How Hoops In The Sun Became the Bronx Haven For NBA Players in New York City
NEW YORK CITY -- As the National Sales Manager for Jennifer Convertibles, a company that specializes in sofa beds and leather furniture, Joe “Pops” Cruz Sr. spent most of his days on the road training newly-hired furniture salesmen, often far away from his family residing in East Harlem. In the summer of 1999, he was sent to Los Angeles and used his free time to check out Venice Beach, home to arguably the world’s most famous outdoor basketball venue.
Thinking of his past family trips to Orchard Beach, a 115-acre beach and promenade built in the 1930s just off the East Bronx coast; and his time spent helping out Nike Pro City, a summer basketball mainstay in New York City, Pops was inspired to bring what he saw back home. He called his two young sons, Randy and Joe Jr., and created Hoops In The Sun (HITS), an annual basketball tournament free to all—and that could compete with the city’s many streetball events.
This Sunday marks the opening of the HITS playoffs, with the championship to be decided the following weekend. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer, the event is still going strong, sustained by some of the Big Apple’s best—including a slew of NBA players—and motivated by the memory of the man who started it.
"It is the summertime, and they can be anywhere else,” Randy tells CloseUp360. “But they choose to be at our venue, every Saturday and Sunday, 10 o’clock in the morning until seven at night in the hot sun, just supporting what we do."
Joe Cruz Jr. (left) and Randy Cruz own and operate Hoops In The Sun (HITS) together. (Ian Aaron)
Randy was a sophomore in high school and Joe Jr. was attending Lehman College when HITS began. They learned from Pops as he ran the tournament from its launch in 2000 on a newly-renovated court, helping out in little ways as it grew in size. But in 2004, Joe Sr. passed away from liver cancer, leaving the event in the hands of his two sons.
"I didn't want to do the tournament without him,” Joe Jr. says. “It's his legacy. I didn't think that many people would respect me and my brother, being so young in the game. ... My brother was still young at the time, and as a big brother, you don't want to let him down."
The two took the reins, and HITS has since grown from a five-team men’s league to a 55-team bonanza featuring men and women from middle school to the pros. The lone beach-side basketball tournament in New York stakes its claim with NBA-style rules (12-minute quarters, official court dimensions) and a Venice Beach East feel. The summer heat smacks down on players as passing beachgoers drop by curiously.
The event kept its annual run going, thanks in large part to about $400,000 in upgrades in 2017—including two court renovations, new fiberglass stanchions and four stadium-style steel bleachers—made possible by the office of Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr. The effort to secure that funding was all led by the two brothers and their father’s vision.
"His goal was to give us a small business, an opportunity for my brother and I to create our own lane and be leaders and be trend-setters for New York City basketball," Joe says. “I am a disciple of my dad, continue pushing forward positive impactful programming—not only for Orchard Beach, but our Bronx community."
Joe is the face of the tournament, the one dealing with sponsors and the state. Randy works behind the scenes, designing all the graphics, themes and giveaways while handling HITS’ online presence. They are co-owners or co-commissioners—they don’t care about their official titles—but the family-style operation applies through the 20-25 event staffers.
“It's really our home, our baby,” Randy says. “We've had kids who were 10, 11 years old work with us all the way until now. Now they're grown ups.”
Though the Cruz brothers work together on HITS, Joe Jr. is known as the face of the tournament. (Ian Aaron)
Also evolving over these last 20 years: the talent. The Cruz brothers rave about the ever-growing crop of potential-packed youngsters and tried-and-true vets in the tournament. While other events in New York centrally locate in the city and tend to feature the five boroughs, Randy boasts about the broader geographic diversity among players who compete in HITS.
"You're getting teams from the tri-state area—Westchester, Albany, Long Island, Mount Vernon—creating that melting-pot environment you're not going to get anywhere else," Randy proclaims.
The talent pool is not restricted to the high school and overseas players who make their names every summer weekend. Some of the world’s star hoopers have made legendary appearances at Orchard Beach. Over its 20 years, HITS has been graced by New York native NBA veterans such as Metta World Peace, Joakim Noah, Ben Gordon, Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker, among others.
“I've known Joe and those guys for a very long time,” Kemba tells CloseUp360 after USA Basketball practice this week in Las Vegas. “I'm from the Bronx. Anything that has to do with the Bronx, I love it. I try and represent it as much as I can. That's what we do in New York. A lot of us grew up playing streetball and come from that culture.”
Metta World Peace and Kemba Walker both played at HITS in 2008. (Randy Cruz)
A favorite of Randy’s and perhaps the greatest visit to date was a 2002 cameo by Tracy McGrady. At that time, the eventual Hall of Famer was coming off his second consecutive All-Star appearance, while HITS was in just its third year of existence. T-Mac signed autographs for close to three hours and played H-O-R-S-E with some of the kids. Weeks later, he rocked his HITS jersey while sitting next to Doc Rivers, his head coach with the Orlando Magic at the time, at Orlando Summer League.
"My dream is to have a whole bunch of NBA players come in there and just really see what we've been able to do," Randy says. "It's a crapshoot. You get lucky one year, then the following year they just don't show up. No fault of your own. It's just a matter of if they're here, if they want to play. It's outdoors, concrete, it's the heat.
“Any time they do, it's surreal because kids, when they see a Lance Stephenson or when they see a Kemba Walker for free right in front of their face, it's like wow.”
Lance Stephenson, who is from Brooklyn, has previously played at HITS. (Randy Cruz)
Surviving in New York comes with its share of challenges, though. The year-to-year hunt for potential sponsors is stressful, with company reps changing and conflicting contracts breaking up continuity. Things hit rock bottom in 2009, when the Cruz brothers had to pay for uniforms out of pocket and pull off the tournament without a major sponsor. There was no certainty HITS would happen that year, or going forward.
“Bottom line is, man, the show must go on,” Randy says. "We're not stagnant, we don't remain complacent. ... My dad always said that if you can't be better than somebody, you have to be different."
This mentality allowed them to bounce back, landing Nike for the 2010 run and picking up steam in the social media era to follow. The Cruz brothers switch it up every summer, formulating ideas for the next tournament a week after championship weekend.
All the while, HITS sticks to its roots. In 2007, the court was renamed to Joe “Pops” Cruz Sr. Court, after the man who saw what could be.
“When you get there, you don't want to leave,” Randy says. “I know if my dad was around, he would be very proud to see what we've been able to do."
Additional reporting by CloseUp360’s Editorial Director Josh Martin.
David Vertsberger is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.