Newtown Youth Basketball Association Celebrates 50th Anniversary
This is the first in a series of articles highlighting 50 years of the Newtown Youth Basketball Association. Please check in upcoming editions of The Bee for more coverage as the season winds down in the coming weeks.
By Andy Hutchison
Youth basketball has been played competitively here in Newtown for a half-century; the Newtown Youth Basketball Association (NYBA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary season this winter.
From the opening tip off back in 1969 to the games that are unfolding this season, there is a lot that is still the same about this volunteer-led program. It provides young athletes with a chance to play the game and learn about teamwork and competition.
Camaraderie and sportsmanship are among the most import things the girls and boys learn and experience during their time in the program, according to NYBA President Top Martinez, who has been at the helm each of the last two seasons and who has coached in the program several years.
Players have moved up from the youth ranks to the high school level and it stands to reason they will continue to do so for years to come.
“My enjoyment is knowing out of all of those kids on the bench, I’ve coached every single one of them,” Martinez said during a Newtown High School boys’ game this winter as the Nighthawks got ready to begin the second half of action. “I take pride in that.”
While a lot remains the same, as can be expected over the course of five decades, there has been quite a bit of change in the program.
It was started by St Rose Sports Guild, said Jack Shpunt, who was involved from the inaugural season until 2016. Newtown Parks & Recreation took over after a few years. Bill Bower, whose name would later be honored with the one of the league’s sportsmanship awards given out at the end of each campaign, was the driving force behind getting the league off the ground, Shpunt said.
Currently there are about 900 total participants, which is way up from the early days of the program — initially only a couple of teams were offered — but also down a bit from approximately 1,300 at the association’s highest point, Shpunt said. Changes in population and demographics impact the participation levels, and there are other programs offered in the area as well, not to mention growth in other sports such as hockey and an increase in year-round athletes for all sports.
Shpunt said that as the program grew he ended up with 16 players on one team. That was too many, so he started a younger league after consulting with Parks & Recreation in late 1970s. Equal playing time was always one of the objectives, Shpunt said. When neighboring and nearby towns started their youth programs, organizers solicited Shpunt’s help in organizing leagues, he said.
Some of the notable basketball names that have made their way through Newtown’s youth program are P.J. Cochrane, who continued his career at the University of Connecticut, and Bobby Haskins, who went on to play football at the University of Virginia; Andrew Gellert, who went on to break a record for steals at Harvard, and Rylee Mulligan, who went on to play at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J.
One of the first coaches in the program was Art Spector, the first player to be signed by the Boston Celtics, who played for the Celtics from 1946 to 1950, Shpunt noted.
Girls On The Court And More Changes
Martinez notes that one of the most notable changes in his time with the program is the change in technology. Nowadays everything — from registration to schedule information — is online. Originally, teams were formed when a draft was held, and names were written on 3x5-inch index cards and drawn by coaches, Shpunt recalls.
The program initially was offered only to boys. In the mid-1970s, Shpunt recalls, a girls’ program was established.
“We played boys’ rules right from the beginning with girls,” said Shpunt, adding that when he was in high school the girls’ team played different rules with six players a side, rather than the traditional five, who were broken into two forward, two defenders, and only two players who were allowed to run the length of the court. “We never used that,” he said.
Joan Crick got the girls’ program going. Rich Eigen and Bruce Martin are among those who were involved in the early days, with Martin serving as the girls’ league vice president, Shpunt said. Eigen ran the girls’ league for a couple of years before the girls’ and boys’ leagues came together under one vice president.
Kathy McCleary has volunteered with the program for a decade, coaching each year, serving as league director and vice president of the girls’ in house program for the last four years. McCleary notes that very few towns, at least in this area, have girls’ programs. In fact, Newtown welcomes teams from Monroe to participate in its league, McCleary said.
McCleary’s daughters Bridget and Deirdre continue to play in NYBA, and their older siblings, Molly (now on the high school team), Eileen, and Sean, all participated in the program.
“It’s a great opportunity. It offers kids of all levels an ability to play. I think it’s a great activity in the winter for kids to get out and run around,” McCleary added.
Shpunt coached through many years and changes in divisions. As the number of participants increased, leagues were created for fourth- and fifth-graders and sixth- through eighth-graders, Shpunt believes, in 1977 or ’78. Tom Egen ran the junior boys’ league before Shpunt took over and ran it for well over a decade throughout late 1970s, all of the ’80s, and into the ’90s.
In the mid-’70s, the league starting holding championship games for boys. Now there are grade level championships for girls’ and boys’ teams, as well as all star games for the older grades.
“For the most part, out numbers went up gradually,” Shpunt said.
There were eight teams of players in grades four through nine that played out of the Newtown Middle School B gymnasium, Shpunt recalls from the early days once the league was established. In 1971 the new high school opened and the teams moved there; they played at night during the week as well as on weekends for a while, said Shpunt, who also volunteered in the town’s football program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past fall.
Over time, teams were added for kindergarten participants along with second- and third-graders.
The youth program had travel teams as early as the late ’70s, Shpunt recalls, but they played in tournaments only; there was no organized league back then. Teams from Newtown started played in a travel league based in Southington during the 1980s while still playing in-house. “In about early 1990s we helped start a new league based out of Ridgefield that became the existing Fairfield County Youth Basketball League. That’s when the players started playing just in-house or travel,” Shpunt said.
A board was formed in the early 1990s to help manage the growing program and Hank Gellert served as the first president of the league.
The senior league came into play for high school age players from approximately 1975-85. The program restarted in about 1992, Shpunt added.
“The best shot I ever saw was in a senior boys’ league. [Ron Costa] was diving out of bounds and he threw it behind the back and it went in the basket,” Shpunt said of this miraculous play.
The basketball program is involved in a variety of community-related events, including Unified Sports®, collecting products for the FAITH Food Pantry, and the annual Senior Citizen Appreciation Night in which players in the program accompany seniors to a Newtown High girls’ contest as a way to bring residents separated by so many years and experiences together for a good time.
Coaching in the program is rewarding for the volunteers, in large part because the players on the court have fun while learning.
“I just enjoyed seeing the kids go out and do something you taught them to do. It’s a good feeling really,” Shpunt said. “I really enjoyed it. It was worth the time.”
“The NYBA has played an important role within the youth community of Newtown. Not only does the league provide a fun, structured, and competitive program, it also has been all inclusive with having a place for all skill levels to play, enhancing the Newtown community spirit,” said Kathleen Mulligan, who has spent 11 years on the NYBA board serving as travel director, and having spent ten as the scheduler.
“I think the NYBA has helped model excellent volunteerism, with a tremendous amount of our community’s youth learning how to give back and the importance of it. This becomes evident when our scholarship committee presents to the board the Newtown High School seniors that are candidates for the NYBA scholarships. It always brings great joy when you read and hear about what these scholarship candidates learned from the program and how they were inspired to give back to our community in their own way,” added Mulligan, who has helped out with fundraising and summer camps as well.