One of Riverhead’s biggest sporting events takes place each August, tucked away on the town basketball court on Horton Avenue.
Despite very little promotion, it manages to draw thousands of spectators, as 10 teams from Riverhead and as far away as New York City and New Jersey sweat it out for bragging rights and a cash prize.
But the true meaning of the annual Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament is in its name. Co-founded in 2007 by Riverhead residents Dwayne Eleazer and Larry Williams, the event aims to get young men off the streets and onto the court, where the hope is that the bond of basketball will build the relationships that discourage encounters that too often end in tragedy.
“You can come on a basketball court and play without any violence, you might see that person in the street,” Mr. Eleazer told the Riverhead News-Review in 2011. “[You’ll think] I played ball with him, we can talk this out.”
For organizing a successful event with a powerful message that has created a lasting legacy of positivity in Riverhead, Mr. Eleazer and Mr. Williams are the News-Review’s 2016 Community Leaders of the Year.
This past summer’s tournament achieved several milestones. It marked the event’s 10th year and was played on a newly resurfaced court the Riverhead Town recreation department had finished just days before, a project town recreation superintendent Ray Coyne said might not have happened if not for the tournament. For the first time, the event also featured a fundraiser barbecue, raising money to increase the cash prize to more than $3,000, increase fees paid to referees and pay for future court improvements.
Although a heat wave might have led some to doubt the weekend event could be played, the athletes had a different plan, playing game after game on two of the hottest days of the year. During the double elimination tournament, 10 teams compete until just one is left standing as champion.
“It really is a great tournament,” Mr. Coyne said, adding that he was skeptical when Mr. Eleazer approached him about the event a decade ago but quickly realized the positive impact it has on the community. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere and it brings the whole community together.”
An homage to hoops classics like the famed Rucker Park event in New York City, the tournament attracts top regional talent, including past Suffolk County high school standouts and NCAA Division I players. Even former NBA player A.J. Price, an Amityville High School graduate and UConn star, is said to have participated in the tournament in the past.
“It really is an excellent idea,” said Riverhead Town Councilman Tim Hubbard, a retired police officer who said youth sports introduced him to Mr. Eleazer and Mr. Williams more than a decade ago. “Especially now, in light of all that’s going on in communities everywhere. It has a definite positive value for Riverhead, without a doubt.”
Mr. Hubbard recalled attending the event as a police officer and viewing it as a great opportunity for law enforcement and the community to interact on a personal level.
“An event like that lets everybody see how much we need each other,” he said.
Mr. Williams echoed that sentiment in a 2013 interview.
“If the guys know the officer, and the officers know them, if there’s a problem you’re more apt to talk to each other,” he said.
Of course, while a basketball tournament might help deter violence, it can’t actually end it. The shirts worn by participants, which feature the names of Riverhead area residents lost in violent incidents, are a stark reminder of that fact. For years, the back of the tees have read: “In memory of Javon Reddick, Greg Riddick, Kelly Gilliam, A.C. McElroy, Tara Stevens, Catherine Worthington and Calvin Butts.”
In 2011, Mr. Eleazer told the News-Review they didn’t “have any more room to add any more names [to the shirts].” Two years later, local resident Demitri Hampton’s name was added after he was killed trying to stop a home invasion. But even that tragedy lent a positive note to the 2013 event, as Mr. Hampton’s mother raised funds to set up a scholarship in her son’s name and his older brother took to the court to compete.
Mr. Williams will retire this month as assistant director of Calverton National Cemetery, a career path that has given him decades of experience working with grieving families. An Air Force veteran, he also serves on the Clearview Civic Association and East End Voter Coalition. He told the News-Review last year that he was inspired to serve his community by his mother, Clara, a reverend and founder of the Millbrook Gables Civic Association.
Mr. Eleazer, a Brookhaven National Laboratory employee, served in the U.S. Army. He and Mr. Williams are also active in their local churches.
The community leadership the men demonstrate hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I wish we had more Dwayne and Larrys,” Mr. Coyne said. “They’re genuine people who take pride in their community.”
“They make an excellent choice for this award,” added Mr. Hubbard.
Photo: Dwayne Eleazer (left) and Larry Williams (right) at the Stop the Violence basketball tournament in August 2011. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, file)
*The award was previously called Civic Person of the Year
2015: Tony Sammartano
2014: Thelma Booker
2013: Vince Taldone
2012: Georgette Keller
2011: Nancy Swett
2010: Rich Podlas and Chuck Thomas
2009: Tom Gahan
2008: Keith Lewin
2007: Open Arms and Bread & More Inn
2006: Mike Brewer
2005: Sid Bail
2004: Kathy Berezny
2003: Jill Lewis
2002: Chrissy Prete
2001: Joe & Gloria Ingegno
2000: George Klopfer & Lt. Col. Anthony Cristiano
1999: Louise Wilkinson
1998: Charles Ramsey, Gwen Mack
1997: Judy Jacunski
1996: Peter Danowski
1995: Sherry Patterson
1994: Barry Barth, Bobby Goodale
1993: Arnold Braunskill, Don Owen
1992: Bernice Mack
1991: Judy Weiner
1990: Nancy Gassert, Gwen Branch
1989: Betty Brown
1988: Paul Baker