Summertime in NYC for a basketball fan is like Disney World for a 5-year old. Saturday, June 7th, the sun was shining, there was a nice breeze, and the sounds of streetball filled the air at Orchard Beach as Hoops in the Sun kicked off its 15th season. It was my first time at anything like it and when it came to making first impressions, HITS didn't disappoint.
The atmosphere was exhilarating. The DJs on site were playing the latest hits while each court had its own MC that functioned as both play-by-play and color commentators. On the court, the tension was palpable. Every player that set foot on the court had an intensity about him that was visible on his face and showed in his effort. The defense was fierce, the fouls were hard, and the trash talk was sharp. But the best parts of the whole ordeal were the games themselves. The teams had unique identities, swaggers, and playing styles. Their coaches preached their sermons from the sidelines, imploring the players to stick to playing within themselves and doing what they do best.
The recurring theme of the day was the team vs the individual. Both games featured one team that had a perceived, considerable talent edge and another that emphasized team cohesion. The opening game featured the defending champions, R2K, who were the epitome of swagger as they entered the court. Their pre-game routine consisted of individual warm-up shots and assorted dunks. They had an air of confidence about them that one would expect from a defending champion. R2K was led by HITS veteran Jomo Belfor, who was the vocal leader and floor general for the defending champs. R2K also featured a new addition to the squad in power forward, Kinu Rochford who was a force in the paint and brought his own brand of high energy, scrappy play to the team. Their opponents were Higher Ground. Admittedly, they didn't look like any thing to write home about during their warm-up routine. They simply went about their business and ran their layup lines like a team. Although they didn't have the swagger that R2K had, you could see the focus in their eyes the moment they stepped on the court. They knew they were the underdogs, but it didn't seem to phase them. In fact, it seemed to motivate them.
Once the game started, Higher Ground showed that they could run with the defending champs and kept R2K on their heels throughout the game. They were devastating in transition, pushing the ball from the backcourt to the frontcourt seemingly instantaneously from crisp outlet passes from their starting center "Big" John Kelly. Point guard, Bryan Geffen kept the defense scrambling to get back by pushing the ball every chance he got. Higher Ground's half-court execution was a thing of beauty as the ball whizzed around the court, gravitating to the open man and frequently resulting in easy baskets off of backdoor cuts and extra passes.
R2K never quite got into a steady rhythm over the course of the game. They started the game by using a full court press to try and force turnovers and get their transition game going. But this strategy seemed to backfire as the game went on because they looked exhausted by the 4th quarter. R2K was definitely the more talented team as they clawed their way back into the game behind some great one-on-one displays. But all that talent wasn't enough to stop Higher Ground's offensive execution when it came down to crunch time.
It seemed that whenever R2K clamped down to make a defensive stand, one man kept rising to the occasion and hitting the big shots to dampen R2K's hopes of a comeback. That man was Zaid Hearst. Going into the game, few, if any of the observers, knew of him. But by the time it ended, he became one of G-Stacks' (HITS' color commentator) favorite nephews. Hearst had a knack for turning broken plays into open shots and hit a series of big shots without taking away from the flow of his team. Down the stretch, he and Geffen led Higher Ground to a debut win over the defending champs R2K, 98-90.
When it comes down to it, basketball is basketball. Basketball brings a bunch of individuals together and gives them a common goal. How they achieve that goal depends on the mindset they approach the game with. It doesn't matter whether the game is played in a park or an arena. All that matters is how you play the game. The scenery and atmosphere of Hoops in the Sun basketball are great packaging for an even better product. That product is real basketball. At its core, the HITS experience is real basketball.