John Neill first came to Stone Harbor reluctantly one summer about fifteen years ago. He was dating the woman who would become his wife, and she was renting by the beach with friends.
“My wife loves the beach, but I told her I was not the kind who could sit all day there,” he says. “I was a bit frustrated.” One morning he took a walk and came upon a pickup basketball game at 96th Street and First Avenue. “I knew I had found my place at the Shore.”
Neill is now known as “the commissioner” of the 96th Street courts. He is 50, but he looks ten years younger and plays at the speed of a teenager. Each weekend morning about 7, as the game revs up, he heads to the court from his house a few blocks away—he moved to Stone Harbor a little more than three years ago from Pennsylvania. He knows he will be able to assemble a blockbuster team for the second game and weather all competition for the rest of the morning.
Although he is only about 5-foot-9, Neill’s fall-away jump shot is legendary in Stone Harbor. What makes him commissioner, though, is his familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of all the 96th Street regulars—young or old.
“Each court has a commissioner, or a mayor, as I call John,” says Joe Hill, who has a summer home in Stone Harbor and a left-handed jump shot that he can hit from anywhere. “He’s the only one who knows everybody’s name, makes the rules, and wins 85 percent of the time.”
Summer hoops is as much a tradition down the Shore as bodysurfing or frozen custard. The games are generally fast but accommodate aging set shots and lackadaisical defense; it is a Shore weekend, after all. Celebrities sometimes show up—Steadman Graham, Oprah Winfrey’s beau, who once starred at Middle Township High School, hits the Stone Harbor court on visits home. A number of top college players tend to congregate summer evenings at Heck Avenue and Neptune Boulevard near Neptune High School.
The play at the Jerome Avenue courts near the Jewish Community Center in Margate tends to be a little bit slower when 87-year-old Red Klotz plays there, still hoisting up a two-hand set shot. Klotz played in the NBA for the Baltimore Bullets in the 1940s but is best-remembered for losing thousands of games to the Harlem Globetrotters as player/coach/owner of their stooge opponents, most often known as the Washington Generals.
Other games, mostly weekend mornings, go on at 34th and Asbury in Ocean City, and Dempsey Park at Sixteenth and Railroad Avenues in Belmar. There are often evening games starting at 7 at Normandy Park near Middletown High School South in Middletown, and midday weekend contests at the courts along JFK Boulevard in Sea Isle City.
Summer basketball has a special place in Frank Mallgrave’s life. A couple years ago, Mallgrave, then 73, keeled over after a game at 96th Street. Fortunately, one of his opponents was a cardiologist. He immediately started pumping Mallgrave’s chest until an ambulance arrived.
“I lived to play another day,” says Mallgrave. “Summer basketball was, indeed, a real life saver.”
Haddonfield resident Robert Strauss has been known to sink the occasional jump shot summer weekend mornings in Stone Harbor.
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