Three Week Transformation: The Fire Island Basketball Tournament

Posted May 17, 2016

I was recently reminded of an article I wrote for RealCity back in 2012 and, with the summer fast approaching, I thought it might make sense to share a version here as well. It’s pasted below exactly as it was written in 2012.

Every Friday during the last three weeks of August, 84 men — from teenagers to those who qualify for AARP membership — descend on a small, blacktop basketball court on Fire Island to test their mettle. They clear their schedule, hustle to catch the right train, switch their work clothes for athletic gear and transform themselves into new people. Every year, for these three weekends at the end of the summer, these businessmen, teachers, real estate tycoons and entrepreneurs become competitive athletes.

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This will mark my fifth year as a part of the Fire Island Basketball Tournament. Like the vast majority of the 84 members, my last non-recreational basketball game was almost 10 years ago when I was in high school. Many of us spend weeknights playing in various leagues around the city, but we knocked athletics down on our priority list years ago. It doesn’t matter that one point guard was an All-Star in a professional lacrosse league or that a long-time tournament captain played basketball in Israel. Like the majority of participants, their athletic careers are in the rearview mirror, having been replaced by jobs that actually earn a stable living.

However, no matter how many years we spend balancing books or grading papers, the competitive fire refuses to fade. For most of the players in the tournament, these three-weeks are the one time each year that life’s priorities can be flipped on their head and clocks can be turned back. Like us, hundreds of thousands of New York residents participate in some form of recreational sports league during a calendar year. For many, these leagues are a form of escape from the daily grind of business meetings, telephone calls and early alarm clocks. It is a moment each week when people allow themselves to relax and have fun with friends. It’s a time to goof around. There is no goofing around in the Fire Island Basketball Tournament.

Photo by Marc Millman

For the past 24 years, the tournament has taken place over the same three weekends in Ocean Beach, Fire Island. The 84 participants are a vast improvement from an event that started with only four teams, but the tournament’s energy has always remained the same. It is not an event for the faint of heart. During summer pick-up games each player, no matter how long they’ve been around, is evaluated on their improvements and newcomers need to attend multiple weekends of pick-up games in a summer before being deemed eligible, or talented enough, for inclusion. Strategies are discussed, changes in ability are dissected and a draft is held. There are no apologies for not picking friends. The draft results are posted without fear of hurt feelings and no promises are made that everybody will play equally. Once the games begin, elbows are thrown, trash is talked and men who have been friends for decades will threaten each other over alleged on-court transgressions. When it’s all said and done, no participation medals will be handed out. This is a competition your parents’ gym teacher would be proud of.

To many, the Fire Island Basketball Tournament is a rec league on steroids. It’s a group of men past their athletic prime, taking themselves too seriously. That would be missing the point. Those of us who’ve worn the jersey of our selected team have been raised on sports. We’ve followed hometown teams since we were small children, watching games on a couch with our fathers. We played through little league, high school, and for some, college. Those with families have now started the cycle over again with their children. Small hats and jerseys are bought at games, allegiances are explained and passions are fostered.

Sports have always been a way for us to contextualize our lives. We remember holding hands with our brothers during the Knicks’ 1994 playoff run the way that some people remember a prize won during an art competition. We remember learning what being truly heartbroken felt like when we watched our teams collapse as kids. Our favorite memories of our fathers are going to games as children. Sports are how we connect the pieces of the past and present in our lives. They’re how we frame our world.

When the tournament rolls around each summer, we no longer need to cheer for anybody else. We stop watching millionaire athletes through a screen or standing by helplessly as our favorite baseball team blows a lead in the stretch run. We get to live out our childhood dreams of hearing an announcer call our name over a PA system or hitting a game-winning shot in front of hundreds of fans. We get to be the ones cheered for, the ones admired by the children looking on. We get three weeks to prove our worth. Not only to our families and teammates, but to the little kid that still lingers inside of us. We get an opportunity to show that some part of us still has what it takes; that those years spent with eyes glued to the television, letting dreams of championships and individual heroics flicker across our sleep were not in vain. Those three weeks are a chance to clear our minds of work, errands and bank accounts to focus on the joy of competitive sports.

When Labor Day has come and gone, and the business suits have replaced the jerseys, we will take to our cars and subways and join everyone else behind a desk or in a board meeting. Underneath the button-down shirts and dress pants, our bodies will be littered with cuts and bruises from the black top. Each sting and dull pain will be a small reminder that for one brief moment we were able to dream again.

Note: In a serendipitous display of fate, the 2012 Fire Island Basketball Tournament ended days later in a miracle shot so spectacular that the clip made the Top 10 plays on SportsCenter. It was an unforgettable moment which perfectly captured the idea that this tournament can really turn back the clock and give hard-working men a chance to live out their athletic dreams.