If Matt Heineman is nearing his limit, he does nothing to show it this Sunday afternoon. The 27-year-old ran the Chilmark Road Race Saturday, but the 5K along Middle Road was just a warmup for this. Sunday is a marathon — specifically, the Alex Cohen Memorial Basketball Marathon. Mr. Heinemen first stepped onto the court behind the Chilmark Community Center at noon, and it’s now nearing 5:45 p.m. There have been breaks for the individual players over the past six hours, but the games themselves just keep going throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
The basketball tournament, held annually since 1988 (with a couple of gap years in the 1990s), was started by 16-year-old Alex Cohen, a summer resident of Chilmark who worked at the community center. Alex and his coworkers turned out to the court every night after work, playing pickup games until the sun went down. The marathon began as a way to combine this love for basketball with a desire to give back — all of the funds raised from donations to the tournament were given to charities.
Three years after the tournament’s inception, Alex was killed in a car accident while returning home to New York from college. The basketball marathon he’d founded soldiered on, however, taking on new meaning as it took on his name in memoriam.
Alex’s father, Irv, plays in the first game each year — this year he jetted back to the East Coast on a red-eye after a visit to his 11-day-old granddaughter — wearing an old blue jersey whose white lettering spells out “Clicka” on the back. The jersey was once his son’s — Clicka was Alex’s basketball nickname, bestowed upon him because of the heel click he’d make during jump shots.
Yet the basketball legacy Alex Cohen left behind extends far beyond his athletic gear. Children in the community center’s summer programs know Alex’s name, said programs chairman Michelle O’Connor during an interview Sunday, even if they are far too young to have known the man behind it.
“It’s important for kids . . . to have a sense of tradition and who Alex was and what he stood for,” she continued, noting that the campers call him “the boy who loved basketball and loved charities.”
Mr. Cohen said the best thing about the marathon was the mixing of age groups who might normally never play together. Teams and teammates are in flux the entire day, with high schoolers dishing the ball to the men who were original basketball marathoners.
“There’s mentoring from older to younger,” said Mr. Cohen. “It’s the idea of friendship and camaraderie.”
Mr. Heineman began playing in the marathon when he was in middle school — still being mentored — and now finds himself on the opposite side of the continuum.
“I no longer feel like the young one,” he said.
In some cases, the advice works in the other direction — the aptly-named Patrick Dunk, of Concord, found himself in the position of trying to coax his father, Kevin, off the court during a game in which Kevin twisted his ankle.
“Just a few more minutes!” came the reply.
Abandoning the futile effort, Patrick explained why he’d come out to the marathon. Put simply, “It’s a lot of fun.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are,” he said. “You just play. It’s a great game.”
Such is the spirit of Alex Cohen, who, his father admits, “wasn’t a great player but he loved to play”
Mr. Cohen and his wife Margo have seen the establishment of many things in their son’s name — a performing arts endowment at the Bank Street School in New York, where Alex attended elementary school, and a theater dedicated to him at his former high school. But, said Mr. Cohen, “I think he would be most pleased — and amused — by this.”