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Sunset Hoopsters’ journey never ends

SOUTH DEERFIELD — On one Thursday night more than 30 years ago, a group of young men organized a game of pickup basketball at the Whately Youth Center. Wearing basketball shorts and sneakers after a long day at work, each man put a couple of bucks into a sock — it would later be coined the sock fund— and the game began. It continued weekly through the decades and ended up rotating through the gyms of the four Union 38 elementary schools.

Years later at Captain Lathrop Drive, over pizza, calzones and beer, the group gathered inside the home of John Cycz, to reflect back on the game that sparked a weekly tradition of basketball among friends and transformed into something more.

The group, called the Sunset Hoopsters, is headed to San Antonio this March for their 27th annual trip to watch the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament.

The self-proclaimed group of “over-the-hill athletes” is made up of 40 men from all walks of life. They originally met for their love of basketball. What kept them together all these years though is their commitment to the community.

After many games, the $2 sock fund collected in founding member Charlie Ramon’s gym sock started to grow and the friends began donating to Frontier school organizations. “We get a satisfaction from supporting the community,” said member Dan Carmody. “That’s been the bond. In the background is a common interest in basketball.” Since first meeting at the local school gyms, the Sunset Hoopsters have donated between $4,500 and $5,000 each year to Frontier Regional School, including 47 scholarships for graduating seniors.

Aside from their weekly pick-up games, the friends also began to gather for the NCAA tournaments.

For each tournament, the local southern Franklin County men have met at Jerry’s Place in South Deerfield for breakfast and later packed onto a chartered bus wearing their Sunset Hoopsters’ shirts and khaki pants, headed to the airport or other closer destinations for the popular college basketball games. Though UMass is the favorite, the group doesn’t usually root for a particular team. Over the years, they have visited many cities including Washington D.C., Miami, Nashville, Tucson, New Orleans, Raleigh and Boston. In each city, the friends try to visit an historical site.

“Every time we go someplace, we always take away something. It’s more than just basketball,” Cycz said.

The Sunset Hoopsters, who are now in between 50 and 60 years old, formalized their group with an annual meeting and mission statement in 1999. The group’s mission is to support the youth of the Frontier Regional School District by facilitating higher achievement in the academics, arts and athletics. At the time, they also created a scholarship committee to oversee awarding scholarships to Frontier students. The group started with several $500 scholarships each year, but the scholarships are now $1,000.

“All our kids were in the school together,” Ramon said. “We supported the school because that’s where our kids were.”

Unlike many scholarships, the Sunset Hoopsters scholarships do not go to the best students in the graduating class, but instead support average students that show determination or have had to overcome some obstacle. By becoming a member, the Hoopsters agree that their kids won’t be eligible for the scholarships.

“We just want to help others,” said Doug Tierney, president of the group. “It’s been one of the most amazing groups of people. Everything we do now is to support academics, arts and athletics.”

One of the group’s highlights is an “Outstanding School Partner” award that they received in 2006 from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for their contributions to Frontier. Previous winners of this award were Williams College and Intel Corp .

“We were doing good things for people,” Tierney said. “But that confirmed everything we believed we hoped to accomplish.”

The Sunset Hoopsters have also developed other fundraisers to raise money for Frontier students, including parking cars at the Old Deerfield Craft Fairs and working concession stands at the UMass Mullins Center, summer soccer and lacrosse tournaments at UMass, and at UMass football games. The group hopes to continue working the concession stand at the football games once the games return to Amherst next season. Each year, members also contribute $20 to the Hoopster fund.

While sports brought them together, the Sunset Hoopsters try to support other school activities that often take a back seat to sports, like the arts and academics.

On a long list of donations, the group has donated money for a trophy cabinet to celebrate achievement in academics and the arts, new school library reference books, new uniforms for the Frontier band, new percussion instruments for the band, a new scorers’ table in the school gym, practice mats and uniforms for the school cheerleaders, and a weather station for Frontier.

The Hoopsters have also sponsored Frontier’s National Honor Society induction, providing $300 and $500 each year since 2000 to purchase the society’s awards and cover expenses for the annual induction ceremony. In the corridors of the Frontier Regional School, students have painted murals using art supplies donated by the Sunset Hoopsters. Each year the group also handles the early morning clean up at the YMCA after the Senior Graduation Party.

Although the Hoopsters do not play basketball anymore, they plan to continue their annual NCAA tournament trips and giving back to the community. As Tierney said, their motto is “may the journey never end.”

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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