The return of the Empire State Games means a lot to New York. For many athletes and coaches, it means a week of fun, camaraderie and opportunity.
For some, it means an opportunity to impress college coaches. For Commack girls basketball coach Bruce Haller, who will coach the scholastic team, it means a lot more than that.
"I think it's an underpublicized opportunity for the kids," Haller said. "There's a big opening night ceremony where you have basketball players walking with soccer and lacrosse players. It can create relationships with other athletes that other events wouldn't normally do."
Haller isn't blind to the idea that many of the athletes hope to catch the eye of a college coach. But with so many AAU and travel programs around, it's difficult getting the best to the Games.
"It's a tough sell these days, because they can get so much exposure playing in other summer leagues and tournaments," Haller said.
The idea of being celebrated and treated almost like professional athletes for five days and the opportunity to bond with athletes they compete against during the high school season is sometimes all it takes. "The Empire State Games is more pageantry and more of a social opportunity . . . It is something that the kids won't forget anytime soon," he said.
Long Island's scholastic boys lacrosse coach Jay Mauro knows what the experience is like. An assistant coach on the Games team two years ago, Mauro, the Sachem North coach, also participated as a player for Sachem in 1998.
"Every time I've been involved, it was a great experience," Mauro said. "The coaches did a great job with the Suffolk-Nassau [lacrosse] games last summer and with the New York State shootout, but nothing is like the Empire State Games."
The opening ceremony, which includes an Olympic-style torch-lighting ritual, will start at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University at Buffalo Stadium. In addition to a parade of the estimated 6,000-plus athletes participating, former Buffalo Bills special teamer Steve Tasker will serve as master of ceremonies.
"It's so well-organized it will give the athletes a unique experience," Haller said. "It really is an Olympic Games experience."
There was much trepidation before this summer's games after the cancellation of last year's event. Games officials reportedly had to rely on local business help financially to help keep the event on track.
Although the future of the Games is far from secure, officials don't expect many bumps in the road this year.
Games director Fred Smith, in an interview with the Buffalo News last week, was optimistic the Games will go off without a hitch and said: "We have had no major issues so far, and we are going in very positive."