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Scrabble, sneaks, sweets: Super fans can’t get enough

New York Knicks superfan Gene Wolff at his

New York Knicks superfan Gene Wolff at his home in Huntington, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Gene Wolff is one man whose wife is OK with him having a second love — and with him making room for it in their life.

His two sons and daughter have even accepted it.

Wolff is convinced it is his unwavering support for this love — the New York Knicks — that they have come to admire.

“My daughter once said, ‘It’s his whole life,’ ” said Wolff, who hasn’t missed a game in 40 years and has dedicated an entire room in his Huntington home to Knicks memorabilia.

This level of devotion is what makes Wolff a Knicks “super fan” — by definition someone with an extreme or obsessive admiration for a person or thing.

All around Long Island, there are many more like him.

Karen Axel-Knispel is sweet on all things M&M’s.

“They bring joy,” Axel-Knispel, of Plainview, said of the colorful candies, adding that they’re a harmless obsession in comparison to so many other things.

He’s just a teenager, but Ruben Fournier Jr., 13, is already a sole man, a result of his sentimental soft spot for sneakers.

“He has a sneaker graveyard on display,” said his mother, Trish Failla.

Bernie McMahon meanwhile, has established his home as “The Scrabby Nook” in honor of the beloved board game.

He built a Scrabble board in his backyard and regularly hosts fellow aficionados for casual tournament-style play.

“Very rarely a month will go by where I don’t have something going on at The Scrabby Nook,” he said.



RJ Fournier has his mother to thank for his greatest obsession.

“I was always into sneakers,” said Fournier, 13, of Farmingdale. “I think going around shopping with my mom, that was the only thing we had in common: shoes.”

In the third grade, Fournier began to collect sneakers by NBA greats LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

“I bought a few pairs and I really liked them,” said Fournier, an eighth-grader at Weldon E. Howitt Middle School in Farmingdale. “And I started to find out that there are stories behind every single sneaker and it got me really interested.”

Fournier has a lot of sole — his collection has grown to nearly 100 sneakers, which he keeps in clear storage cases in his bedroom. But the kicks are not just for show. He’s worn every single pair.

“It’s like a game,” Fournier said. “You try so hard to get these shoes. And they’re limited edition, so you want to show them off.”

His favorite brand is adidas Ultra Boost, “because of the comfort and technology,” said Fournier, who owns about 10 pairs of them. He also favors Yeezy Boost sneakers, designed by rapper Kanye West. Yeezys are top-sellers that retail for about $250, but when resold, they can bring in upward of $1,000. Fournier generally scores his at retail price on release day.

“I had to sit on the computer for about two hours, with my iPad, my iPhone, my mom’s iPad and iPhone,” Fournier said. “Almost every single device in the house.”

Fournier’s mother, Trish Failla, said she is happy to indulge in her son’s obsession because he’s “a good kid” who mostly buys his sneakers with money he earns or collects on birthdays and holidays. Failla and other family members will sometimes chip in to get Fournier sneakers on special occasions. His most recent purchase was in September — a $600 pair of zebra Yeezys — for his birthday.

When he outgrows his sneakers, Fournier will either sell or trade them.

“Unless they’re beat up or ‘sentimental;’ everything’s sentimental to him,” Failla said jokingly. “Then, he just keeps them.”

Fournier has a sneaker graveyard on display in his bedroom.

“His whole room is dedicated to sneakers,” said Failla, 38. “He has ‘sneakerhead’ written in big graffiti in his room,” she added, referring to the term used to describe people who collect, trade or sell sneakers.

In some instances, Fournier has purchased the footwear for himself with the profits from reselling limited-edition pairs. He said his biggest return was from a pair of Yeezys he purchased for $238 after spending two hours on the computer. He flipped them for $600.

Failla said she doesn’t anticipate her son will outgrow his sneaker obsession anytime soon. Both insist it’s for fashion and not just for kicks.



Gene Wolff’s New York Knicks fandom came with an endorsement of the highest order.

In 2009, Wolff was one of 10 finalists in a contest hosted by Madison Square Garden and T-Mobile in search of the “Ultimate Knick Fan.”

He filmed a video at the Garden and waited for a month as people voted for their favorite, he said.

As part of the distinction, the finalists were invited to introduce their video at a home game.

Wolff — a fan of the basketball team for the past 40 years who has met several of the franchise’s most famous players, including Walt “Clyde” Frazier, whom he counts among his “personal friends” — said he drew the most votes. As he recalled, close to 5 million.

Wolff said he and three other finalists were brought into WPIX 11 News studios in Manhattan where one-time Knicks guard John Starks announced him as the winner.

“I must say that I implored a lot of people that it was important to vote for me,” Wolff said. “Some of my grandkids stayed up all night, just clicking the little button.”

Wolff, 76, has stayed up countless nights, too, taking in games led by such former Knicks greats as Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley.

“What I like about the franchise is just the whole aura of the team,” he said. “The way they play, or, maybe better, the way they used to play.”

These days, the Huntington resident doesn’t make it to the Garden as often as he’d like, but he insisted he’s never missed a minute when his team hits the hardwood.

“I get to four or five games a year,” Wolff said. “But I watch every game on TV, and if for some reason I’m busy, I’ll record the games and watch them.”

He’ll also listen in his car or elsewhere on the radio.

This loyalty to the team is what makes a super fan, he said.

“A regular fan doesn’t watch all of the games. My brother-in-law said the other night, ‘Yeah, I turned on the final game, it was kind of boring.’ I said, ‘It was boring? When did you turn it on?’ He said, ‘The third quarter.’ I said, ‘You’re not a fan.’ A non-fan turns it on in the third quarter, maybe watches it if they think of it. Maybe reads about it, if they think of it. A real super fan follows every game, knows everything that’s going to happen, knows what to expect to happen, knows what’s going on after, watches the pregame show, goes to the computer right away to see how the sports writers wrote up the game and compares notes,” Wolff said.

He has no shortage of tokens of Knicks love: binoculars, cufflinks, a lamp, soap and a toaster that makes toast with the team’s logo on it.

About 25 years ago, Wolff and a friend were surprised by their wives with a trip to “Frazier camp” — a basketball clinic — at Club Getaway in Connecticut.

“Clyde befriended us because we were the only ones in his age group,” Wolff recalled. “Subsequently, he was a guest at my son’s bar mitzvah and I actually interviewed him on video — a highlight of my Knicks career.”

Wolff, who has worked in the lumber industry for more than 50 years, didn’t actually start playing hoops until he was 35.

“I walked onto a basketball court at a swim club in Queens,” he said. “I really didn’t know what it was about.”

He started to shoot around when he was ordered by some men to get off the court because they were going to play a game.

“And I said, ‘Why should I get off? I was here first,’ ” he recalled. “Anyhow, one thing led to another and the next thing I knew, I was in the game.”

Nice rebound, and safe to say, he hasn’t gotten off the court since.



Karen Axel-Knispel’s sweet tooth has deep roots.

“My grandfather Sol was a candy maker,” Axel-Knispel said. “So candy was running through my blood.”

It was also running through businesses on Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, where Sol Axel was a candy supplier from the 1930s through the ’80s. He also worked as a consultant for Godiva and Nestlé, according to his granddaughter. Sol Axel died in 2004, but his love of sweets remains a steady part of his bloodline — and his granddaughter’s bloodstream.

In 2001, Axel-Knispel developed a full-on obsession with M&M’s candies.

“They bring joy, because they’re colorful,” said Axel-Knispel, 54. “The characters are cute and they’re fun.”

The Mars brand confections are as plentiful as Axel-Knispel’s collection: She’s dedicated an entire room in her Plainview ranch-style home to M&M’s memorabilia.

“There’s dispensers, magnets, pins, ornaments, figurines, cookie jars, toppers — which are the character on top of a candy tube,” Axel-Knispel said during a recent interview in the neatly organized room she’s nicknamed the “museum.”

She procured pieces for her museum from Target, Walgreens, Walmart, Craigslist and eBay. Some are from M&M’s World stores around the country.

Axel-Knispel, who works in medical collections, is reluctant to put a value on the spread, which extends into her garage and storage shed. Her husband, Stewart, estimates the whole sweet shebang is worth thousands.

Over the years, Axel-Knispel has traveled to Las Vegas, New Jersey and Orlando to attend M&M’s conventions and trade, purchase or sell items with fellow super fans.

The candies are sold in more than 100 countries and have grown to include almond, crispy, dark chocolate, peanut, peanut butter, pretzel and strawberry varieties. The M&M’s have also been personified as characters: Red, Blue, Yellow, Orange, Green and the newest addition (Axel-Knispel’s favorite), Ms. Brown.

In 2006, for the opening of the M&M’s World store in Times Square, Axel-Knispel was hired to portray a human M&M. The unpaid gig required her to run through the tourist destination painted in yellow from head to toe.

“It was fun but the problem is, that paint took two weeks to get off, so I was glad I was yellow and not the blue or the red or the green because those are darker,” Axel-Knispel said.

Stewart said his wife has become a celebrity of sorts within the Times Square M&M’s community.

“One day, we went to the M&M store in the city, and they all knew her by her first name,” he said, somewhat incredulously. “I’m like, ‘How do they all know you?’ Apparently, because I work on Sundays, she used to go over on Sundays.”

After all this, Axel-Knispel said she doesn’t see herself losing her taste for M&M’s.

“I don’t think I could get tired of them. It’s an addiction — it has to be, I mean,” she said. “But it’s a safe addiction because I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t gamble. It’s a safe addiction.”



Bernie McMahon cringes at the suggestion that the board game Scrabble is just a “hobby” of his.

“Sometimes people would use that expression: ‘It’s a pastime,’ ” he said. “It makes our [his and fellow aficionados’] skin crawl.”

To him, Scrabble is so much more — it’s home.

In the game, two to four players score points by using lettered tiles to create words in a crossword fashion. The words must be defined in a standard dictionary.

“It’s pretty important,” McMahon said. “That’s, like, what I do.”

In the early part of the millennium, McMahon, 65, of Bay Shore, began playing Scrabble online. He was alerted shortly thereafter by an online opponent in Texas about in-person meetup groups. McMahon did some digging and found out about a group that met weekly in Huntington for tournament-level play.

“That was the beginning of everything,” he said. “I started in 2002 playing at the club, and just after a few months I got onto the tournament scene.”

McMahon has since competed in about 50 professional tournaments.

The Huntington group in which he got his start is the seed of the “Hardscrabble Club,” a Farmingdale collective that McMahon now helms for advanced players. He is also part of a West Babylon players’ club, which he joined in 2002.

“I met other people on the same wavelength,” said McMahon, who works as a printer in Farmingdale. “A lot of them are like little oddballs, but in our own way, we all seem to make our own connections.”

McMahon’s connection to Scrabble developed long before he learned of organized play. At age 10, he began playing Scrabble against his mother and continued into his teens.

“It attracted me when I was younger,” McMahon said. “There was something about it.”

McMahon plays for about eight hours each week between the West Babylon and Farmingdale clubs. He also competes online, via email and some weekends at his home, which is nicknamed the “Scrabby Nook.” All told, he spends about 10 hours playing Scrabble weekly.

McMahon’s home, which he shares with his 93-year-old mother and a brother, has become a Scrabble haven in its own right. In 2006, McMahon decided to embark on a solo effort to make his backyard into a real-life Scrabble board. He purchased two-inch cement blocks from Home Depot, painted them and positioned them to replicate the word game.

“I did it on the weekends, so it took a number of months,” McMahon said.

He even made life-size oak letter tiles to fit on the board.

The backyard board game quickly gained popularity as a must-see in his neighborhood and among club members. Various signs are situated throughout his home bearing the title “The Scrabby Nook.”

McMahon believes his involvement in the Long Island Scrabble community was fate.

“Most people make the connection when they’re young,” he said. “It’s not something you just stumble into when you’re older.”

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