The outdoor basketball tournament whose mission to stop violence was itself stopped in its tracks last summer by a major force.
Plans and preparations for the 2020 Riverhead Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament were in place as the tournament weekend approached. Organizers put in a good deal of time and effort before they were ultimately disappointed by the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had all the entry fees. We had the referees in place,” tournament co-founder Dwayne Eleazer said. “They told us that the government shut any outdoor sports down, so it costs us quite a bit of money to send everybody their deposit back.”
Another organizer, Willie Walker, recalled: “We prepared right up to the last day, everything just in case things change, and at the last second they said: “No. No go.’ We were going to try to do it with masks. We were going to try to livestream it and just have the players here, have them tested.”
In the end, the 2020 tournament never materialized. Another coronavirus victim.
Now, here’s the good news. The tournament returned this past weekend for its 14th edition in 15 years. Because of scheduling conflicts with similar tournaments in the metropolitan area, it was smaller (seven teams instead of the typical 10), but that seemed beside the point. The important thing was the tournament was back, and that meant a lot to people like Eleazer, who created the tournament with Larry Williams (the two were honored as the Riverhead News-Review’s Community Leaders of the Year for 2016).
“Oh, it’s awesome,” said Eleazer.
The tournament at Horton Avenue Park is akin to a block party/family reunion, with basketball being the unifying force. It features music, food, drink, the comedic running commentary of public address announcer Noel Epps and, of course, some high-level basketball that has included players with collegiate and professional backgrounds. And then there is a group of people who take it all in while sitting under a tent near one of the baskets. “They call themselves the backyard boys, and they come through on anything,” said Eleazer.
What makes this tournament special?
“You get people that live around you, you don’t see them no more, especially with COVID,” Walker said. “All of a sudden you come here, and there’s hundreds of people that you haven’t even seen since high school and they come out with their kids and everybody just enjoys it.”
The tournament’s leadership was restructured after Williams moved to Georgia in 2018. Now Eleazer is part of an organizing team that includes brothers Frank and Dion Brown, Justin Winters, Steven Cumberbatch, Glenn Vickers and Walker.
“I take pride in it, but I don’t take credit for it, to be honest,” Eleazer said. “There’s too many people that hide in the background that actually are big influences for me to keep going, and for them to help out is great. I don’t take no pats on the back. I don’t want no, ‘You did a good job.’ No, we all did a good job, so I don’t want to take credit for none of this, maybe just getting it going, that’s it. But to keep it going, it’s a lot of work.”
The teams were identified by the colors of their shirts. Yellow was the color of the day Sunday, as the yellow team defeated the dark blue team, 73-63, in the final. The yellow team, powered by J.J. Moore’s 26 points and tournament MVP Kendall Robinson’s 16, had the length, skill and talent to lay claim to the championship trophy, medals and $5,000 in prize money. The yellow team stormed out to a 9-0 lead and was up, 18-2, before taking a 37-24 advantage by halftime of the game, played in 40 minutes of running time except for the final two minutes of each half.
“We wanted to punch them in the mouth before they were able to punch us in the mouth,” said Moore.
On a couple of occasions in the second half, the yellow shirts had stretched their lead to as many as 20 points before the dark blue side closed the gap, twice pulling within six points. Moore made six free throws in the final minute to help seal the result.
The 6-foot-6 Moore, a four-year player in the NBA G League, figured this was his 10th or 11th year in the tournament and said he has been on the championship team eight or nine times.
The tournament has always been played at Horton Avenue Park with rare exceptions. One year it was played in the Riverhead High School gym because of rain. Another year rain pushed the last games into a late Sunday night/early Monday morning at Stotzky Memorial Park. “We finished like three o’clock in the morning,” said Eleazer.
Preventing violence remains at the core of the tournament’s purpose.
“On a weekend like this, we had about 400 people, 500 people,” Eleazer said. “You know those 500 people weren’t involved in any kind of malicious violence, no trouble. They could have been victims of violence. They could have been the ones that caused the violence or whatever. We know that the people that were here did not do any burglaries, did not do any drug sales or anything like that. They were here watching basketball, and if you can save two people out of that, it’s a lot.”