Hartford --The Greater Hartford Pro-Am summer basketball league, one of Hartford's signature summer sporting events, is leaving the city after 16 years.
Pro-Am co-founder and CEO Peter Higgins, citing concerns over rising costs and other facility complications in Hartford, said Tuesday that the annual six-week event will be held this year at Crosby High School in Waterbury.
That means relocation about 25 miles west on I-84 for a cherished summer event. Fans packed into North End gyms over the years, watching players with star power and area ties put on a show amid thumping hip-hop music and courtside commentary. Among the participants in years past: Kemba Walker, Ray Allen, Vin Baker, Andre Drummond, Jerome Dyson, A.J. Price, Ryan Gomes, Jeremy Lamb, Michael Finley, Rudy Gay, Kevin Ollie, Taliek Brown and Manute Bol.
"The bottom line is there are better facilities outside of Hartford," said Higgins, originally from Windsor. "Long story short: we're just trying to do basketball. When I moved back here [from Virginia], it was ideal to do it [in Hartford]. There was a lot of talent in this area, and it's been a great thing. I've seen a lot of kids grow up with the Pro-Am. It shows the strides we've made, and that we've been a staple here. A lot of people look forward to it. But as far as the city, the measures they need us to go to are just too extreme. The security, the extra fees, we just can't afford it."
Higgins' decision was met with surprise and disappointment by the office of Mayor Pedro Segarra, who attended a few Pro-Am games last summer at Classical Magnet School on Woodland Street and had pledged financial support to defray rising operating costs.
Jared Kupiec, Segarra's outgoing chief of staff, said of the move: "We didn't receive any notice or notification. We are as shocked as anyone because the mayor has this year, just like last year, demonstrated his commitment to the Pro-Am."
Kupiec said Segarra guaranteed $25,000 for 2012 and again for this summer.
"The mayor has made his commitment very clear, that he wanted to continue funding [the Pro-Am]," Kupiec said. "It's very disappointing that everything happened in such a truncated schedule. I want to be crystal clear: at no point did the mayor's commitment to the Pro-Am change or decrease. He was ready, willing and able to provide the support."
Still, Higgins said he would have needed more help with escalating costs. The Pro-Am's annual operating budget has risen to about $75,000. Higgins owes the Hartford school system $32,000 for use of Sport & Medical Sciences Academy in 2011 and $29,000 for use of Classical Magnet School in 2012.
Those fees are more than double what it cost the Pro-Am to operate in 2010 at Sports & Medical Sciences, because, Higgins said, the school system required that the Pro-Am hire more security guards and custodians. The fees are also more than double what it will cost to run the league at Crosby, about $12,000, according to Higgins.
The Pro-Am has not received last summer's $25,000 pledge from the city. However, Kupiec said that is only because an invoice was never submitted by the Pro-Am. Kupiec said that payment is ready to be processed when the proper paperwork is filed. He added that Segarra's pledge of $25,000 still stands if Higgins stays in Hartford.
Speaking several hours after reaction from the mayor's office, Higgins said he is committed to Waterbury. He said he has obtained certification from the NCAA, allowing college players to participate, with the location listed as Waterbury.
When former NBA player and Waterbury native Ryan Gomes and veteran AAU coach Wayne Simone, both longtime Pro-Am supporters and participants, heard from Higgins in recent months that the event was in trouble, they offered to help facilitate discussions with Waterbury and Crosby High.
"We didn't want to get in the middle of some issue," Simone said. "We talked about it with the [Waterbury] mayor's office, how we don't want to cause any problems here. Pete said [the Pro-Am] is dying. I said Waterbury is a place to have it. We knew [the Pro-Am] was looking for a different home. We didn't even know Hartford wanted the thing. That's the truth. So Ryan called the mayor [Neil M. O'Leary]."
Eric Crawford, who was brought into the Pro-Am fold three years ago to help Higgins with management and development, said Tuesday he would not continue in his role, which he initially described as executive director, and later volunteer commissioner.
"A couple of reasons, one being [spending more time with] my son," Crawford said. "Second, the move to Waterbury. I got involved because I'm a Hartford guy, and I thought it was great for Hartford. Move it out of Hartford, I can no longer support it from my end. I got involved because it was healthy for my community. It would be cheaper to do it in Waterbury, but there should be enough to cover it in Hartford. ... We had ample support from the mayor's office."
The Pro-Am features the top players with area ties, from former Connecticut high school and North End standouts to the brightest stars of NCAA Division I and even some NBA players. The event started in 1997 as a small gathering of friends, backed by a few sponsors, at Bulkeley High School. It grew into an event with overflow crowds, dozens of interns and volunteers and associated youth clinics that run year-round.
The Greater Hartford Pro-Am is a 501(c)(3) registered nonprofit organization with its signature event being the annual summer basketball league, which begins the first week in July and runs through mid-August. Pro-Am annually hires about 50 youths in conjunction with Capital Workforce Partners.
The Pro-Am makes money off player fees and sponsorships, and Higgins has said he usually ends up paying a lot of fees out of his own pocket. Admission to games is free.
Higgins said Tuesday the actual name of the event is the GHPA BBall Showcase -- and moving forward, Higgins indicated, that might stand for Gomes/Higgins Pro-Am. The move to the gym at Crosby, which holds more than 2,000 people, eliminates overcrowding. Past venues included Bulkeley, Weaver High, Fox Middle School, Sports & Medical Sciences and Classical Magnet.
A three-year run at Sports & Medical Sciences culminated with perhaps the most successful run in league history in 2011. UConn players coming off a national championship played in front of crowds of 1,500 -- well over the gym's capacity. Fearful of the potential for safety issues, school officials told Higgins and Crawford that the Pro-Am could no longer play at the school, which has a gym with a capacity of 750.
Last summer, with few venues interested and others lacking air conditioning or a wood court, Higgins considered taking the Pro-Am out of Hartford. But Segarra and his staff helped reach an agreement with Classical Magnet. With even more police and security presence -- and rising costs -- attendance was held to 800 every night. The Pro-Am had a title sponsor -- State Farm -- for the first time.
Higgins said he ran into the same offseason uncertainty and complications regarding where to play and for how much money in recent months. Ultimately, he decided the Pro-Am would be better off in a bigger building that cost less to occupy.
"[Hartford has] lost a diamond in this situation, and it hurts," said Ashon "Chewy" Avent of Hartford, a longtime Pro-Am player and later an announcer. "It was more than basketball. Summertime will never be the same in Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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