St. Francis Summer Classic – In the Beginning

 St. Francis Summer Classic –  In the Beginning

By Keith “Bugsy” Goldberg

The St. Francis de Sales Summer Classic begins its 40th season this year with over 100 teams and over 1,200 players ranging from the second-grade co-ed division to the Graybeards Legends. It has become a NYC basketball and Rockaway community institution. To mark the 40th season of the Summer Classic, there will be a special celebration at The Rockaway Hotel on Saturday, July 20, commemorative merchandise sales, and weekly articles recounting the history of the Summer Classic.

St. Francis de Sales has a long and storied history as one of the most successful CYO basketball programs in the Diocese of Brooklyn. For many years, the St. Francis Easter Tournament was one of the premier postseason basketball events in NYC, showcasing outstanding high school and college players, many of whom went on to play in the NBA and at many Division 1 colleges.

In 1984, the Easter Tournament was still going strong. St. Francis PAR and Tournament Director Peter McManus was winding down his long tenure, ably assisted by SFDS Basketball assistant director Flip Mullen. Mullen had an idea to start a summer league in the SFDS schoolyard. This was spurred by a number of factors:

For many years, the SFDS schoolyard was actually two areas separated by a fence. During the ‘60s and ‘70s there were five baskets in various locations in the “big schoolyard.” Only the two baskets side by side on the Beach 129th fence had any markings, just denoting the foul line. There was no proper full court. Schoolyard play was halfcourt, and mostly 3 on 3. The small schoolyard on the north part of the property was used by the youngest grades of SFDS school and not marked for any sports until it began use as an intramural baseball field.

In the early 1980s, the fence separating the two areas was removed and it became one yard. The previous hoops in “the big yard” had been removed as well as a handball wall that had been there. Two full court basketball courts (current Courts 1 and 2) were constructed where the “little yard” had been and the baseball field was moved so that home plate was now at the corner of Beach 129th and Rockaway Beach Blvd.

The two outstanding courts soon attracted players not only from the parish and Rockaway, but from around Brooklyn and Queens, particularly those who were playing or had played in the CHSAA. Full court 5 on 5 now supplanted half court 3 on 3. The pickup games gained a reputation which made for great games on weeknights and weekends, but the downside was that it became difficult for the younger players in the parish to get onto the courts. Mullen’s idea was to turn the adult pickup basketball into a formal league, along with a league for high school boys and grammar school boys. Many of the local players at CHSAA high schools had to travel to play in leagues in Rockville Centre and elsewhere. The hope was to create a new magnet for Brooklyn and Queens CHSAA players to reduce their travel. Finally, an additional court was installed that was kept for non-league play to maintain access for the younger players of the parish.

Mullen then went about putting together his team to join with him in launching this program. Parishioners Terry Winters and Billy Ryan were coaching the junior varsity team at St. John’s Prep and the freshman team at Molloy High School respectively, and were recruited to handle the high school division. Keith “Bugsy” Goldberg, who was part of the adult pick up group and coaching CYO basketball at St. Francis, was tasked with the men’s open league, and Bernie Heeran was going to focus on the grammar school division, as well as the high school division.

Much work had to be done to get things ready for play. Although the two courts were good, lighting needed to be secured in order to play at night as intended. Additionally, paving work was needed including the installation of “Court 3.” Fortunately, Mullen was able to reach out to Al DeMatteis of the DeMatteis Corporation, John “Red” Cleary with IBEW Local 3 and Terence Moriarty Sr. of T. Moriarty & Son to get the necessary work done, with much of it donated.

As the summer approached, fundraising continued, and sponsors were secured for the teams. Sponsors from that first year who are still sponsors in 2024 include McManus Mechanical, The Wharf, and Harbor Light. The first Summer Classic Century Club was held, and the first ticket was purchased by Mickey Britt. Desi O’Leary was the first Grand Prize winner of $4,000 and the event raised $5,000 for the Summer Classic. Winters and Ryan both withdrew before play began, but Steve Stathis and Kenny Whelan quickly stepped in to take their places.

The league launched on June 10, 1985, with 12 teams in the men’s open league (six each in East and West divisions), eight teams in the boys high school division, and six teams in the grammar school division for boys in grades 5-8. Danny Rayder of Re Brothers Construction scored the first basket in the Summer Classic. Kevin Moroney was the first pick in the initial high school draft. Games were Monday through Thursday at 6, 7, and 8 p.m. and continued through the summer until playoffs began on August 17. Monday, August 26, was championship night and these were the 1985 championship game results:

Boys Grammar School- W.P.E. Catering 49-Chester Avenue Deli 32

Boys High School -Commadets 62-Bridge Cafe 48

Men’s Open-Blarney Castle 86-Raintower 78

It was an auspicious start, and it was just the beginning.

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