The University Basketball League on the Newark campus of UMDNJ was established in the late ‘70s and ran for more than 25 years. For most of those years, I was the commissioner.
The league was the brain-child of two employees, Charlie, from Receiving, and Reggie, from Buildings and Grounds. I knew them both from casual pick-up games.
“What do you think, doc?” said Charlie after we had played an especially competitive afternoon of pick-up basketball with other employees, two or three faculty and several students. “Help us form this league. It will be good for everyone.” I agreed and the league went from an idea to reality in a matter of weeks.
In our first season we had five teams, with players whose abilities ranged from mediocre (me) to highly skilled. But news of the league spread quickly and within a few years we had expanded to separate divisions, “A” for the more talented, highly competitive players, and “B” , for folks who mainly just wanted to have fun.
At its peak, the University Basketball League (the UBL as we called it) had 27 teams involving close to 300 men and women. [The first woman to play in the league was a med student who re-emerged in my life a few years ago to deliver the first, and later two more of my grandchildren.]
We played our games on a small all-purpose court with a concrete floor, a few steps behind the cafeteria. The space was barely big enough for the undersized court with walls only a few feet from the playing area. We crammed our scoring table, players benches, and fans into every crook of the room. Sometimes the fans spilled out onto the court.
The players came from all over the Newark campus: employees, students from the medical, dental and graduate schools, faculty and staff members. From mid-fall through early spring we played triple-headers on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights with an electronic scoreboard, official scorers and paid referees (local men and women who were either adding to their day wages or trying to work their way into reffing college or professional games). Each year established teams re-emerged in the early fall and new teams were formed by incoming students and new employees. There came a time when we didn’t even have to advertise for the league; it was the October buzz on campus.
Teams had names like Canine Eminence (dental students), Four Guards and a Prayer (medical students, only one of whom was over six feet) and Acid Fast (graduate students). One of the painters organized an early employee. Perkins was around 6’4”, powerfully built and referred to as ‘The ‘Mailman’ by his teammates. His team of employees, most of whom lived in Newark, took a name that came to epitomize what the league would later become, Family.
In the more competitive division there was a fierce rivalry for the annual championship, with its trophies, jackets and most important, year long bragging rights. In the other division, it was more for fun, but as with any sport, there were rivalries, like when a team of first year dental students played first year medical students.
One year, a medical student team was undefeated going into the first round of the playoffs where they were to play the winless Acid Fast, a mostly out-of-shape, somewhat disorganized, group of grad students and faculty. But this rag-tag team had acquired a secret weapon about halfway through the season. Judy, was a grad student who had played college ball at Montclair State and almost accepted an offer to play in a woman’s league overseas. She had been in and out of games all year (balancing laboratory experiments with basketball), but watching her play, we all knew that when she was in the game, anything was possible.
The grad student team played at a high level in the first half, holding a slim lead as the buzzer sounded, with Judy scoring from all over the floor. The med students were shocked and baffled. By then the gym had filled with players from the next games; most cheered wildly for an upset. But at the scorers desk, we predicted that the Med students would take over the second half, clamp down on Judy with their superior talent, youth and fitness, and would run away with the game. They started the half by guarding Judy closely as she brought the ball up court. But Judy was ready for this and as she had instructed her team at the break, every time they double-teamed her, she passed the ball to one of her open teammates, who with inspired confidence, took and made most of their shots. In the final seconds with Acid Fast down one and the gym bursting with every play, the ball and the expected double-team came to Judy. But this time, unlike most other plays in the half, Judy, instead of passing, faked the defenders and then drove left (‘I didn’t know she could go left,’ I said to the official scorer) for a layup and a foul that ended up winning the game.
Chairs came flying out onto the floor (with quick apologies because the guys knew they could be bounced from the league for that kind of behavior); but the crowd was jubilant at the upset and didn’t know how else to react. The fans mobbed the floor and the winless Acid Fast had memories that would last a lifetime and Judy became an instant legend in our league. Acid Fast returned to form in their next game and lost by 30 points (Judy couldn’t get away from an experiment that ran later than she had thought).
Once, in the competitive ‘A’ division, a highly talented team composed of security guards and maintenance staff, had unexpectedly lost all of their regular season games. Just before the playoffs, their captain, a security guard aptly named ‘Silk’, appeared at my office door to tell me a member of his team was injured and asked if he could add a player, a guy he knew from the dental school and played with on Friday afternoons. This ploy was not unusual and the rules strictly forbid it (the rosters were fixed weeks before the playoffs and teams were urged to always have enough players to absorb an injury). But Silk, a very persuasive guy, persisted and finally I told him that he could add the player if the other 5 teams in the league agreed and their coaches signed a paper to that effect.
A few days later, I got the signed paper and saw the player – a non-descript white guy (the only one on Silk’s team) of average height and build who could shoot and knew the game, but was by no means an overwhelming player. At least, that’s what everyone thought. This guy was the missing ingredient – the one man who transformed a team of excellent players into a coherent ensemble – they never lost another game and went off with jackets, trophies, and of course bragging rights. We talked about that season for years after.
In one of the later years of the league, Stan Bergen, the founding president of UMDNJ, and a huge supporter of the UBL, stood in the cramped gym watching a game (he would make a point of coming to at least one of the playoff games, usually the championship game, each year). I said to him, “Do you remember when this was just a bunch of white guys and black guys running up and down the court?”
He smiled and nodded as we watched a med student in a bright red turban race down the court as part of a team that seemed to be composed of all members (black, white, Asian, middle-east, women) of the diverse community that came to define the Newark campus.
As the league began to change complexion, many of the traditional white and black players were skeptical of the abilities of the Chinese and Indian students joining the game. That quickly came to an end in one game where well into the second half a team of mostly Asian second year med students were playing a more traditional team of all black guys from the cafeteria, maintenance and security. On three successive plays, Nishant, a slight Indian kid came down the court, set up just beyond three-point range and drained all three shots. Finally, one of the black guys on the other team yelled out, “Will someone play that little F…er – that boy can shoot!” I knew Nishant throughout his years in medical school and I never asked him about that game, but I think those words ‘that boy can shoot…’are still with him and I’ll bet that frequently he falls asleep smiling and thinking about that game, the respect he got and those shots. There is no greater praise for those of us who play pick-up basketball than to be recognized as a ‘player’ by one of the talented street kids we play against.
From the beginning, the league faced two potential threats to its existence; fights and lawsuits. We had players sign waivers of responsibility forms that satisfied the University and in those 25 years, no one ever even threatened a lawsuit. There were injuries, of course, plenty of them. But they would usually be handled by one of the players who might be an attending in the ER or in Orthopedics telling the injured player, “listen, stay off the leg (twisted ankles were the most frequent injury) and come see me tomorrow, I’ll take a look at it…” There was an unwritten rule that those players with medical skills would take care of those who got injured.
I recall few actual fights other than the usual shoving or threatening, except for once when I got a report that there had been a fight between two of the players in a game the night before. “Wait,” I said as I heard the story, “Aren’t they brothers?” When I saw their mother (a security guard) later in the day she said, shaking her head, “Doc, those two been fighting since they were kids. If that happened at home I just took them by the scruff of the neck and threw them out in the backyard till they cooled off…” We resolved that incident without further problems.
Racially motivated fighting, that was for many of us our unspoken fear, happened only once when John a white official was abused by one of the black players for one of his calls. John quickly lost his temper and started racial name-calling. Some of the players charged him but we got in the middle quickly restoring order; we cancelled the rest of the game. In the coming days this incident was resolved and John apologized to some of the players. After a brief suspension John resumed officiating. The day of the fight, one of the other officials took me aside and whispered, “You know, Doc, John’s wife is black and they’ve been having some issues. So I think there may be things going on that run a bit deeper than what just happened on the court.”
But those incidents are the only ones I recall over a 25-year period. And what were the benefits of this league? friendships, mutual understanding, camaraderie in the hallways, laughter, a chance to banter, to joke and tease our co-workers who we would otherwise pass unnoticed in the halls, stories that were told for years that make us all relive those times and a bridge that spanned race, gender and economics.
There is a dark year that hangs over the heads of all of the long-time players in the UBL. It was 1999. The fall season was just about to begin when we heard the news that one of our players, a young man I knew as Hammer, had been killed in a car-jacking gone wrong in Newark. John Davis, father of one with another on the way, was studying for a bachelor’s degree while working in the Pathology department and had told me earlier in the year that No, he wouldn’t be playing this year because he had school that night and, “you know, Doc,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your priorities straight…” I still can see his warm grin when he told me that. What a devastating loss that was.
Only a few weeks later another long-time player, Will, also died, perhaps of a heart attack we were told, and a third, Cool-Aid fell to the sidewalk with a seizure and never recovered. Cool-Aid (I knew him for more than three years before finding out that his real name was Michael) had been mugged several years earlier on the streets of Newark and the thought was that the seizure was probably a result of the brain injuries he sustained then. These deaths all happened within a few months. I have never heard since nor had I heard in the years prior to that fall of the death of any of our players. But that period brought us together at funerals and in raising funds for the families of those men. We then began to feel about ourselves the way that employee team felt when we first formed. We were family.
The league ceased operation in 2005; a casualty of indifference by a new group of administrators, a chance to save a few dollars and other reasons that I never understood.
When I think of the league now I do so with great warmth and smiles. We all worked so hard to keep it going for all those 25 years. But, I’m still angry when I think of the hypocrisy by those in charge in the latter part of the first decade of the millennium, who would publicly exhort the diversity of our campus in over-hyped and over-publicized events and then let the league die.
I ran into some of the guys on one of my last days on campus before I retired. “Those were the good days, Doc…” said Perkins.
“They were, Doc. They really were,” said Silk.