By: Joseph Staszewski of the Bronx Times (@cng_staszewski)
The courts were re-paved, the backboards improved and bleachers added, but the essence of the Hoops in the Sun streetball tournament remains the same as when it started 15 years ago.
New York City’s lone beach-side tournament feeds off the vibe of its Orchard Beach home each summer on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It has its own soundtrack — a beautiful mix of balls bouncing on the blacktop, the beats of DJ Uneeq blaring through the speakers and the clicking of chairs opening on the nearby sand.
“What makes it special is when it is a beautiful day and the sky is blue. You can count on Hoops in the Sun to be where you can bring your family and come to the beach and also watch great basketball,” said Joe Cruz Jr., one of the league’s two CEOs.
It is what the Cruz brothers’ father, Joe “Pops” Cruz Sr., envisioned when he started the tournament. His inspiration came from experiencing similar leagues during a trip to Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Joe Cruz Jr. and his younger brother, Randy, took over after their dad died of liver cancer in 2004.
The courts are named after him and this year — the 15th anniversary of the league’s founding — hit Joe Cruz Jr. hard emotionally. He felt a sense of pride after shepherding their father’s dream this far.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago when my dad passed away that I would have made it to 15 years I probably would have said, ‘No,’” he said.
The league was in financial trouble back in 2009 when sponsors pulled out due to the poor economy. The Cruz brothers paid for almost half of the tournament’s cost out of their own pockets. A year later Nike rejoined Mountain Dew, the Yankees and others as sponsors and Hoops in the Sun began to thrive again.
“Other sponsors have been tough because the money is not there and sometimes they don’t see the investment into street basketball,” Joe Cruz Jr. said.
Those who take the time to check out the tournament get to see some of the top players in the area in a safe and laid back environment.
Hoops in the Sun has 50 teams within its various divisions. There is no fighting to get into an overcrowded park like a spectator may encounter at Manhattan-based night tournaments such as Dyckman, EBC Rucker Park and Tri-State.
Long time commentators Bobby “C” Cey and John “Uncle G-Stacks” Rowe don’t spend games screaming catch phrases and nicknames into microphones. They call the players by their real names, speak about their backgrounds and provide humorous and insightful game analysis.
“It plays to the fans,” Rowe said. “They look up. They are more interested when you find out where these guys are from.”
Hoops in the Sun has come a long way from its humble beginnings. It included just two divisions, worn-out courts, double rims and a flip scoreboard at its start. Passers-by weren’t sure what to make of it.
“People didn’t know what was going on,” Randy Cruz said. “Was it a full summer tournament or a weekend thing? There was a lot of getting used to for the fans to understand what we were doing.”
Hoops in the Sun has grown exponentially since then. Improvements to the court and a visit in 2002 from then-NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady put its professional-amateur and youth tournaments on the map and attracted a higher level of talent. NBA players like Metta World Peace, Ben Gordon and Jimmer Fredette have all suited up at Orchard Beach along with hundreds of other overseas pros and former college stars.
“It’s a lot tougher to play outside in the heat, but it’s always good because once you get inside, it makes it easier,” said former Bishop Ford and UMass guard Chaz Williams.
The Cruz's understand the challenges of promoting a streetball tournament that is not in a residential area. Many people don’t know where Orchard Beach is and there is $9 parking fee because it’s a city park.
Hoops in the Sun had an early and active presence on social media and shows its games live on Ustream to raise its visibility.
“For us, people have to travel,” Joe Cruz Jr. said. “They got to pay to get here. It’s a commitment.”
It is one people continue to make. A consistent crowd, with many going from the beach to the court and back again, fills the stands and park benches each week. Some even bring their own chairs. Former Fordham Road resident Victor Goita remains a regular at the tournament despite moving to Cyprus Hills, Brooklyn. The hour and a half drive is well worth it in his mind.
“Anywhere you sit, you feel comfortable,” Goita said. “There is good security, good music. You can’t ask for more from a free game.”
Despite their success, the Cruz brothers are still trying to come up with ways to give people more. It’s what their dad would have wanted and what they’ve always strived to do.
“We think about him every day, every time you walk here and you see the plaque with the name on it,” Randy Cruz said. “I just know if he was here, he’d be proud of what we were doing.”