Hoops In The Sun: More Than Just A Family Business
The Venice Beach of the East Coast wrapped up its eleventh season with another memorable summer.
by Franklyn Calle
Mike Glover’s 30-point performance that lead Bingo’s All Stars to a 120-115 victory over the Sean Bell All-Stars and capture the Hoops in the Sun title this past weekend wrapped up the tournament’s 11th season. The game could arguably be referred to as the greatest game in the tourney’s history, after a five hour rain delay caused the game to be taken indoors to the Baychester Community Center, and ending the night with a thrilling game that was decided in the final possessions. Glover, who has transferred to Iona College and is expected to make an immediate impact on the team, scored 12 points in the final 10 minutes of play. His teammate Keydren Clark finished with a game-high 34 points, earning him MVP honors.
The thrilling game concluded HITS 11th season. Highly touted as the “East Coast’s Venice Beach,” Hoops in the Sun today draws approximately 1,000 spectators every weekend, something Rufino Joe “Pops” Cruz would be very proud of. Joe was inspired in launching the summer basketball tournament after a business trip to California in 1999. He ran over 20 Genesis Convertibles stores, as well as some tuxedos stores. While on the west coast, Joe decided to visit Venice Beach. Impressed by the extraordinary panorama of having basketball courts right on the beach with the sea as its background, Joe returned to New York City motivated to launch a similar one on the east coast. He pitched the idea to his sons Joe Jr. and Randy, but they weren’t as buoyant about it at first. “What the hell you talking about? How are we supposed to start one [a tournament]? We don’t know many people,” Randy says of his reaction at the time to his father’s idea of starting a summer basketball tournament.
After getting everyone on board, the tournament was launched the following year. They decided to go with Orchard Beach in the Bronx as the venue after its $5,000,000 renovation the previous year. Also, Orchard Beach was Joe’s (Sr.) favorite summer spot and frequently took Randy and Joe Jr. there when they were young kids.
With no sponsors or prominent basketball players taking part in the tournament, Hoops in the Sun commenced in the summer of 2000. “Not many people even knew that there was a beach in the Bronx,” says Randy jokingly while being serious simultaneously. “I think that the biggest thing is that no one knows where Orchard Beach is. And when you mention that there is a Beach in the Bronx, they have no clue what you are talking about,” adds Joe Jr.
“Everything was brand new to us. Not really knowing a lot of people in the streetball community, we felt like we had to get people on our staff that could get teams and the word out that we were starting a basketball tournament in the Bronx,” says Randy. “The first year was just like any other first year for any business. You just want to get your name out there and get a couple of players. You know, NBA players and college standouts. We got better every summer.”
It began with 8 men teams and a girls division. Every year it just got bigger, stronger, and eventually flourished into what it has presently become. By the second year, sponsors began considering investing in HITS and adidas joined in. Joe Jr. confesses that it took about four to six years to get to the level they envisioned. Between the ’04-06 they started cracking the buzz, and now the Cruz brothers are aiming to create their own legacy as one of the best tournaments in the city. Throughout the years adidas, Nike, K1X, Mountain Dew, Sony Playstation, SLAM, New York Yankees, among many others, have partnered up with league.
“It’s all about selling your brand in the meetings, in emails, or you even gotta show them pictures or videos to make them really understand what we’re trying to do out here,” says Randy in regards to their approach in getting sponsorships for the tournament.
“Basically our biggest selling point is that we have the beach environment, that we have a safe tournament that you can come to, and that we are basically the only summer tournament with two basketball courts for our men’s and youth league,” adds Joe Jr. “As businessmen, we want to provide access to our players, access to our fans and access to the community.”
The global recession that hit late 2008 had a tremendous affect on Hoops in the Sun and its sponsors. Last year, for the first time since its inception HITS was without a sponsor for their uniforms. Not having an apparel sponsor meant that the Cruz brothers (Randy in white, Joe Jr. in blue) had to dig deep in their pockets to keep the tourney running. Randy admits that he reconsidered whether it would be worth it to continue to come out of pocket for another year, but then again he felt like they owed it those that came out summer after summer, and most importantly his father, whose vision and legacy lives on through them.
“My brother and I felt like we still had a duty to commit to the Bronx community. Like I always say, the apparel company does not make the tournament. We still gotta go out there and provide the best recreational outlet for the people in the Bronx,” says Randy, noting that Nike stepped in this year to provide the uniforms in a long-term deal.
But last year wasn’t the first time HITS had to reconsider whether to continue with the tourney or not. In August 16, 2004, while the playoffs were set to get underway, Joe “Pops” Cruz Sr. passed away at the age of 57. The Cruz brothers, who are known around New York City as the “Maloof Brothers,” the savvy businessmen and owners of the Sacramento King and ARCO Arena., considered and debated on whether they would continue with the annual summer event.
“It was a tough time, and my brother and I talked about whether we should continue doing it or not. We felt like we had an obligation to the fans and taking the tournament away from them wouldn’t have been fair to them,” Randy recalls. “The passing of our father was devastating to all of us. I just think that we both stepped up in a role where we wanted to make sure that we represent for our father and his legacy,” Joe Jr. adds.
The first real big name to come though Orchard Beach was Tracy McGrady in July 7th, 2002. He played ball for a while and then signed autographs for the kids, which eventually led to a long line forming out of the park, named Joe “Pops” Cruz Courts (below, next to McGrady) after the HITS founder. McGrady’s appearance was in part due to adidas and Mountain Dew, who were sponsors at the time. Both of the Cruz brothers agree that this is hands down the most memorable moment in HITS history so far. They felt like the visit had graduated their tournament to an entirely different level. “We were like if Tracy McGrady can come to the beach then anyone can come to the beach,” says Joe Jr.
Soon after, other NBA stars followed suit. Tim Thomas, Smush Parker, Ron Artest, Marcus Williams, Joakim Noah, Lamar Odom, Devin Harris are some of the big names that made their way to the Bronx. NBA referee Zach Zarba also makes appearances annually. Local college players are also regulars. On any given weekend you can catch players from St. John’s, Seton Hall, Rutgers, Iona College, and Manhattan College getting a run in. Last year, St. John’s sophomore guard Dwight Hardy turned heads and had everyone buzzing after averaging 37 points per game. Former Cincinnati standout Kenny Satterfield can also be found at HITS every summer. Satterfield held the record for most points scored after putting up 62 points in 2006, before surpassing his own record with a 68-point performance in ’08.
This summer, former Seton Hall forward Mike Glover, former Red Storm guard and now Kansas State-bound Omari Lawrence, Iona College junior guard Scott Machado, and Satterfield have been some of the top performers. In addition, some other well known young college talent have made appearances in the 10-week tournament. Villanova’s incoming freshman forward Jayvaughn Pinkston stopped by the season inaugural weekend and put up a 20-point outing. Arizona Wildcat sophomore Lamont Jones had a 32-point performance in week two. Mount Vernon HS senior Jabari Hinds, who is being heavily recruited by big-time schools, proved that he can hold his own against grown men with a game-high 34 points against Rosedale Blazers. The previous day, Hardy had dropped 37 points on Warriors 4 Christ.
Hoops in the Sun is a member of probably the biggest streetball market in the world. In the summertime, you can find a tournament every 10 blocks or so throughout the city. Some of the renowned ones are the Entertainer Basketball Classic at Rucker Park, Dyckman Park, and the West 4th courts.
Joe is a director for an after-school program and his brother also works with kids in the education field. They’ve gotten their business skills by watching their father start and run the tournament from scratch.
Randy estimates that they spend around $25,000 every summer on the tournament, citing some of their expenses as paying for bleachers, permit, insurance, championship & all-star awards, tents, banners, and replacing personal items, among many others.
It is for that reason that any profit they make here and there goes right back into the tourney. The price to run one of the most successful tournaments in the nation is an expensive one, but it’s one that the Cruz family has been aiming for since they got in the game. “If there is any idea that we want to attack on, then we are going to take any money we earn and put it right back into the program. I don’t think we’ve reached our peak yet. I think we got ways to go. We are a year or two from becoming the best. We are always striving hard for that,” says Randy. With that in mind and the 2010 campaign in the books, preparations for next year’s league have begun.
Somewhere up above, Joe Sr. is smiling down assured that his sons are doing just fine keeping the saga alive.