A summer basketball tradition turns 20, with help from the Carl V. Bini Memorial Foundation

Michael Tatar Staten Island Advance

From Michael Jordan to Lebron James, Artie Conroy’s summer basketball loop at Clove Lakes Park has become a pillar of youth basketball competition on Staten Island during the dog days of summer.

Members of the championship team in the Carl V Bini Memorial Hoops League celebrate with members of Bini's fire company.Photo courtesy of Anthony Rapacciuolo 

Members of the championship team in the Carl V Bini Memorial Hoops League celebrate with members of Bini’s fire company.Photo courtesy of Anthony Rapacciuolo

And that tradition of excellence and competition turns 20 this Saturday.

“You don’t go 20 years unless people love and respect it,” said Conroy, longtime basketball coach on Staten Island.

The league has had its ups and downs and three years ago was forced to reinvent itself. But the popular circuit continues to draw Richmond County’s best young cagers, ranging from ages 10 to 17, out of their houses, away from “video games” and “the Internet” to compete in some good old-fashioned basketball.

Started as an idea

Conroy began his search for a summer league in 1995 for some of his high schoolers when he was the freshman basketball coach at Monsignor Farrell. Traveling to Queens and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Conroy was discontent [sic] and disappointed at the disorganization and disorder of the off-Island leagues. With a lack of leagues available on the Island, Conroy was poised to create a league suitable for the diehard high school players present here.

It was in Brooklyn that Conroy met Gerry Erasme, Nike’s Regional Brand Marketing Manager. And once Conroy decided he could run a much more fluent, formulated organzation at home on Staten Island, Erasme was on board.

“Once the name Nike got involved, people automatically wanted to get into it,” stressed Conroy.

Staten Island became the fourth of seven Nike sites in New York, serving over 500 kids on the Island.

In 1996, the first year of existence, all divisions were filled within days. The league started with 12-under, 14-under and 16-under divisions.

At its pinnacle, the Nike/Swoosh League housed eight divisions with a whopping 42 teams and over 540 players.

“When I used to go to Nike meetings, Erasme used to introduce me as the man that created the Staten Island monster,” laughed Conroy.

The program became the archetype for summer basketball leagues on the Island.

Nike out, Carl V. Bini in

In 2012, Conroy’s popular summer league faced its own type of Mayan apocalypse when Nike made the decision to cut funding to the league.

But this was not just on Staten Island. Nike shuttered the entire NYC program, which had welcomed over 3,500 kids across the seven sites each summer.

“It was obviously a shock. But when they stopped it, I wasn’t about to stop the league,” said Conroy, “I’m there for the kids and this league is for the kids and the fans.”

Conroy prided himself on being the cheapest league on the Island with the best competition.

Shortly after hearing the bad news, Conroy learned through his confidant, Anthony Rapacciuolo, of the Carl V. Bini Memorial Fund. The fund sponsors several charitable causes like Bikers for Bini in memory of fallen Rescue 5 firefighter Carl Bini, who perished during the 9/11 attacks.

After getting in touch with Massimo Didonna, Bini’s son-in-law and founder of the Bini Fund, Conroy had found a new sponsor and one much closer to home.

In addition to the primary fiscal backing of the Bini Fund, the league receives basketballs and shorts from Nate Gelles at Lid Sports, formerly Anaconda Sports.

Three years later, the league is flourishing with 32 teams and 416 players primed for this year’s competition. It is $650 a team, which includes everything — uniforms, referee fees, courts, first and second-place trophies.

With the help of several assistants and devoted workers such as longtime assigner Bill Kuhens, a staple of the youth basketball community on Staten Island, the league has “no intention of stopping.” Because of other obligations, Pat Deforte will be the new assigner this summer.

“I don’t think it missed a beat. It’s the same league it’s always been, family-like, competitive,” added Conroy. “Cloves Lake is the Central Park of Staten Island and when things are going here, it runs itself.”

Future of basketball on the Island

A lot has changed since 1996 when Conroy founded the summer league. So I caught up with the current Moore varsity coach to get his take on the current status of basketball on the Island:

“More kids are playing it, but I do not think the commitment is there like it was in the past. The Internet, social media and all these things, there’s a lot going on for kids these days. The game meant a lot more to kids back in the day.”

Conroy expressed disappointment at the lack of commitment to one team or one sport, stating even the parents are “burnt out” as there is no rest for the kids between seasons. However, he is optimistic about the sport’s future and the league.

“Die-hard basketball is still on this Island and leagues like mine are for the kids that play ball no matter what,” Conroy said.

And “with the help of God” Conroy expects to be running the league for another 20 years.


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