. Daniels said the courts could use new asphalt, fences and rims), and the Vineyard Streetball organization also will try to work with Vineyard schools to promote one another’s basketball programs.
Mr. Daniels believes the competition can have important lessons: “The kids can learn from working hard, coming back after setbacks and pushing through.”
His own can-do attitude seems to have rubbed off on some of tournament’s participants. Elijah LaRue, Ben McGrath, Landon Garner and Karn Datta of the Lightning, an age 10-11 team, know about setbacks. “We haven’t won any games,” Ben said, still upbeat. “We have one more.”
The teammates, and friends, all play basketball at school, but they are still learning a lot from the competition. “[Like] how to guard and how to do the right shots,” Elijah said.
Landon, the youngest of the team at 10 years old, was slightly more cavalier: “I didn’t learn anything; I’ve been playing for six years!”
Ben said that “watching the older kids helps you know what to do.”
The older kids may not realize they’re inspiring younger players. The WBA vs. Cheezits match was an aggressive, fast-paced game. The teams were well matched in skill, although the WBA team had two subs. The game was one of the toughest of the tournament and there was much trash-talking and hype about the match-up.
Throughout the match, the WBA team was rough, drawing admonishment from the referees. At numerous intervals, the teams were reminded to watch the pushing, elbows and language. At one point, the game was so contentious, the refs called a time-out just to break the tension: “You know we’re having fun, right?” said one of the referees.
In the end, the Cheezits were able to hold off the competition from the mainland, reclaiming the title of Vineyard Streetball Classic Champions for the 2009 tournament.
Despite its moments of tension and even outright aggression, the streetball classic maintained a festive atmosphere. A deejay played hip-hop and top 40 hits, mixing in humorous commentary on the games. At times, even the players broke their focus to giggle at the announcing, sometimes laughing at their own mistakes, temporarily dismantling a tough competitive veneer. There can be competition amongst spectators even, but the tournament tries to imbue a sense of community. Even the format of the streetball game, half-court three-on-three, with less formal refereeing, is a nod to community basketball traditions.
Mr. Daniels didn’t try to dampen the inherently competitive atmosphere on the court. “Some teams shoot a lot of jumpers, some go to the hoop. The players learn from one another’s game. And when they get to college, they’re going to be up against players from all over the country,” he said, adding:
“I want to see that rivalry between New Bedford or Falmouth and the Vineyard . . . I want to get them out here.”
He believes in the character-building benefits of competition. At the core of his mission is the learning experience. “Everyone who helps organize the tournament has some sort of degree in the social services,” said Mr. Daniels, who has a degree in psychology.
He and his family continue to return to Oak Bluffs every summer. They hope to involve businesses on the Island, solicit mentors from the professional basketball world, and expand the network of young players coming to compete at the yearly tournament, potentially even creating an exchange program with young players in Georgia. Mr. Daniels is encouraged by the youth turnout this year. “They’ll lead the way,” he said.