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Bridgehampton's tiny basketball gym has lasting memories

Bridgehampton's gym was used for the final time

Bridgehampton's gym was used for the final time on Wed. Feb. 5, 2020. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Most of the old potato farms and duck farms have long turned to vineyards, the landscape still familiar to those who knew it back then, yet somehow not familiar at all.

The old tractors and work trucks, hauling in from the fields, are seldom seen anymore. Lots anchored by multimillion-dollar homes are now far more common than those of working-class folk; the storefronts along old Montauk Highway now are home to restaurants and real estate offices, boutiques and galleries filled with designer fashions, art, cookware and antiques.

The sign at the end of Sunrise Highway announces you’re on the Hamptons Wine Trail. The sign at the edge of Bridgehampton tells you it’s a place first settled in 1656, back before the United States was the United States, even; back when arriving colonists were British, the citizens Native American.

The gymnasium at the school, the Bridgehampton School — not just the high school, as students range from pre-K to 12th grade — dates only to when the current building was first built, in 1931. But in terms of sports history, it is every bit as ancient, every bit as historic, every bit as noteworthy — and, it turns out, every bit as outdated.

For years a village-wide battle of economics threatened to close the school, with its dwindling population and aging facilities. The war often pitted the year-round residents, a significant portion of them poor minorities, against the affluence of the largely part-time summer party crowd. In the late 1980s, community activists and court action had to intervene.

The battle was chronicled as part of a critically acclaimed 2018 documentary called “Killer Bees,” directed by brothers Orson and Benjamin Cummings, both Bridgehampton grads, and produced by basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal.

All of which makes it ironic that when they turned out the lights on that old gymnasium for the last time Wednesday night, they shut it down not under contentious circumstances but because of what’s changed the countryside around it: progress.

“There was a time this gym wasn’t so unique,” former Bridgehampton star and former longtime coach Carl Johnson said while standing Thursday afternoon inside the Hive. “Everybody had a small gym like this. But it was the last one and it became the most intriguing gym on Long Island and no one wanted to come here to play . . .     

“It’s closing; it’s the end of an era, a tradition.”

SMALL BALL

Certainly when it comes to high school basketball, there are gyms more notable, programs better known. Locally, Archbishop Molloy and Benjamin Cardozo in Queens, Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn and Long Island Lutheran right here in Brookville have all sent far more players to NCAA Division I programs and to the NBA. And there are other courts across the country notable for their quirkiness: West College Corner, Indiana, where one half of the court is in Indiana, the other is in Ohio and the midcourt stripe is the actual state line. Valley Lutheran in Saginaw, Michigan, which once had a carpeted basketball court. And The Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Indiana, the home of the Hickory Huskers in the film “Hoosiers” — a court still rented out for high school games today.

Yet none, one could argue, has been as important, as symbolic, as the court in Bridgehampton.

Believed to be (as of the 2019-20 season) the smallest court in use not only in the state but the nation, it measured 54 feet by 37 feet. A regulation NBA court is 94 feet by 50; a regulation high school court is 84 by 50. High school rules list a court size of 74 by 42 as the minimum allowable.

As athletic director Michael DeRosa, a Hampton Bays native, recalled Thursday, “My earliest memory from this gym was playing here in fourth-grade PAL. I chased a ball out of bounds, ran into the wall, broke my right big toe.”

For good reason. The baselines are barely a foot from the gym walls. The three-point arcs intersect with the sidelines about a dozen feet from the baseline, meaning no player could ever take a three-pointer from the corner.

With the stands, all five rows of them, extended, fans sat almost literally on top of the court. Teams, home and away, sat in the first row of those stands; scorers, officials and even reporters between them.

The gym, which once also served as a cafeteria and auditorium, has a stage at one end. The ceiling has a massive, wonderfully wood-framed skylight.

Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski played in that gym, helping Bridgehampton to a Suffolk County title in 1956-57. He set a county scoring record that season with 628 points, a record that stood until it was broken by Kenny Wood of East Hampton in 1987-88.

Yaz’s team set another record in 1956-57, for most points, with a 117-49 win over Hampton Bays. Bridgehampton broke that record, too. In fact, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association still lists Bridgehampton in the state record book for a 155-71 rout of Shelter Island in January 1970, a game that was 101-30 at the half. That was the state record until now-closed Buffalo Traditional scored 179 points against Hutchinson Central in 1981-82.

But current coach Ron White said this past week, before the final game at the Hive: “The people make the monument, the monument doesn’t make the people. Yes, it was so close in there, so intimate, so hot, so steamy, so loud . . .     But there’s not a town whose heart beats as strong as Bridgehampton, there’s no deep roots like Bridgehampton has deep roots, and it’s important to note that.”

SMALL SCHOOL

Bridgehampton competes in Class D, the smallest schools in the state. The maximum enrollment for a Class D school is 149 students in grades 9-12, according to the NYSPHSAA. Bridgehampton? This year it has 54 students, the 25th-smallest school in the state.

Of basketball schools, Bridgehampton is the smallest on Long Island — though officials couldn’t say Friday where it ranked in the state this season. During its run in 1996, it was the third-smallest in the state.

The school has won 28 county titles overall, the first in 1935, just four years after the current building opened. Last season, Bridgehampton won its 25th Suffolk Class D title. But with only 13 students in the current graduating class, Bridgehampton finished this season winless at 0-14.

It started the season with only eight players, DeRosa said: one senior, two juniors, one sophomore and four freshmen. Injuries and other woes left the team with six players, and one of them was injured late in the season, leaving only five — the minimum needed to play a game.

It was beaten by Shelter Island, 70-40, in its final game Wednesday.

Despite the school’s small size, the Killer Bees have had unparalleled success at the Hive — and away from it as well. As White, who also serves as the school board president, said, that’s because the intimate nature of the court traditionally mandated that players not only run but play lockdown defense.

It forced them to master the fundamentals of teamwork under a number of notable coaches, including Roger Golden, John Niles, Johnson and now White, because any mistake became glaring in such intimate surroundings. That mastery translated to big courts, too.

White should know. He played for Johnson’s teams that won state Class D titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and came within a basket of becoming the first player ever to go to the state tournament all four years of varsity play.

BIG RESULTS

Bridgehampton has won nine state titles -- 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1986, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2015 -- second only to the 11 won by Mount Vernon. On Long Island, Long Island Lutheran, which does not compete in public school play, has won eight state Federation titles, which includes public, private and parochial schools. Amityville has won the second-most public school state titles on Long Island with five. Hempstead has three.

Consider this: Of the 4,433 public schools in New York State, Brooklyn Tech is the largest, with 5,534 students, and Brentwood is the largest in Suffolk with 4,485. Bridgehampton is the smallest school ever to make the unified county final, falling to North Babylon in 1986, Comsewogue in 1989 and Northport in 1995. It lost to Floyd by one point on a buzzer-beating three-pointer in 1997, just missing the chance to become the first-ever Class D school to win the overall title.

Now the Killer Bees have said goodbye to the Hive.

Progress? The district is in the midst of a $25-million-plus expansion project — a project DeRosa and others concede is, in part, due to the success of a team that helped prove to the community the value of keeping the school open and modernizing it.

After all, the current graduating class includes students with acceptances to places such as Stony Brook University, Hunter College, Penn State, Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Vermont, Old Dominion, Penn State, Indiana University, the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, the University of Pennsylvania and Hofstra University.

The expansion will include new classrooms, a new fitness center and a massive new regulation-size gym and basketball court. It’s scheduled to open for the 2020-21 season.

And the Hive? It will be divided into two sections, to become a brand-new library and auditorium, DeRosa said.

For the record, freshman Scott Vinski scored the final basket ever at Bridgehampton — a three-pointer with eight seconds left Wednesday.

“Sitting there as the lights went out, as the scoreboard went out,” Johnson said of the last game, “all I could think was there will never be anything like it ever again.”

He suggested that the center jump circle, the one adorned with the big Bridgehampton letter B, be cut out, framed and hung on the wall when the new place opens next season. Then players for generations will be able to reach out and touch it before every game — a new tradition to honor the old.

New York Sports