Niantic Park basketball brings out the best

Oak Bluffs summer basketball league brings the year-round and summer Martha’s Vineyard community together on the court.

0

The scene at Niantic Park in Oak Bluffs was downright bucolic last Thursday evening. The humid air had cooled to the point of comfort, birds were celebrating the temperature change, and people of all ages were spread around the newly refurbished facility. The sandbox, the swings, and the two new basketball courts were full.

Marc Rivers, Oak Bluffs recreation director and a longtime Niantic Park fixture, first as player and now supervisor, was busy sorting out night three of the men’s summer basketball league. The league plays every Tuesday and Thursday for 10 weeks, with playoffs to follow. Marc is the man in charge.

There was a time when this would have been a leisurely evening for Marc — team rosters set, everyone paid up, the boxes of team shirts long since emptied, no hassles or surprises. That is no longer the case.

“When the league started in the early ’70s, we had enough players for four different age divisions,” Marc told The Times. “We had the Island kids, plus about 60 summer kids whose families came in June and stayed until school began in September. Families don’t do that anymore, and the local kids have busy lives. So we’re scrambling a bit.”

At 5:45 pm, 30 minutes before game one of the night’s tripleheader, Marc was in troubleshooter, rather than leisure, mode. The conversation with a Times correspondent was peppered with brief interruptions, each of them prompting a polite “Excuse me for one moment” from Marc.

Two high school boys, looking eager and sincere, showed up for the first time this summer, hoping to join the league; a neighbor expressed concern about a small boulder placed alongside Wamsutta Avenue that several motorists had been unable to avoid; a Boston-area college student would be around for a week or two and wanted to sign up short-term; various players approached to pay the balance of their fee; and anyone cutting across the newly seeded dirt areas received a gentle jab — “Excuse me, you came all the way down the walkway but now you’re cutting the corner to save 10 feet?” Through it all, Marc’s natural smile was in place.

Meanwhile, he had one eye on the upper court. Equipped with lights and a scoreboard, it is the game court. The Red and Gray teams were warming up for the evening’s 6:15 opener. Two of Marc’s staff were setting up the scorer’s table, donning referee jerseys, and chatting with the players.

But Marc was shaking his head. “Uh-oh … this doesn’t look good. We finally had six full teams on Tuesday, but I’m only seeing three guys in red. And tonight is the deadline. We do not want a forfeit.”

He checked his clipboard. “Where are those two high school kids?” He called, looking around. Minutes later, the two boys were paid up and sprinting toward the upper court, red shirts in hand. There would be a 6:15 game.

Juggling rosters and arranging partial fees for short-term players is part of Marc’s new reality. As he explained, it goes beyond the decline in summer vacationers. “It’s hard to get commitments out of kids,” he said. “They have a lot of distractions. People weren’t showing up. So I made an ultimatum. Tonight is the last chance to sign up and pay. We’ll see.”

A stroll around the grounds was pleasant and enlightening. The boulder in question was indeed sporting several fender scrapes. The stands were filling up with family members and pals of the Vineyard high school hoopsters who play in the league. Around the playground, young children and their chaperones presented a picture of total midsummer relaxation. On the new pickleball courts, several preteens traced lazy figure-eights on their bikes.

Meanwhile, on the upper court, Red was hanging tough with a strong Gray team, thanks in part to strong play by the team’s two newest members. Red was within one point with minutes to go when the drama was interrupted by a prolonged screeching sound from the general vicinity of Wamsutta Avenue. Sure enough, another car had found the boulder. By the time fans had refocused on the game, Gray had hit two jumpers to win it.

The 7:15 pm game between Orange and Blue was dominated by the former, allowing time for a chat with the two red-shirted rookies. Santiago and Danny, ages 20 and 18, are brothers from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and have been coming to the Island in the summer for many years. They are skilled players, and also know their basketball history. Despite naming the Bulls and Timberwolves as favorite teams, they knew that the Boston Celtics and Bill Russell had won 11 titles. So we parted as friends.

As the Maroon and Black teams prepared to tap off for the the 8:15 pm game, Marc was pulling a ref’s shirt over his head and grabbing a whistle. In response to one last question, he surveyed the scene before him. “Just look. You’ve got another game about to start and a nice crowd in the stands. A couple of pickup games are happening on the lower court. You can still see kids on the swings and climbing equipment, and there’s laughter coming from the playground. It took a long time to get here, but yes, I’m happy with what I see.”

There were many on hand Thursday evening who shared that sentiment.

As he cut across the dirt toward the court, a voice called out from one of the benches: “Hey! No walking on the new grass. That’ll be 10 pushups.”

That brought a hearty chuckle from Marc, a man who was clearly in his element.