For most of the tri-state area, Sunday was just another sweltering hot day in a summer full of them. For the basketball fans who gathered at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, it was more than that. For them, the 17th annual Hoops in the Sun All-Star Sunday was a chance to come together with family, friends and fellow hoops enthusiasts to celebrate the special culture of New York streetball. One was witness to stars letting loose in a fun celebrity all-star contest as well as some of the city’s best young talent battling head-to-head in an intense exhibition game.
Hoops in the Sun is a summer streetball tournament that was started 17 years ago by Joe “Pops” Cruz, who passed away in 2004, and is continued today by his sons Joe and Randy Cruz. The tournament sets itself apart from other similar New York City streetball leagues with its location, just a few steps away from the sands of Orchard Beach, which Randy Cruz describes as being “basically like Venice Beach in [Los Angeles, California], except on the east side.”
“I think we have the best venue,” he noted later with a smile. “I’m not trying to be biased, but I think we have the best venue.”
The day truly kicked off with the “All The Way Up” Classic celebrity all-star game. Featuring such stars as DJ Bobbito Garcia, ESPN Radio’s Robin Lundberg, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, and SiriusXM’s Lisa Ann (who served from the sideline as a coach), the game was fun and watchable, which is shocking when you consider how celebrity all-star games usually go.
The day’s main event, of course, was the All-Star game itself, a face-off between Hoops in the Sun’s own and the LES Express. The matchup was tight and competitive, featuring an emphasis on passing and team play not usually found in streetball games. It ended with a jaw-dropping buzzer-beater three by LES Express’s Abby Ruple, an exhilarating finish to a game that had become an increasingly intense and physical back-and-forth in its final minutes.
To talk only about what happened on the court Sunday, though, is to miss the most vital part of Hoops in the Sun: the atmosphere. To talk about the atmosphere is really to talk about the people, the throngs that congregate around the court and make the event what it is. And not just the big names that show up, though they do drop by frequently—Knicks legend Larry Johnson was milling about the sidelines on Sunday, for example—but rather the children in bathing suits, running back and forth from the court to the beach, the teenagers hanging by the sidelines hoping to get a word or a picture with their favorite players, the older men and women sitting in the bleachers and standing on chairs, craning their necks to get a look at the action and then turning to debate about what they see.
Those people, the regular fans, are the true lifeblood of the tournament. To witness them ooh-ing and aah-ing at every show of gravity-defying athleticism, laughing at missed dunks and air balls, bobbing along with the music blaring from the DJ booth and growing tense in the waning moments of close games is exhilarating in and of itself. It’s what makes the games feel important, so much so that it can even give you the impression that Hoops in the Sun has already achieved the status of an institution in New York City ball on par with Harlem’s Rucker League or Washington Heights’s Dyckman Basketball Tournament. In other words, it’s easy to walk around the event, take in the atmosphere, and think, “This must be the pinnacle for HITS—it can’t get much better than this.”
Randy Cruz doesn’t see it that way. For Cruz, the present is good, but the future is where the true promise lies, and there is always more work to be done. The way he sees it, 17 years in, this is just the beginning for the summer tournament.
“I think the legacy [of Hoops in the Sun] is still unanswered. We’re still 17 years in, we’re still early,” said Cruz. “… The legacy is still unwritten because you never know what’s going to happen next year and the year after that … We want to be the best, we strive to be the best … And there’s always something new to work on next year and the years following. So, the legacy is still unwritten, but at least people know when they come here, they’re coming to one of the best tournaments not only in the city but in the country.”
Writing that legacy is hard work, and even though the Cruz brothers are omnipresent at the event, seemingly everywhere at once as they bounce around the court, chatting with fans here, introducing Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. there, Randy admits that they rarely get a chance to appreciate the fruits of their labor.
“We enjoy it, but sometimes we get a little overwhelmed with everything … but it’s just the nature of what we do,” he says. “It’s our 17th All-Star, so it’s nothing new to us. But every year is always a challenge to try to sit down and enjoy what’s going on. We don’t really get a chance to enjoy what we put on, but just by seeing the crowd that’s here, how they react and everything … [our satisfaction comes from] just knowing that the fans had a good time.”
That atmosphere of fans having a good time is exactly what one should expect when checking out this event, for the first time or the fiftieth. It’s worth going if you live in the area, and if you haven’t been, you should make it a priority.
“Everybody that comes to Hoops in the Sun will get the only beach-side basketball/streetball venue in the city,” said Cruz. “You get the great games, the great atmosphere, the great backdrop, you get the beach, and great competition from, of course, the five boroughs; you never know who’s going to be out here. So, if you’re not from here, you should check it out at least one time in your life, and if you are from here, you’re missing out. Like I said, it’s our 17th year; we end in three weeks, so try to get out here as soon as possible.”