The following is excerpted from Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class. It is reprinted by permission of the author, Bijan C. Bayne.
One thing black children enjoyed about vacationing on the Vineyard was the opportunity to be themselves. There, young black children didn’t have to prove themselves to whites (as some felt they did in prep school or Boston’s suburbs), nor did they have to prove they were “black enough” for blacks. Even for kids at The Courts from inner cities, being brown-skinned with a ’fro was evidence of their ethnicity. They didn’t have to resort to broken English or fighting or proficiency at disparaging someone’s mom to prove their worth. On the Island, whether among black kids, both natives and vacationers, their value as friends and companions was not based on whether they were game enough to smoke herb or what kind of clothes they had on.
Kids didn’t exclude one another for things they might in other cultural situations, such as “sounding white” when one spoke. On Martha’s Vineyard, they were accepted as they were. As for white people, most figured if you were black and had a summer home, who were they to look down on you? This attitude was shared by both year-’round residents and summer folk. Class and values decisions often trumped complexion in U.S. racial relations. No matter who played basketball together in Oak Bluffs, in terms of class, all were afforded the benefit of the doubt. One cannot understate the significance of that at an age when achieving the approval of one’s peers is everything.
Fans and participants of the summer leagues fondly recall the Martha’s Vineyard versus New Bedford Shootouts on Sundays, which Coach Schofield organized with New Bedford counterpart Peter Britto. Schofield said, “The New Bedford shoot-out was a once-a-season, gala Sunday event with all of the all-star members of both the ABA and the NBA leagues in Oak Bluffs. There was never a parking space to be had. I picked the New Bedford players at the corner service station in Vineyard Haven as they came in on the Scamanchie. Boston Globe All-Scholastic player Steve Gomes of New Bedford Holy Family came over for those highly contested games.”
During the summer of 1974, kids who played or watched basketball at The Courts were listening to music such as the Jackson 5 hit “Dancing Machine.” President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, with his televised speech sandwiched between morning league games at The Courts and afternoon pickup play. That summer of 1974, a family from Delaware, Ohio (not far from Columbus), named the Coles, rented a cottage in Oak Bluffs. There was a fourteen-year-old daughter named Andrea, her twelve-year-old sister Kristen, and their ten-year-old brother Kenneth. Their dad worked for Pittsburgh Paint and Glass. The Coles went down to The Courts to watch a night game. Most of the players were older than they were, but there was a willowy boy from New Jersey about fifteen named “Thorny” who was playing. He would take the ball easily from one end of the court to another, weaving around defenders, to make layups. Thorny was staying with several other kids from Newark, New Jersey. They stayed in a house across the street from the Dancy place, where future Vineyard hoops whiz Marc Rivers grew up. They sat in the bleachers and rooted for Thorny, and they used a lot of slang. When a player missed a layup, they would derisively say, “He jocked,” meaning the guy choked. Or if someone missed an easy shot they would scoff, “He sold out!” Thorny’s clique was mean spirited, probably because he was the only player at The Courts to whom they had ties.
In those days, when kids from the Island, and their summer friends, rode their bikes through West Chop in the direction of Vineyard Haven, the Island kids would point out that an old actress named Gloria Swanson lived in one of the stately homes there. Vineyarder Ehud Noor says that one summer, Boston Celtics star guard Jo Jo White rented a home in West Chop.
There were always prominent basketball figures on the Cape and Islands. NBA general manager Wayne Embry had a home on the Vineyard, and former Vineyard high school basketball player and summer leaguer Randall Fauteux’s father did some work on that house. Veteran NBA coach and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff has a summer home in East Chop and was often seen at The Courts in the 1990s. NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning played basketball at The Courts, and has relaxed on the small beach some people in Oak Bluffs call “The Inkwell.” In the 1990s, Gary Payton and some of his Seattle Supersonics teammates worked out in Katama, near South Beach. One summer during that same decade, Boston Celtics star Dana Barros spent time with youngsters at former Celtic Ernie DiGregorio’s annual basketball camp on the Island. On January 9, 1993, longtime Boston Celtics play-by-play sportscaster Johnny Most died in Hyannis. In 1969, Most was the guest speaker at the first awards banquet for the Vineyard’s church basketball league.
The level of interest in The Courts in the 1990s was nothing like it was during the 1970s. Small kids and teenagers didn’t gravitate toward The Courts as they had two decades earlier. Personal video games, game rooms and arcades in downtown Oak Bluffs, and sports camps on the mainland competed for their attention. Other things did not change. Those who did play, or attended the night games, still brought their music along. In the late 1990s, one could hear teenagers at The Courts listening to recording artists Brandi and Monica. In the night club The Atlantic Connection, hours after the games, longtime friends who met during the summers of the 1970s, partied to LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It,” Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” and Biggie Smalls’ “Players’ Anthem.”
In the summer of 1995, the actor Jaleel White, known for his role as “Steve Urkel” on the popular sitcom Family Matters, played pickup ball at The Courts. The quality of pickup basketball at The Courts was great that summer. One summer league basketball star was Heath Estrella. Heath stood a shade over 6’2″ and had played high school ball for the Vineyard before going on to play at Westfield State in Massachusetts. Heath was distinguished by his smooth movements and league scoring leadership at the “NBA” level. Physically, he looked a little like NFL quarterback Vinny Testaverde and NBA center Rony Seikaly. That summer the Island hired a new school superintendent. Kriner Cash, who had played college basketball with future NBAer Armond Hill at Princeton, moved his family from Washington, D.C., where he had served as dean of the school of education at Howard University. Cash, a Cincinnatian, had two high school–age sons, Kofi and Asil, and a middle school son, Jade. They all played and loved basketball. Kofi had been enrolled at DeMatha, the Washington, D.C., area’s premier prep basketball program, where he was a varsity player just as Amaury Bannister had been when his family moved in 1968. Asil played for Paint Branch High in the Silver Spring, Maryland, area. Of his son Asil’s game, Dr. Cash said, “But they haven’t seen the killer cross” (meaning crossover dribble).
Little did Cash know, “they” had, specifically in the person of a summer league star and Vineyard Regional High School player about Asil’s age named Blair Araujo.
This excerpt from Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class. It is reprinted by permission of the author (Bijan C. Bayne) and Rowman & Littlefield. Born in Boston, Bijan is an award-winning Washington-based freelance columnist and critic, a founding member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, and author of Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball, which was named to the Suggested Reading List of the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004.