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Greg Kapalko recalls the summer of 1991, when the Jersey Shore Basketball League – the NCAA-sanctioned summer league and local basketball institution that was so much a part of his annual summer routine – reached a crossroads.

“Our last summer playing at Birch Hill (Swim Club) in Old Bridge, we must have had 15 rainouts,” Kapalko recalled. “If we didn’t move to an indoor venue, the league would have folded.”

Nearly 30 years later, the JSBL faces another reckoning with nature: the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last summer’s schedule, forcing the cancelation of what would have been the 51st season in league history.

Kapalko, the chairman of the JSBL board of governors, and the league owners were resolute in their desire to make sure the league continues in the summer of 2021. Just as the league had to move to St. Rose High School in 1992 after 22 years playing at various outdoor locations along the Shore, this year, the JSBL had to return to the great outdoors.

For the first time in 30 years, the JSBL is playing its season at an outdoor court, with Dempsey Park in Belmar playing host to the five-week regular season, which began Wednesday with an evening double-header. With limits on indoor crowds still in place while the season was being planned in the fall and earlier this year, Kapalko worked out an arrangement with Belmar to use the courts that neighbor the railroad tracks and Jersey Shore nightlife destination Bar Anticipation.

RKE Athletic takes on Stern's Trailer in the Jersey Shore Basketball League opening night of 2021. (Photo by Matt Manley)
RKE Athletic takes on Stern's Trailer in the Jersey Shore Basketball League opening night of 2021. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“Last year was a no-brainer as far as us cancelling the league because you couldn’t play anywhere,” Kapalko said. “Last fall, not knowing what was ahead, I got the idea that if we really wanted to get back on the floor for the summer, let’s go outside.”

“We spoke to (Mayor Mark Walsifer) and asked if the Borough would be interested in having the JSBL outside and the town was all for it. I spoke to our commissioner Ron Kornegay and our owners and everybody was all in on the idea.”

The move outdoors has had immediate consequences, both positive and negative. The scheduled opening night of the season on Tuesday, June 22 was postponed due to rain throughout the day and the season instead opened the following night.

The outdoor venue has also given several current college players pause, according to Kapalko, who said players have some safety concerns about playing outdoors in general, as well as the overall differences between playing outside as opposed to the more controlled environment of the gym. Among the players to hold off on joining the league for the time being is Monmouth University guard and former Manchester High School standout Shavar Reynolds, who played four years at Seton Hall and was a standout at the JSBL for Stern’s Trailer in the summer of 2019.

On the other hand, the move outdoors presents some potential as well, even beyond the charm of playing or watching basketball outside on a summer night in one of New Jersey’s liveliest Shore towns. Part of the preparation for the season involved resurfacing the main court at Dempsey Park, fitting it with an international three-point line and replacing the rims on the backboards.

“These courts (at Dempsey Park) were really not in great shape,” Kapalko said. “They hadn’t been worked on in years, so we talked about the feasibility of improving the main court so we could use it for the season. Unbeknownst to me, Belmar was working with Jersey Power and Light to get these courts resurfaced.”

At St. Rose High School, where the league played its games from 1992 to 2012 and again from 2016 until 2019, there was only a high-school three-point line and the league’s players – all seasoned college basketball players and some with professional experienced – took full advantage of the short looks from beyond the arc.

Now with three additional feet required to sink a three-point shot – not to mention the occasional breeze that can toy with any shooter’s jumper – offense in the JSBL is likely to be less reliant on the three-pointer.

On the first night of action, the final scores reflected a more deliberate game than spectators were used to seeing in recent years. Only one of the four teams to play on Wednesday cracked the 100-point mark, a far cry from 2019, when there was only one game all summer long in which a team failed to score 100 points.

“I think you’re going to see a lower-scoring game, but it’s going to be, in my opinion, a better-quality game,” Kalpalko said. “Three-pointers are going to be a little harder to come by so I think you are going to see guys try to get to the rim and teams trying to get the ball inside more.”

Despite the lower scores, the games on opening night still had plenty of entertainment value. In the first game, RKE Athletic beat Stern’s Trailer, 90-87, on a game-winning three-pointer by Wes Telfair with 0.8 seconds left. In the nightcap, former Monmouth star Justin Robinson (23 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists) took over late to lead Sea View Jeep to a 104-94 win over 2019 league champion Larson Ford in a rematch of that summer’s championship game.

Robinson is among the headliners in this year’s league and plays on a team loaded with former All-Shore-Conference basketball players as high-schoolers. Roy Mabrey and Matt McMullen starred as a First-Team All-Shore duo for Christian Brothers Academy in 2009-10, when Mabrey was a senior and McMullen a junior. Sea View also rosters CBA all-time leader scorer Pat Andree, who graduated from the academy in 2016 before going on to play at both Lehigh and North Carolina State.

Former Mater Dei Prep star and Princeton University forward Elijah Barnes is also on the Sea View squad and treated the crowd to the dunk of opening night.

The JSBL will also get the rare current high school player involved this year, with Manasquan star and reining, two-time Shore Sports Network Player of the Year Ben Roy joining the RKE Athletic roster, although he was not present on opening night.

Unlike past seasons, the JSBL will be played two nights per week instead of three, with Tuesday and Wednesday as the scheduled nights for games. This Sunday, however, will be a one-night exception, with Dempsey Park hosting a triple-header involving all six of the league’s teams, beginning at 6 p.m. with Orthopaedic Institute and Jersey Blues.

Orthopaedic and Jersey Blues – the former of which is essential Brookdale Community College’s current men’s basketball roster – will be making their summer debuts before the final two games involving the four teams that opened on Wednesday night.

With the new venue and tweaked schedule, the JSBL will march on in 2021 and, according to Kapalko, could go either way on a venue in the future – both in the long and short term. If they can arrange to move back into St. Rose for the playoffs, that option could be a realistic one if the outdoor venue presents problems. On the flip side, if Dempsey Park is a hit, Kapalko did not rule out going all in on making it the new full-time home to the league, which would likely involve even more upgrades to the main court and two side courts at the Belmar park.

“We’ll see what the players think and we’ll see where we’re at after the first couple of weeks as far as the weather and the quality of the games,” Kapalko said. “Based on (opening night) I think it’s going to work well. We usually get a small crowd for the first few games and later in the summer it picks up so hopefully, people find us and come check it out. It’s still a high-quality league and a great tradition that I’ve been lucky to be a part of for the last 40 or so years.”

JSBL Sunday Night Schedule (Click for Full Season Schedule)

At Dempsey Park, 16th Ave. and Railroad Ave., Belmar

Orthopaedic Institute vs. Jersey Blues, 6 p.m.

RKE Athletic vs. Larson Ford, 7:30 p.m.

Sterns Trailer vs. Sea View Jeep, 9 p.m.

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