Whether it’s the simplicity of a game which requires nothing more than a ball and a hoop on high, or the sense of community spirit engendered by its ability to bring together kids from within a community and beyond, basketball is alive and well on the concrete courts of Kingston, thanks to Summer Sizzle. Over 200 young hoops enthusiasts ages 8 to 18 play on 15 teams in three divisions.
Whatever led Dr. James Naismith’s young charges to run up and down a Massachusetts gymnasium with reported glee when the game was invented back in 1891 is still apparent in the faces of the young Sizzle players who hail from Kingston and several other area communities. And if not for some creative fundraising, much of which is still active, the league might have had to shut down this year.
A $7,000 cut in the league’s Community Development Block Grant, which has helped fund the league in years past, could have cooled off Summer Sizzle for good, but the devotion of everyone from LaDay-Hill to sponsors, coaches, parents and players has kept the heat on.
“Even with the budget cuts, we’re still moving forward,” said LaDay-Hill, noting that for some, basketball provides a healthy and disciplined option during summer vacation, when kids might otherwise find themselves getting into trouble. “These kids are worth it. We have to invest in our kids, or we’ll have to invest in things we don’t want to invest in.”
Team and league sponsors have pitched in, both with their own teams and the league as a whole. And fundraisers like one organized with Alderwoman Shirley Whitlock at Mid-City Lanes which not only raised $633 for the league, but also its profile, with a number of Whitlock’s political friends and colleagues showing up. Additional help has come from community resources like Kingston Cares and the YMCA.
“That the community comes together this way means a lot,” said LaDay-Hill. “And not just the community in Kingston, either, but all over.”
Indeed, part of what makes Summer Sizzle so special is its effortless melding of teams from both inside and outside of the city limits. The two older brackets each have a pair of teams from outside of Kingston. In the 11-14 range, the Money Makers, a team from Rondout Valley, is sponsored by Rondout Savings Bank. Returning in the same bracket are the Heat, a team from Saugerties sponsored by Ulster Savings Bank, which, unlike their NBA namesake, has not had to shell out millions to attract high-profile free agents.
Saugerties is also the home of the Hurt, a 15-18 year old squad sponsored by Berardi, Gottstine & Miller, CPAs. Walmart is the corporate sponsor of the other non-Kingston team in the upper echelon, the Warriors from Onteora.
There are four teams in the 8-10 range, the only group which plays its games on the courts at Hasbrouck. They are the Regenerators (RUPCO), the Komets 1 (Kingston Plaza), the Chekers (Quick Chek) and the Toppers (Bop-to-Tottom).
The courts at Rondout Gardens, which during games often sees a large, enthusiastic crowd thrilling to exemplary play, is home to both of the older divisions, which unlike their youngest counterparts hope each win puts them closer to eventual playoff glory.
In the 11-14 group are the Komets 2 (Kingston Plaza), the Servers (Stewarts Shops), the Slammers (Ulster County Community Foundation), the New Pro U Know (New Progressive Baptist Church) and the aforementioned Money Makers and Heat.
Joining the Hurt and the Warriors in the 15-18 division are the All-Stars (Never Alone, Inc.), the Athletics (Alcoa Fastening Systems) and the Ballers (Ulster County DA’s Office).
Returning to the courts again are the Diamondette Cheerleaders, a 15-girl squad who helped bring the frenzied response to games to a fever pitch last year.
It’s all part of what Chekers coach John Browning calls an irresistible spirit driving the league. It’s what makes him enthusiastic about coaching a team where the older player is still four years younger than his own son. When the Chekers’ original coach was unable to commit to the team for the season, Browning, a seven-year veteran of coaching youth basketball and little league, stepped in.
“It’s fun,” he said of the challenge of coaching 8-10 year olds. “At that age, they’re very young and they’re curious. They’re just trying to play.”
Unlike the older kids, many those in the first bracket are still trying to figure out what basketball is really about. As a result, there are no playoffs, no complex plays and no pressure to win beyond simply wanting to put the ball through the hoop.
“It’s more about playing, having fun and trying to find their way through sports,” said Browning. “In a couple of years they figure out what they want to play. They’re really receptive to coaching, and at that age you’re really teaching fundamentals. It’s a ton of positive reinforcement, encouragement and discussing the things they did wrong, but in a positive light. For the younger kids, it gets them out of the house. It eats up some energy.”
Browning said he agreed with LaDay-Hill’s assessment that the league is good for kids, especially in an environment where lethargy and trouble are available at every turn.
“For the older kids, it’s good to have structure,” he said. “It keeps them off the street. My son played the other night, and then 10 kids ended up staying and they picked teams and ran another 45 minutes.”
LaDay-Hill echoed Browning’s sentiment of structure being positive for kids.
“The kids want it and they respect it,” she said, adding that the league also affords them the opportunity to see that other kids are pretty much just like they are, regardless of where they’re from. “I like the fact that these kids get a chance to break a lot of barriers, barriers of maybe what they thought of kids from Rondout Valley or Saugerties are like.”
Regular season games are played every Tuesday and Thursday night through mid-August, with a championship round scheduled for August 12 and an end of season cookout and awards ceremony planned five days later. In the meantime, the league will continue its fundraising efforts to make sure the season continues unabated.
“We’re still doing plenty of fundraisers,” she said. “I’m still believing in our 100 person, 100 dollar campaign. We’ve got seven people so far.”