With two seconds left in the 2012 Fire Island Basketball Tournament championship game, first-round player Zuri Pavlin drained a turn-around jumper to give the white team a two-point lead. Fans jumped from their seats screaming. Zuri’s teammates swarmed him, shoving each other, pumping their fists, sweating. The game was decidedly over, but the maroon team called timeout. The crowd murmured. What could they do with those two seconds on the clock? What could they possibly salvage? The whistle blew and Maroon burst into action, scrambling across the court, fighting to get open for a final shot. Larry “Lala” Bressler, a fifty-something-year-old veteran of the tournament known for his specialty three-pointer, was the only hope. He caught the inbounds, turned, took two awkward dribbles, and then, from the half-court line, chucked the ball with one hand like it was a baseball. Up it went. The crowd froze and waited. Then, the shot went in. The buzzer sounded and Maroon won by one point, cueing the chaos.
During the last three weeks of every summer, the Fire Island Basketball Tournament spreads itself out over a small court in the town of Ocean Beach, New York. This has been the rule for the past 31 years, since the tournament began with four teams. Now, the tournament has swelled in size and intensity. It’s a big deal. There’s a draft, there are team selectors and team captains and there’s even a hall of fame. College athletes and high school varsity stars don jerseys next to limping men in their sixties and skinny fifteen-year-old boys. Altogether, they fill nearly 10 teams. The tournament has historically been mostly men, with one or two women playing each year.
The community is strong: in the words of Tournament Commissioner Rick Kushner, “Friendships made here will last a lifetime.” But the competition is stronger: as long-time player Eric Samulski wrote in a 2012 article for Realcity, this “is not an event for the faint of heart.” This is a tournament where players cut hours from their work week to draw up plays and substitution charts, discuss strategy with their teammates, and send snide texts to their friends on other teams. It’s also a tournament rampant with sprained ankles and pulled muscles, stomach cramps and dehydration, thrown elbows and arguments with the refs. But in all the tournament craziness, nothing has matched Lala’s 2012 game-winning shot, which was so miraculous it earned second place on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays.
I saw it live. I was eleven years old, but it feels so recent: The ball meeting the inside of the net with silence, disbelief… The fans raiding the court, roaring, screaming, pulling at their hair… The energy: thick enough to feel. I stayed in my seat, smiled, breathed an inaudible “woah,” and turned to my twin sister to see if she too recognized the enormity of the situation. This was history. If everything went according to plan, I would only have to wait four years until I was old enough to play.
My dad has Fire Island in his blood. His parents had a house out there and he spent his summers as a kid biking between his friends’ yards and the beach, playing every sport imaginable. Basketball was always his specialty. He and his posse were there for the tournament’s inauguration and he has played on this court every summer since — minus a few years after I was born. When he started playing again, I went to all his games. He was older and slower than in his prime, so he wasn’t a star when I watched him, but he never missed an open shot. In 2009, he was among the first players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame — an accolade from winning MVP 15 years prior. I remember the ceremony, the family picture we took and men from the tournament approaching me with stories of my dad’s former prowess.
My dad’s parents sold their Fire Island house before I was born. So my time there has always been limited to the end of summer—tournament season—staying at a family friend’s house or a rental. When I first started watching my dad, he always missed the play-offs by one spot, and every year that tormented me. I did all I could to help: I sat on the edge of his team’s bench, filled up his teammates’ water bottles, and spent the weeks between games staring at the standings list online and willing it to change. But most of all, I waited for my own chance to compete.
Family is a big part of the tournament. Fathers dream of the day they can finally play with their sons. It was never a question of if I would play, but how good I would be once I did.
Yet as the bubble of time keeping me from the tournament shrunk to two years, then one, my excitement dimmed and I felt something new rising inside me: fear. First, fear of the competition. I was never that good at basketball. My specialty was defense, but I could not guard these powerful men who weighed twice as much as me and had been playing basketball their whole lives. I felt too scrawny, too small and too unskilled to play.
Second, fear of the community. I was not afraid of the people in the community. I was afraid I would not fit in, that I didn’t belong. I didn’t have a posse of Fire Island friends to enter the tournament with because I didn’t spend my whole summers there. My only link to the community was my dad and the men of the tournament do not stick together on the basis of blood alone.
Love for sports is the glue of this community. The tournament welcomes these men with open arms, guides them from their work, and lets them revel in the thrill of competitive athletics. It’s an opportunity for them to find a deeper meaning in their lives. As Samulski said in his article: Sports are “how we frame our world.”
But I don’t frame my world through sports. Athletic competition is not the spine of my existence. It’s not the spark from my childhood that only the Fire Island Basketball Tournament can nurture. I’ve played sports my whole life, but I was never especially talented. I was one of the worst athletes in my age group at sleep-away camp. The only sport I was ever good at was soccer, and even then I was just one of the better kids on my travel team’s B squad. I ran cross country and track throughout high school and I placed well, but that’s not really a sport. Though I still miss the days when I played soccer and basketball, that nostalgia is nothing next to the bloodlust the Fire Island men feel when the whistle blows at the first game each year.
When I turned fifteen, I decided not to play in the tournament. And now I am eighteen and I still have not played. Men from the tournament approach me and ask why. “Maybe next year,” I say. Or, “I don’t play basketball anymore.” I feel uncomfortable watching the games sometimes, sitting in the stands with my mom and sister and not on the bench with my dad.
Though recently, something unusual has happened. My dad’s team has been doing well. Over the past five years, we missed the playoffs only once. When I was sixteen, we dominated from start to finish. We went on an 8-1 rampage, cruised our way to and through the playoffs, and then won the championship game by nine points. After almost a decade of hard losses, crushed playoff ambitions, and disappointment, I was so excited I forgot I wasn’t on the team.
This summer was different. I left early to start college. I watched my dad’s first game and that was it. My parents sent me updates, but the Fire Island Basketball Tournament cannot be communicated over text. I couldn’t offer any advice. I couldn’t even care—not the way I usually did.
My dad won the championship again this year. This time, the victory was his. Not ours.
Now he talks of retiring soon. He has a bad shoulder. Both of us are being pulled away: him by his age and injury and me by college and adulthood. In a few years, the tournament might not be a part of our lives. Sometimes, I regret not playing. I missed my window. I don’t want it to end this way. I don’t want it to end any way.
But, for now I know everything about the tournament. I know the players: their skill levels, personalities, and specialties. I know who will drain every three-pointer if you leave him open and who will steal any ball tossed too close. I know who doesn’t pass enough and who complains to the refs after every call. I’ve been watching the tournament for years, and I’ve been paying attention. This is my level of involvement. I am not a part of it, but I am not apart from it. I am something else, something undefined.
Andrew Kornfeld | firstname.lastname@example.org