The abrupt departure of the Greater Hartford Pro-Am summer basketball league from Hartford is not of the scope of the Whalers leaving the capital. But for those who love hoops and lament the lack of positive summer diversions for city youth, the move is significant.
For 16 years, the Pro-Am was one of Hartford's signature summer events, a place where you could catch rising stars such as Marcus Camby, Ray Allen, Ryan Gomes and Kemba Walker working on their games against competitive college players. Admission was free. The games were usually packed with a cross-section of urban and suburban, young and old. There were always plenty of teens in attendance. The crowds were normally well-behaved.
Hartford's loss is now Waterbury's gain. The Pro-Am is relocating this year from Classical Magnet on Woodland Street to Crosby High School. The transition to The Brass City is historically relevant because Waterbury, with its Pearl Street Basketball League, was renowned in the 1970s and early 1980s for hosting New England's best and most competitive summer hoops extravaganza. "Swish is the Sound You'll Hear,'' was the motto of Pearl Street and its director, Hubie Williamson.
With games played outdoors, the Pearl Street league was actually a neighborhood barbecue disguised as regional basketball competition. There were burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, music, beverages and lots of trash talk. The smoke you smelled wasn't always from the grill or cigarettes. Back in the day, patrons could watch guys like Wes Matthews, Rod Foster, Corny Thompson, John Bagley, Jim Abromaitis and Sly Williams showcase their skills in the open division. One competitor recalled when a big guy named Daryl Dawkins showed up unannounced, demanded to play and ferociously dunked his way through several games.
Outdoor basketball leagues have become passé. The asphalt courts — tough on joints — became an acute safety and health issue for aspiring college and pros. Indoor leagues are in vogue. Pro-Am co-founder Peter Higgins says his costs to run the league tripled in the last four years, from $9,000 to $32,000; the need for additional security drove much of the cost.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra expressed surprise that the Pro-Am was bolting. There were annual indications, though, that the league struggled with financial stability and a reliable venue. In recent years, the games were played at the hot and worn Fox Middle School; then it was on to the modern and airy Sport & Medical Sciences Academy, which seats about 750 people. Classical Magnet holds about 650. The Crosby gym seats at least 2,000.
This Pro-Am summer venture was a project in need of a sustainable business plan, with commitments from sponsors, a long-term venue and in-kind services in place for the next two to three years. The league is too valuable an amenity for the city to have it operate on a yearly cycle of uncertainty about venue and costs. Higgins, a Hartford native, was forced to look elsewhere, although his desire is to have Hartford as host.
The revival of summer hoops is good news for Waterbury and its rich basketball tradition. Once the word gets out, the Pro-Am should be a hit there.
In the meantime, basketball fans in Greater Hartford can still get their summer hoops fix — and take solace that the Pro-Am could return to Hartford next year.
On Aug. 17 and 18, the 21st annual Osgood Shootout 2013 — billed as "New England's Biggest Summer Men's Basketball Tournament" — will take place in Hard-Hittin' New Britain. Several local pro and college stars normally participate in this well-attended single-elimination weekend tournament at the high school. The event is run ably by tournament director Darwin Shaw, an educator and coach at New Britain High.
Higgins, meanwhile, told me this week that he would still like to see the Pro-Am in Hartford in 2014.
I always thought the Hartford Armory on Capitol Avenue would be a great venue for the league. Rarely used, centrally located, with nearby parking and ample space, the armory was once home to the Hartford Pride, a defunct minor league basketball team. The Pride's hardwood court is believe to be sectioned and locked in storage somewhere. Higgins, by the way, is a Navy veteran. … Hmmm.
Maybe this setback is just temporary. With better communication and planning, Hartford could be positioned to rebound.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun