Tucked away just a few blocks south of Bellmore Village is a parking lot off Bedford Avenue, nestled between St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School and St. Barnabas Church. Every summer, the lot is transformed into a hoops heaven known as the Timmy Gilroy Memorial Summer Basketball League.
“We’re down there every night. The more the merrier,” said Peggy Gilroy, the matriarch of the Gilroy clan and mother of the youngster who inspired the nonprofit league. “You might as well have a crowd.”
The Timmy League is a volunteer-run summer league for boys and girls in second through 12th grades. This season it drew 1,965 players, a record, according to the Gilroy family.
Parents and family members bring chairs and line the perimeter of the three outdoor courts. A fourth court, inside St. Elizabeth’s, also is used. The league has six sessions, with each running four games simultaneously, beginning with the 5:30 to 6:20 p.m. slot through the final 9:40 to 10:30 p.m. period Monday through Thursday. It runs for six weeks this season, ending the week of Aug. 14.
“It’s insane,” said Noreen “Beanie” Gilroy, 24, one of eight Gilroy children. She’s now a St. John’s law student, but she played in the league when she was younger and now volunteers. “It’s also incredible.”
The Timmy League began in the summer of 1994, with about 100 fourth- and fifth-graders playing in indoor gyms. “Those were the kids we knew, and we built it from there,” said patriarch Frank Gilroy.
Players began coming from neighboring communities such as Wantagh, Seaford and Massapequa, and the league grew to a then-record 800 players by 2007. The league does not advertise and has grown through word-of-mouth.
“If it just stayed within Bellmore, it wouldn’t have gotten this big,” said Ray Anderson, a 14-year volunteer and the St. Barnabas girls Catholic Youth Organization basketball coordinator. “But word got out.”
Games are played in two halves that each last for 20 minutes. Referees blow a whistle every five minutes so new players can substitute in, with the aim of giving equal playing time to all participants.
During a recent late afternoon game in Bellmore, Jimmy Nasso was not only a proud papa, but he and his son, James, 7, exemplified the league’s mission: Try your best, never give up, and always have fun.
“Great job, James,” Nasso, 39, of Merrick, said as he cheered his son on. “Good work, buddy!”
Christina McCleneghan, 9, who has played in the league for three years, had struggled to score in the past and has been concerned with her shooting. But she made four baskets in her season opener and two the following week. “It felt amazing the first time I scored,” said a beaming McCleneghan. “It shows I’m improving.”
The league’s volunteers range from children to adults, and there is a concession stand from which proceeds are donated to a local charity. This year’s recipient is the John Thiessen Children’s Foundation in Wantagh.
Players must pay $50 each to participate in the league. The registration cost helps pay for referees and diesel fuel to power the portable lights for night games. The Gilroys said the rest of the money goes back into the league — this year’s improvements include three electronic scoreboards and six squeegees to clear the courts when it rains — as well as the Bellmore Police Athletic League, St. Barnabas Church and its CYO program. Each player gets a colored T-shirt to wear for games and receives a Timmy League drawstring bag at the end of the season.
“It’s the best bargain in town,” said Jill Heller, a volunteer and close friend of the Gilroys.
Frank and Peggy Gilroy met at St. John’s University, fell in love, graduated in 1981 and were married the following year. The 6-foot-6 Frank, who played basketball for longtime St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca from 1977 to 1981, was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the eighth round of the 1981 NBA Draft. Instead of going pro, he opted for a career on Wall Street, where he has worked for more than 30 years. The Gilroys settled in North Bellmore and by 1993 had a blossoming family, including sons Matt and Timmy, the league’s namesake, born 13 months apart.
“Me and Timmy were always together, said Matt, the oldest of the two and a former NHL player who is now with a team in Finland. “We went to basketball, hockey and soccer together. “Then, one day, he’s not coming with you.”
About two weeks shy of his eighth birthday, Timmy suffered a serious head injury after falling off his bicycle. He died a few days later, on Aug. 18, 1993. (The family also had lost a son, Bryan, in January 1990, when he was about a week old.)
“I remember being at Timmy’s funeral, and Peggy and Frank were comforting us,” Heller said, through tears. “It’s beyond words. They’re amazingly strong people.”
Timothy Patrick Gilroy was born six weeks premature, on Aug. 30, 1985, and spent his first couple of weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit.
“He was on meds every day of his life,” said Peggy, who added that Timmy had to be taught how to crawl, stand and walk, among other things. “He had asthma and speech issues, and he was in early intervention and occupational therapy. I guess every day for Timmy was a battle.”
But before long, Timmy grew bigger than older brothers Frankie and Matt despite his health and developmental issues.
“He caught right up,” Peggy said. “That’s the story of his life.”
Timmy loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Wolverine, which was one of his favorite Halloween costumes, as well as playing with his action figures, according to family and friends.
“He just had a light about him,” said Heller, now a teacher in the Herricks School District. “Sports didn’t always come as easy as they did to some of the other siblings, but he worked hard.”
Matt remembers his little brother’s determination.
“His work ethic at such a young age was crazy,” Matt said. “He never wanted to lose.”
That drive was a staple of Timmy’s life, and now carries on to the thousands of children who have played in the summer league that bears his name.
“It was something that you never expect to experience,” Frank Gilroy said of his son’s death. “Once you do, it’s a decision on how you deal with it. For us, it was this league.”
A neighborhood league
In 2007, Frank Gilroy’s job was transferred to Boston, and after the league’s season ended, the Gilroys moved to Sudbury, Massachusetts.
“We were all devastated,” Beanie Gilroy said. “We didn’t want to say goodbye to the Timmy League.”
A couple of families did operate the league for two seasons after the Gilroys moved, but play ended for the next three years. In 2012, the Gilroys moved back to Long Island, and the children started pestering their parents about resuming the league.
“My first thought was, ‘Anything to get it back,’ because I loved [the league],” said Brendan Gilroy, 22, of North Bellmore, whose middle name is Timothy in honor of his late cousin.
The league finally restarted in July 2013 with about 300 players. Slowly but surely, word spread again. The Gilroys added new age groups: second- and third-grade boys and girls, drawing more players to Bellmore.
“When I started, there were open courts, and those of us volunteering could scrimmage a little bit,” said Dan Cobb, 33, who has helped the league since middle school in numerous capacities including as a coach, referee and scoreboard operator. “Now, nearly every single court is full, every single night.”
Frank Gilroy always had a clear vision for a summer league, and it comes from his childhood days in Whitestone, Queens.
“I never wanted it to be one of the ultracompetitive leagues that exist,” he said. “It’s a neighborhood league. You wanted people to come down, watch their kids and have a nice night.”
Tony Delwey, 58, knows all about Frank’s background. The two have been friends since grammar school.
“Frank emulated back in the day when we went to the park,” said Delwey, who has officiated the Timmy League since its inception, and basketball for almost 40 years. “We chose up teams to play five-on-five, and you just keep on playing.
“There’s no such thing as unsportsmanlike behavior here, because Frank takes care of it right away,” added Delwey, who now lives in Bethpage. “Everyone kind of gets the idea after the first few times: ‘Wait a minute, this is for fun. This is not to be taken as serious.’ This is the way it should be. It’s like a throwback to the old days. . . . Usually we have someone new come down to referee, they are like, ‘I’m in heaven now.’ ”
Those positive vibes rub off on the players and volunteers, too.
“When you’re playing, you don’t really understand what’s going on,” said Jack Fontanetta, 14, of Bellmore, a player and a second-year volunteer. “But when you volunteer, you get a bigger sense of what this is all about, like trying to help all these kids.”
And positivity is a must.
“The coaches don’t yell at you. They try to teach you how to play the game,” said Ashley Felsberg, 11, of Bellmore. “It’s not that competitive; it’s more fun.”
The fun extends to the Gilroys.
“Each year, it’s the highlight of our summer — putting smiles on kids’ faces,” said Michael Gilroy, the youngest son, who will attend and play hockey at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut this fall. “I grew up playing here, and these were the best nights of my life. It’s great to see the next generation of kids do this.”
Sometimes, though, there is a wait. Ella Nasso was pouting recently. She had played her second game of the season on a Monday, but now it was her twin brother James’ turn on Tuesday. “I wish I could play again tonight,” said a sad-faced Ella, 7, who was wearing a romper.
“Next time, maybe you can,” said Kellie Gilroy, 22, an honors student in nursing at Adelphi University in Garden City, and one of four Gilroy sisters. “Just wear your shorts and sneakers.”
The league sometimes uses players to fill in when teams are short-handed. “I’m always excited to play,” said Ashley, a fill-in this season. “It’s fun to show that you can play against anyone. Once I make a basket or two, [the boys] start passing me the ball.”
The Gilroys want the players to be able to play basketball each week, and sometimes sport prevails despite Mother Nature’s plans. On the second Wednesday of the season, rain fell throughout most of the South Shore, except a tiny part, Bellmore.
“There was lightning everywhere but above us,” said Caitlin Gilroy, a senior at Mepham High School, the youngest in the family and the last Gilroy who will participate as a player in the league. “It was raining all around and for some reason it didn’t come here.”
She didn’t need a meteorologist to explain why.
“It’s probably, Timmy,” she said.
KEEPING A PROMISE
Peggy Gilroy remembers the promise her 9-year-old son, Matt, made a few days after Timmy passed away in 1993.
“Matt said, ‘I’m going to wear Timmy’s [sports jersey] number , forever,’ ” Gilroy recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to take it anywhere I go, and I’m going to go everywhere he should have went.’ ”
Matt Gilroy has taken his brother’s number many places throughout his collegiate, and now professional, hockey career, including stops in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Florida, Ottawa, Texas, Moscow and Helsinki, Finland, where he is currently playing.
“Sports were always something we did together,” said Matt, 33, who played five seasons in the NHL from 2009 to 2014 with the Rangers, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and Florida. “I did that because I think Timmy would have went great places in sports if he was still around,” he said of the promise he made to his mother.
If Matt couldn’t get a 97 jersey, he would wear the number 9 or 7. Peggy Gilroy would also sew a number 97 patch on the inside of Matt’s sports jerseys, from the time he was a youngster — whether he was playing soccer, basketball, hockey or lacrosse — until his time at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset.
“I finally started fulfilling my promise at BU [Boston University], and then it continued with the Rangers,” Matt said. The former college walk-on won the Hobey Baker Memorial award as the top men’s collegiate hockey player and helped Boston win an NCAA championship in 2009. “This is my ninth year as a pro and I’ve always worn 97.”
The defenseman has continued his career overseas and is entering his fourth season in the Kontinental Hockey League. He is a two-time KHL All-Star and signed with Jokerit Helsinki in July.
“I was very fortunate to play in the NHL,” said Matt, who is married to Fox Sports reporter and fellow Boston University alum Jenny Taft. “But I still get to continue my career, travel all over the world, see crazy places and have great life experiences.”
All while keeping his childhood promise.
— John Boell
23 Games played each night
92 Games played each week
6 Hours each night to set up, play games, put everything away
$3,000 Timmy League’s 2016 donation to Special Spaces of Bellmore, a charity that creates dream bedrooms for children with life-threatening illnesses.
Games are played at 2320 Bedford Ave., Bellmore
There is a Timmy Gilroy Memorial Summer League page on Facebook, as well as an Instagram account: @thetimmyleague. The league’s website is www.thetimmyleague.org