Editor’s note: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on April 15, 2008.
MOST NEW HAMPSHIRE basketball junkies (along with many from Maine and more from Massachusetts) have long known a truth I learned Friday night: Few hoop events anywhere rival Portsmouth’s Connie Bean Seacoast Tournament.
For flexibility and hospitality, for range of players’ ages and abilities, for entertainment value for the men and women and boys and girls on the floor or in the stands, it’s a basketball blessing.
It is, for many, as much a part of a New Hampshire spring as potholes and frost heaves.
A ramp into the Connie Bean Center, site of the entire tournament, and elevator access to the playing level make for easy entry for the hard-of-walking. Ticket prices ($2.50 general admission, $1 for kids and seniors) make for easy entry into the action and factor into the tournament’s high rating for flexibility.
Peter Goodwin, the event’s current caretaker, puts in 13-hour Sundays, 12-hour Saturdays, and five-hour Fridays, Thursdays, Wednesdays, Tuesdays and Mondays to ensure that balls keep bouncing, rims keep rattling and people keep playing. He explained that the $2.50 ticket price is sometimes subject to, well, change.
“General admission is usually $2.50 but if we run out of quarters, it becomes $2,” he said while sitting at the ticket desk.
Price flexibility and general hospitality also power the nearby concession stand. It is a key component in the financial picture for the tournament sponsor, the Portsmouth Babe Ruth League.
“Team entry fees cover game official costs,” Goodwin, a 41-year-old IRS manager who’s in his ninth year running the tournament, said. “The concession stand is where we make our profit, though we try to take care of everyone, too.”
“I just sold a hot dog for 34 cents,” good-guy Goodwin added. “Kids will come up and ask what they can get for four cents, some amount like that. We always find something for them.”
When discussing the Seacoast event, the word we, as in “We always find something for them,” has special meaning to Goodwin because of tournament people who preceded him and joined him.
“Peter Grimblas was the driving force of this tournament for years,” Goodwin said, “and every time I step behind the snack bar I think of Bob Linkewitz and the hours he put in here. People used to come just to visit him.”
Both men have passed but Goodwin won’t allow them or other tournament forefathers to be forgotten. “I want everyone to remember the people who came before us, the people who started this.”
There’s also special pride in the people who played in the tournament, which began in 1949.
Goodwin: “Matt and Luke Bonner both played here. Scott Drapeau played here and Matt Alosa still plays here. When Mark Ferdinando hit a three-pointer this year, he extended his tournament scoring streak to 28 years.
“Several members of last year’s Bentley College team landed here this year.”
Goodwin relished telling the story of the years-ago Seacoast arrival of a Boston Celtic after he was released by the Green.
“We watched Eric Fernsten on television playing for the Celts one night and two nights later we watched him playing here at the Connie Bean.”
Next year the tournament turns 60 and it has survived by becoming younger as it aged.
“We now have seven divisions,” Goodwin said. “This started as a men’s tournament and they used to pack the place for those games but I think people got sick of all the players barking at one another. We added a high school division and realized there was a real market for this group. The younger the players, the bigger the crowds.”
In addition to the men’s open division, there’s now high school girls, junior-senior boys, freshman-sophomore boys, seventh-eighth grade boys, seventh-eighth grade girls and fifth-sixth grade boys. In all, there are 80 teams entered in the 2008 Seacoast and each is guaranteed at least two games.
The junior-senior boys’ group sports the largest number of teams, 16, and of the 800 participants in this year’s tournament, 700 are kids.
“That’s what we’re about,” Goodwin said.
Next year, Goodwin hopes to add a fifth-sixth grade girls’ division and start the tourney a week earlier than this year’s opening, March 18.
“I’m a huge believer in sports and feel the more activities we give kids the better off we all are,” Goodwin said. “Our ultimate goal here is to have the girls’ divisions as big as the boys’.
Goodwin praised the city of Portsmouth for its help in running the event and singled out Bob Hopley for his work scheduling referees for the mind-boggling 137 tournament games.
“All the officials who work here do Class L games,” Goodwin said. “One night they’re doing the Class L finals, the next night they’re here. We never have a problem with officials.”
Nor, would it seem, drawing teams. One coach from Maine makes a 240-mile round-trip with his team just to be a part of the fun.
By the time the tournament ends Friday night, Goodwin hopes the 2008 Connie Bean Seacoast Basketball Tournament will have raised $4,000-$6,000 for the Portsmouth Babe Ruth Baseball League.
“That’s the amount of money we shoot for every year,” he said. “Some say that’s not a lot of money for the time and effort that people put in every year. To me, it’s not about the money as much as it’s about community.”
I think the New Hampshire basketball community — past and present — concurs with that.