Woerner’s World. An Ode to The Classics

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 Like it or not, the dog days of summer have unceremoniously arrived back in Rockaway. “Back to School” advertisement themes inundate our print and broadcast media. We will resolutely ignore the fact that the sunset is a minute or two premature with each passing day. Eventually, it will be dark again on the morning drive to work.

The shining star of these lethargic days will undoubtedly be the Summer Classic Basketball League playoffs, taking place on weeknights at the St. Francis de Sales indoor and outdoor courts on Beach 129th Street.

These amateur round ball doubleheaders will, if nothing more, feature energetic coaching as well as inspired play from grade school, high school, and middle-aged participants alike. If you follow the direction of the LED halos above the courts along the flip flop express to take in a night of basketball at de Sales, chances are you will not go home disappointed. Late game theatrics and emotionally-charged (but PG rated) “Coach v. Referee” dialogue provide an abundance of entertainment for nightly regulars who occupy the aluminum roll-off bleachers or dangle from fence behind the western baskets.

The league, now celebrating its 32nd summer, began in response to a growing popularity of pick-up basketball games taking place in the St. Francis de Sales schoolyard during weekends and after-work hours in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. In the first decade of the Classic’s existence, the Men’s and Women’s Open division served as a Northeast Region Pro-Am tournament of sorts, attracting a high-level talent pool from the collegiate ranks. It was customary for each team’s entire starting five (and even some of their reserves) to be standing members on college rosters. The youth divisions were no slouch in their own right, with the high school division operating as a “Who’s Who” of CHSAA backcourt talent and the grammar school division being an appropriate setting for local prep coaches to evaluate the next wave of talent.

The league distributed a required dress code to participants: a specially designed St. Francis de Sales Summer Classic cotton t-shirt with cloth shorts bearing the same logo.  You would do well to wash your uniform on non-game nights as there was a strict requirement to be in full uniform during play. Sponsor names were prominently featured on the back of the uniform shirt. Local barrooms and hot Wall Street shops offered their support to the emergent league.

Spearheading the league’s operation since its inception has been local staple Keith “Bugsy” Goldberg, whose enthusiasm and organizational management skills have allowed for it to remain intact until this present-day. Whether he is pushing orange parking barriers around the schoolyard, instructing referees on their court assignments, or policing the area for potential hazards, his presence has been one of Summer Classic’s primary constants for the past 32 years. His contributions are worthy of their own 2000-word long form journalism piece, something I am sure he would not even allow to print due to his uncommon humility. But if you make it up to the schoolyard on one of these warm nights in the coming weeks, be sure to give an unseen nod of respect to the guy in the Graybeards tank top with the lifeguard whistle. And if you’re physically able, maybe help push a bleacher back to the Boulevard fence at the culmination of the last game!

The recognized profitability of AAU Basketball over the past twenty years in some ways has taken the wind out of the sails of local summer leagues like de Sales and its now defunct Brooklyn counterpart, the St. Brendan’s Summer League. Players from the Peninsula and surrounding areas are thrust into a black-hole adult-profiting mechanism in the six-month off-season that involves defense-averse games, extensive travel, and limited emphasis on skill development. The promise of the ambiguous concept of “exposure” to college coaches prioritizes this basketball experience over competitive local leagues that once ruled the day. As a result, it has been less common for the starting guards from a Xaverian or Archbishop Molloy-caliber program to play in the Summer Classic.

With that said, today’s Summer Classic still offers a spirited product to participants and spectators alike. The cloth shorts are gone but the patented hoop logo remains. The baskets and playing surface even got a much needed upgrade following Hurricane Sandy, with fiberglass backboards standing in place of their steel double-rimmed predecessors that ruined even the best of shooters' nights.. The Men’s Open Division features no less than 32 current or former college basketball players spread out among its eight quarterfinal qualifying teams. The strongest youth play may be found in the Girl’s High School Division, a modest four team outfit whose games are played inside the gymnasium. Nearly all of that division’s partakers are high school letter-winners with quite a few underclassmen showing early promise for at least small college scholarship basketball. The outdoor divisions offer spectators an opportunity to choose from the flavor of that particular night, be it a close high school boys contest or a family member running up and down in the grammar school ranks.

As we look ahead to the dreaded (but weather friendly) month of September, be sure to fill your heart with some Rockaway nostalgia at the St. Francis de Sales Summer Classic. It will certainly be a fun August on the blacktop.

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