Eighth annual Battle in the Bluffs is a slam-dunk

Hoopsters ages 6 to 18 play hard and learn in Oak Bluffs. 

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The eighth annual Battle in the Bluffs basketball clinic unfolded over two glorious summer days at two Oak Bluffs sites, Niantic Park in town and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. About 90 boys and girls ages six to 18 participated in the event, which ran on July 5 and 6.

The clinic originated in 2012 under the direction of Ian Thomas-Minor, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who graduated from MVRHS in 2002, and Arthur Andrews of Connecticut and Florida. This year’s clinic had Ian overseeing the six- to 13-year-old program at Niantic Park, and current co-organizer Tamar Adams running a smaller camp for ages 14 to 18 at the high school. Each was ably assisted by a team of assistant coaches drawn from on- and off-Island.

Ian and Tamar go back to their college basketball days on Long Island, where their respective schools were rivals. They share a passion for basketball and for the role it can play in helping young people develop life skills. Ian puts it this way: ”If you engage in a child’s passion, you can empower them to rise above adversity. To succeed in basketball, you need to communicate, be resilient in facing challenges, and believe in yourself. We want kids to develop that kind of social and emotional intelligence.”

Toward that end, Ian has partnered with nonprofit groups in cities like New York and Detroit to bring around 30 inner-city kids to the Island each year for the clinic. “It helps increase their awareness of the world, and allows them to meet a wide range of people,” said Ian. He took the opportunity to thank Ocean Park Realty for help in housing these kids.

The scene at Niantic Park was buoyant, reminiscent of a schoolyard playground. The six-to-13 age format called for drills and fundamentals on Friday followed by round-robin team play on Saturday. Young faces scrunched in determination and radiated with glee; coaches instructed, demonstrated, and gave high-fives; adults looked on proudly, calling out encouragement. And the exuberant Ian, microphone in hand, kept everyone moving, concentrating, smiling, and … hydrating. 

When a pass went awry, Ian asked cheerfully over the loudspeaker, “Did you look at your teammate’s face? Was your teammate ready for that pass?” After a missed open layup, “Oh my. You gotta finish your breakfast!” A successful shot brought a loud “Cha-ching!” And mindful of the sweltering sun, Ian announced “Washout” every 10 minutes, signaling a water break. 

During one such break, 8-year-old Anthony Silva of Oak Bluffs received some special motivation in the form of a through-the-fence-hand-kiss from his mother. “Anthony got interested in basketball last year, and wants to improve,” said Taissa Silva. “The clinic is very well-run, and we’re happy to be part of it.” 

Another satisfied adult was Irvin Heath of New Jersey, whose grandsons Kirk and Heath Wade, ages 9 and 7, were enjoying their second Battle in the Bluffs. “The clinic is a wonderful way to turn vacation into a constructive activity,” he said. “The boys are having fun and are also getting instruction-based basketball training.”

Kenneth Pannell of Brooklyn, N.Y., echoed that sentiment, and added, “Little Ken loves basketball like nothing else … it’s the only way I can punish him.” 

The players were equally enthusiastic. Boston resident Charlie Reisig, age 12, is a basketball clinic veteran but a Battle in the Bluffs first-timer. “The drills are excellent,” he said, “and the coaches give you lots of good tips. The Saturday games provide motivation to play your best. I hope to be back.”

Twelve-year-old Mia Minor, Ian’s niece, was participating in her second clinic, and appreciates how the coaches explain the importance of each drill. “They don’t just show you how to do it,” she said. “They tell you why we do a drill and how it helps you as a player.” 

The atmosphere at the high school was equally positive, but more serious, as Tamar and his coaches focused on “elite” team and individual skills. These older players had an eye on their upcoming high school basketball seasons, and were looking to improve their stock as complete players. 

In one drill, they worked on a driving move from the right wing that included a final between-the-legs dribble in the lane before a finishing layup. The concentration was intense as players sought to polish their technique and master that final dribble. 

Tamar then demonstrated a full-court individual dribbling drill involving diagonal cuts and ambidextrous ball control. As an extra challenge, players had to execute a low, defensive shuffle along the baselines before resuming the full-court dribble. 

This was a grinding drill, and the players gave it all they had for 10 minutes before a merciful whistle allowed them to bend over and catch their breath. Then it was Gatorade all around.

“We want kids to grow as players,” said Tamar during the break. “We teach individual skills through the drills, and team concepts through four-on-four scrimmaging. The idea is that they improve as all-around players and leave with new goals to concentrate on.”

That message is getting through. Jackson Wilmot is 15, and about to enter high school in Manhattan, N.Y. He joined the clinic this summer with one goal in mind: to be the best ninth-grade basketball player he can be. “To be your best,” he said, “you need to have the fundamentals. That’s why I’m here.” 

As the action wound down on Saturday, Ian reflected on the Island’s role in the clinic’s success. “I think Martha’s Vineyard provides a unique power to shift perspective of what’s possible, for kids and adults alike,” he said. “It takes more than good intentions to get things done. You have to put yourself out there.” 

For legions of young basketball players, the Island and the Battle in the Bluffs are a match made in heaven.