SOMERVILLE, NJ – Wallace Gantt, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of South Somerville” declared Saturday’s rain-delayed basketball tournament a success, even though the crowd was smaller this year than last.
This year, there was more focus on the heart and soul of the event – distributing book bags and school supplies to children whose families are hard-pressed to meet household expenses, according to Gantt.
The tournament had originally been scheduled for July 29, but was postponed because of forecasted inclement weather that never materialized.
The rescheduling wreaked havoc with the number of teams that had originally signed up for the tournament.
No matter. Those who stopped by Michael Lepp Park to play, to watch, to socialize enjoyed the day, especially the dozens of kids who walked away with bags full of school supplies and other miscellaneous items.
Gantt is all about helping kids and having a good time, keeping it loose and keeping it simple.
A 1980 graduate of Somerville High School, he was an all-state football player in his high school days, a hard-hitting cornerback, but for the past several years, his focus has been on a different sport.
The basketball tournament reflects his personality, his attitude and philosophy.
The tournament, now in its 11th year, doesn’t have a name or big-time sponsor. There are no trophies for the winners. That’s not what is important, according to Gantt.
Simple. Home grown. No entitlements. No complications.
“We’ve tried to keep it that way,” Gantt said. “We didn’t want any ‘Big Box’ store donations, we want the people who live in Somerville to support the tournament, the residents who live in town to donate stuff, whatever they can.”
In the days and weeks leading up to the tournament, Gantt drives around town, stopping off at homes and businesses to pick up donations, an oddball assortment of school supplies, backpacks, Frisbees, hats, notepads, pens, flashlights, first aid kits – whatever it is that people have to give.
As they have done in past years, the Somerville Police Department drove up and unloaded a trunk full of school supplies; Local restaurateur Rick St. Pierre dropped off several boxes of food and local entrepreneur and artist Jerome Stukes donated a pair of Lakers’ purple-and-gold suede sneakers with custom art work.
Mayor Brian Gallagher fielded a team in the tournament, but was unable to play because of a pinched nerve. He met Shanel Robinson, a member of the Franklin Township Council, who is running for Somerset County Freeholder as a Democrat. Gallagher, the longtime mayor of Somerville, is her Republican opponent. They had a cordial conversation with Gantt.
Gantt is a member of the Aldridge B. Cooper Sr. Mason Lodge #69 and that’s where the idea for the tournament started.
Club #69 of the A.B. Cooper, Sr. Lodge #69, P.H.A. and it sister organization, Keturah, O.E.S. Eastern Star Club #63 take care of the permits and insurance for the tournament and provide the food and drink.
“We formed a Boys’ Club at the lodge, a lot of kids didn’t have both parents in their house and the whole thing is there wasn’t much for the kids to do so we started the club,” Gantt explained. “We used to have parties on Friday nights for the kids; they had to bring their report cards if they wanted to get in for free, we were just trying to make them accountable for something, you know,” he added.
“This is my baby but it’s not my tournament. It belongs to the community,” said Gantt, who has three sons, one of them a New Jersey State Trooper.
There is no game plan. Jump ball to get things started and after that, it’s anybody’s guess.
This is street ball, lots of trash talk; rules are enforced arbitrarily, but hey, it’s not all about the game, it’s about having fun, Gantt emphasizes.
Keeping score is not a priority.
“Nah, there’s no trophies, if you win, you just win, you know what I’m sayin’ just bragging rights, that way you keep the tournament simple, you ain’t getting no trophy and you ain’t getting no banner if you win, congratulations, we’ll see you next year, and you know, it works out good that way,” Gantt said.
“We have a lot of little kids hanging around there, they really can’t play so we’ll call a time out, let the kids come out on the on court and shoot, maybe have a contest, give them something, it makes them feel good, kind of special,” Gantt said.
“We just hope that some of this goodness rubs off on one or two of the kids,” Gantt said. “That’s what it’s all about, the kids.”