Princeton Men’s Summer Basketball League celebrates 29th year

The opening game of the Princeton Men’s Summer Basketball League’s 29th year was held on a muggy evening – the first of summer. Children cheerfully ran back and forth on the playground adjacent to the Community Park courts. The ice cream truck pulled up just as the first of three games tipped off. A couple of onlookers peeled away to grab ice cream, while the rest watched local high school graduates battle it out on a blue asphalt court.

Everything’s just the way Evan Moorhead wants it.

“Being outside in that environment, there’s something special about that…there’s something special about being on those outdoor courts at Community Park. It’s summer time, there’s the ice cream truck, it’s hot, it’s humid. There are people playing on the court behind you. You can’t replicate that,” Moorhead said.

Every summer, Moorhead tries his best to keep bringing that same experience to the community. He is the assistant director of Princeton’s Department of Recreation as well as the commissioner of the summer basketball league. Ben Stentz, the department’s executive director, helps run the league too. Together they’ve established the area’s longest-running recreational basketball league.

“For many years, going back into the early ‘90s, we’ve had a real core community support from people from all corners of this town,” Stentz said.

Community Park has hosted the league ever since 1989, when Princeton High School boy’s basketball coach Doug Snyder approached the recreation department about forming a summer basketball program.

“He really had two reasons in mind,” Moorhead said. “One was to find a place to play and a competitive environment for his current high school team. The second was a competitive environment for his former high school players who had approached him about starting a league.”

“Twenty-nine years later, we’ve got a ton of PHS grads playing. That’s what Doug Snyder had in mind back in 1989,” Stentz added.

A few minutes later, Stentz walked out of the room and came back with the league’s Hall of Fame plaque. He pointed to each name on the plaque and listed off where they were from: “Princeton High guy, Princeton High guy, Montgomery guy.”

“Gil Fischer was a Princeton High grad from the ‘50s,” Stentz said. “Larry Ivan, our officials coordinator, taught at Princeton High for 40-plus years.”

There are also graduates from other local schools in the league. Kareem Elhossieni went to West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and graduated in 2014. He is on the team sponsored by New Jersey Athletic Club, which means playing with and against a lot of old faces.

“It’s great. I’ve played with some of these guys a while back. I mean, there’s guys I played in high school and even college. The competition is amazing,” Elhossieni said.

When the league was certified for Division I NCAA players, some of that competition included local guys playing for big-name programs like Villanova, Georgetown and Seton Hall. Seventeen Princeton University players have participated in the league, including Gabe Lewullis, who hit the famous backdoor layup to seal Princeton’s upset over UCLA in the 1996 March Madness tournament. Even now, players from local Division II and III schools will show up to play.

While he’s proud of the league’s collegiate resume, Stentz doesn’t really care about it. He knows the recreation department supports the league for reasons that have little to do with the quality of competition.

“We’re not doing this to make money, we’re not doing this to develop the next LeBron James. We’re doing it because it adds value to the community and strengthens the community. The commission has always understood that and supported us,” Stentz said.

About 25 community members came out to watch the first of three games on opening night. (Moorhead says a crowd twice that size came for the final game.) The crowd consisted of kids, players’ family members, passersby and a few regulars. Visa Koivunen, a visiting fellow at Princeton University who came over from Finland in 2010, has been coming to Community Park to watch the summer league ever since he first arrived.

“It keeps the young fellows active and it continues the great tradition of playing basketball in Princeton,” Koivunen said.

Stentz likened the league to the bar from the sitcom “Cheers.” It’s a place, he says, where people can go to feel at home.

“People coming out to a community gathering place, that’s the best part of the whole thing,” Stentz said. “The basketball’s fun and really important, but the secret sauce is that we have been able to bring people together, build relationships and build community. There’s a lot of talk about that in this town from all different agencies and that’s good, but we’ve been in the trenches doing it for 29 years.

That’s the message Moorhead conveyed to the crowd on opening night. “Other leagues have come and gone but we’re still here,” he said over the microphone just before tip.

Moorhead was talking about the league, but he just as easily could have been referring to himself and Stentz. They graduated together in Princeton High’s class of 1992 and played in the league during its early years, eventually taking over when Snyder left Princeton in 1997. At least one of them is down on the court after work for over three hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to make sure the league runs the way it’s supposed to.

Together, they’ve made t-shirts, crowned champions, found sponsors, broken up fights, rearranged schedules, recorded stats, swept the court, chided players on the microphone and created hundreds of memories for themselves and others.

“The real key to the summer league is me and (Evan) have had more fun, more laughs, doing it than you can ever imagine,” Stentz said.

Around the time of the league’s 15th anniversary in 2003, both of them joked they were on a “15-year contract” and the next year would be the first of their second deal. Now that the league’s 30th anniversary is next summer, the second contract is also coming to an end. That raises the question: is there a third 15-year commitment for Stentz and Moorhead sometime in the future?

“He’s like any veteran; he’ll probably take a ‘wait and see’ approach, He’ll need some time to step back and think about it,” Stentz joked about Moorhead.

“I don’t know,” Moorhead responded. “Contract years are always big years though so you know if I want another contract I’ve got to produce and have a good year next year.”

Stentz then turned serious again: “As long as one of us is here, we’re going to be all in on keeping that thing going.”