LI's Sue Wicks discovers a second passion after basketball: oyster farming
The ocean always has been her place, the one space away from the basketball court where Sue Wicks feels completely at home.
Long before the WNBA pioneer ever played a minute of organized basketball, she spent her summers working on her father’s boat in the Great South Bay. One of her earliest memories is of her father taking her and her brother clamming on the sand flats.
“Every time I caught a clam, the feeling was very similar to the dopamine delivery of hitting a basket,” said Wicks, who grew up in Center Moriches. “It was like boom, I hit a basket. Boom, I got a clam. I loved it from the very first clam.”
Wicks’ father, Bill, was a bayman, her grandfather a boat builder, her great-grandfather a captain and her great-great-grandfather a rum runner. Given that generations of her family made their living in the waters surrounding Long Island, perhaps it should be no great surprise that after a globe-trotting basketball career, Wicks has returned home to do the same.
Five years ago, after an arduous process of permit applications, an internship and late nights reading everything she could about aquaculture, Wicks opened an oyster farm named Violet Cove Oysters on three acres of shallow water that are a 10-minute boat ride from her home in Mastic Beach.
Wicks sells her oysters to local oyster bars and a wholesaler. They also have been featured on the menu of some elite restaurants in New York City, including Le Bernardin, the French seafood restaurant in midtown with three Michelin stars.
“I played at Madison Square Garden and my oysters made it to Le Bernardin,” said Wicks, 55. “Now that’s something I can say for the rest of my life.”
Both accomplishments seemed close to unfathomable when Wicks was a young girl in Center Moriches.
Wicks was a big Knicks fan growing up and Bernard King was her favorite player. Though Title IX was passed in 1972, there was significant lag time before it was fully enacted. With no youth or even middle school teams for Wicks to play on in the 1970s and early ’80s, she honed her game playing with the boys at lunchtime or at home before the school bus came. The first time she put on a basketball uniform was as a freshman at Center Moriches High School.
“I dreamed about being a professional basketball player. I poured my heart and soul into it,” Wicks said. “The only problem was what I dreamed of doing didn’t exist. I didn’t let that get in my way. When I say I was full-in, I was full-in.”
By the time she was a senior at Center Moriches, Wicks was close to 6-3 and averaging about 40 points a game.
“Sue could score 50 points a game if she wanted to,” her coach, Dietmar Trick, told Newsday in 1984.
Wicks attracted offers from colleges all over the country and chose Rutgers, which was then being transformed into a women’s basketball powerhouse by legendary coach Theresa Grentz. Wicks excelled in that environment. She was named the Naismith Player of the Year as a senior and still holds the Rutgers record for both men and women for most career points (2,655) and career rebounds (1,357).
If there had been a WNBA in 1988, Wicks likely would have been the No. 1 pick. Instead, she went off to play in Lake Como, Italy, after getting an offer written on a cocktail napkin.
Wicks, who had never been out of the country before, spent the next 15 years playing professional basketball in Italy, Japan, Spain, Israel, Turkey, Hungary, France and, finally, the United States.
The only thing she asked her agent is that she put her on teams near a body of water.
The Liberty selected Wicks with the No. 6 overall pick in one of the two drafts held before the inaugural 1997 season. She joined Teresa Weatherspoon, Rebecca Lobo and Vickie Johnson on a team that went to the WNBA Finals in the league’s first season before losing to the Houston Comets.
“It was a sisterhood,” Wicks said. “All my life, I had dreamed of playing at Madison Square Garden and now I was doing it with all these great players.”
The only problem with playing at Madison Square Garden, Wicks said, is that few experiences in life seem to equal it.
“When I retired, I was 36 years old and I didn’t know what to expect,” Wicks said. “I will tell you it was 10 years of being disconnected. My soul wasn’t filled the way it was before. I didn’t have a passion. I did things that were meaningful and important. I coached. I mentored players. I started a company to address the obesity and lack of exercise in New York City. They did not move my soul the way basketball did.”
A new challenge
While Wicks was off playing basketball, much had changed back home on Long Island for baymen like her father.
“He could no longer make money in the 1980s when we had these terrible brown tides that decimated the industry,” Wicks said. “I experienced watching my father not just lose his living but lose his lifestyle.”
Once a driving force in Long Island’s economy, wild oysters had all but disappeared from local waters by the 1950s. Wicks had just sold her fitness company and was looking for a new challenge five years ago when she heard there were farmers growing oysters just off shore in the South Bay. She jumped right in and leased three acres between two inlets from the town of Brookhaven.
“Looking back at my age, it was insanity to do,” Wicks said.
Oyster farming is a labor-intensive business. It takes about five months for an oyster to grow from a seed — something that is about the size of a baby aspirin and is acquired from a hatchery — to one that is market-ready. Wicks grows her oysters in floating cages and has approximately 400 cages. She estimates she will have as many as 800 — with 600 to 800 oysters per cage — as the season progresses. The cages need to be frequently changed and the oysters sorted. Wicks estimates that each oyster will be touched at least 20 times before it is harvested and put into a bag.
Wicks said the mentality she honed as an athlete has helped her succeed in oyster farming.
“People have to know you are going to deliver,” Wicks said. “Raining? Don’t care. Fifteen degrees out? Don’t care. They need the oysters. It’s the same in basketball. Bad ankle? Don’t care. Lisa Leslie is stronger and faster? Don’t care, you need to stop her.”
Wicks’ work uniform has changed, of course. She’s traded her sneakers for purple Crocs and her shorts for wader overalls. Her commute is a 50-step walk across the street to her dock and 25-foot boat. Her team includes two crew members.
In this business, just like basketball, Wicks’ 6-3 height is a substantial advantage; she doesn’t have to wait for a low tide to get her work done.
Wicks said her experience as an athlete has helped her think fast and pivot quickly in business. When she couldn’t find a wholesaler to buy her oysters after her first harvest, she took a bag and started knocking on the door of local oyster bars.
“The chefs didn’t care that I didn’t look like an oyster farmer,” she said. “They were so excited. It’s that whole tide-to-table thing. They tasted what I brought and wanted to know all about the oysters and all about me.”
Soon, she had wholesalers calling her asking if they could get in on the action.
When the pandemic hit and restaurants shut down, Wicks had to pivot again. She began calling local farmers’ markets and asking if they needed a seafood vendor. She then added fish and clams from other fishermen she knew and opened a Violet Cove Oysters booth at farmers’ markets. She also recently began growing sugar kelp alongside her oysters.
Wicks knows how lucky she is to have found her passion twice in life. She said she always felt that she was a part of something bigger than herself when she played in the WNBA. She gets the same kind of feeling when she’s out on the water working her farm and continuing her family tradition of making a living on the bay.
“I’ve been on bodies of water around the world and this is my favorite,” she said. “There’s something very spiritual about being out here with just the water and the sky. I think I always knew I was going to come back here.
“It’s in my blood.”
Basketball player: Averaged close to 40 points per game as a senior at Center Moriches High School in 1984. Won the Naismith Trophy for best player in college basketball her senior year at Rutgers in 1988. Played professional basketball for 15 years, including the Liberty’s first six seasons.
Oyster farmer: Her Violet Cove Oysters have been featured on the menu of Le Bernardin, one of five three-star Michelin restaurants in Manhattan. Locally, they can be found at Catch in Patchogue and Salt and Barrel in Bay Shore.
Wicks on the taste of Violet Cover Oysters: “In the beginning it is briny, a medium briny, then you get to the middle and there’s almond and a little celery. Then, at the end there’s a light seagrass finish….The other way I define it is it’s almost like a postcard from Long Island.”