Greater Hartford Pro-Am Founder Keeps Giving
On Tuesday night, July 5, at Vale Sports Club in Middletown, Connecticut, a mix of cheers and groans spilled into the air from the nearly 50 spectators in attendance when Kahari Beaufort's game-winning shot floated into the net just as the game clock expired. A celebration ensued as FAVOR, Inc., the defending champions, who had only five players available for the game, beat The Firm Inc., 91 to 90, at the Greater Hartford Pro-Am (GHPA) game.
The three referees scurried off the basketball court like frightened rabbits, never to be seen again that night. They didn’t want to stick around to discuss the previous call that led to one second being added to the expired game clock.
The game had offered plenty of one-on-one isolation moves—some spectacular, and others not so much—from guys who were all dreaming of playing relevant basketball in the fall. Pride was on the line, which brought out the competitive juices in the players, something that money can’t buy.
The next day at 10:00 a.m., I call Pete Higgins, 52, the founder of the GHPA and father of six children. I’m surprised how energetic he sounds, considering he was on the microphone for two games last night, providing his unique style of in-your-face play-by-play commentary, accompanied by a DJ spinning hip-hop music during the game. I discover later that Pete works the third shift.
The GHPA gives players a platform to showcase their talents, improve their skills, and stay in game shape. It also functions as a learning lab, where the sting of a last-second loss can help players develop composure during close games.
Pete says the league is about getting better from a player’s perspective. He says, “Do you want to develop and get to another level. That’s what it’s about, trying to help guys get to another level.” Another hallmark of the GHPA is that players use their talent to give back at the free clinics during Community Day.
Origin stories have twists, turns, and co-founders are often edited in or out. Pete’s story is no different. Kevin Kirksey, a high school friend of Pete’s, was a co-founder of the GHPA. But in the current story, he’s no longer mentioned because he is not active in the day-to-day work of the league.
Pete’s version of the story begins when he said to himself, “Let me take this different way [home] and see where it takes me.” The Navy man was serving his second 4-year commitment in Norfolk, Virginia, on shore duty after spending four years of active duty on a ship.
On that day, Pete, a military culinary specialist (formerly known as a mess specialist), decided to forgo the usual way home after his class for an associate degree at the Johnson & Wales University satellite campus. He came across the “Pro-Am” sign in front of Lake Taylor High School.
I don’t know; it’s just a weird thing.
“I don’t know; it’s just a weird thing,” says Pete. This was back in the early 1990s. That sign was bait, like a worm on a hook waiting for a fish. It worked; Pete stopped and went in. Expecting to pay an entrance fee, he had $5.00 ready in his hand. The person at the door told him it was free.
He was surprised but had low expectations. “I knew it was basketball, but I did not know what to expect and saw this little guy—a phenom down in that area. I think he scored like maybe 70 points that game, and I was hooked. It was amazing,” says Pete.
That little guy, Allen Ezail Iverson (AI to fans), would go on to earn the Associated Press High School Player of the Year award in football and basketball, winning state championships in both sports. Later, Iverson would star at Georgetown University and then the NBA, culminating in being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
Pete returned to Hartford one summer on leave from his military obligations and went to Waverly Park in Hartford to watch the basketball games. He compares the atmosphere outside to Rucker Park in New York City, where “everybody is having a good time.” The competition featured Marcus Camby, Mike Williams and other players from the area, according to Pete.
Mayhem would strike—but not like the amusing Allstate insurance television commercials. This was real. “Somebody was mad at somebody; next thing you know, everybody is heading out of the park,“ says Pete. On that evening, the games were shut down because of a few ignorant people.
When thinking back to the pro-am days in Norfolk, Virginia, Pete doesn’t recall ever seeing security at the high schools. His big question was, “How could I recreate that atmosphere in Hartford?” He wanted to bring a diverse group of people together, so they could have fun in Hartford while watching competitive basketball in peace.
With technical knowledge from his mentor, Wayne Hoffler, who founded the Hampton Roads Pro-Am, Pete launched the GHPA in 1997.
Michael (Mike) Calabrese, 53, the coach of The Firm, is coaching in the GHPA for the first time. He is not new to coaching, having a combined 13 years of experience at Hall High School (1993-1998) and his alma mater, Conard High School (2000-2007), both in West Hartford. Not content to sit around, the coach has been a high-school basketball referee for the past 15 years.
After driving north of Hartford for 40 minutes, and taking the backroads that lead past corn fields and small farms, I arrive at First Baptist Church in Enfield, Connecticut. This is where Mike is conducting his team’s Friday evening open run before their game on Saturday afternoon.
His players are making their GHPA debuts this summer. Inside the small gym, eight players run on a multipurpose floor of grey linoleum 12” x 12” tiles. The basketball hoops shake back and forth after each shot that misses the mark.
Mike is diplomatic when asked about losing at the buzzer on Tuesday night: “We had the game. We, as a team, lost it. I’ll take all that responsibility. Maybe my out-of-bounds play could have been a little better. Maybe I could have called a timeout a little earlier, things like that.”
A few days prior, via text, he indicated he didn’t sleep well after the game. Now, he is upbeat and raves about how hard his players are working since they began about a month and a half ago. He’s proud that his first-year team has been competitive. He rattles off the records of other teams that have not been as competitive as his team.
Calabrese’s connection to the GHPA dates back to the early days. In fact, he played in the league the first two years, at Fox Middle School in Hartford. Mike says he played with some of the legends, such as Mike Williams, Keith Blocker, the Hightowers, Rich Leonard, and Sly Turner.
Ian Calabrese, Mike’s son, plays for The Firm; he will be a sophomore in the fall at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, an NCAA D3 school.
Out of all those kids he played with, he’s the only one who did make it!
When asked about coaching his son, Mike says, “I love it. I’m really hard on him, too.” He says his son was “always picked last” when he was growing up and was “never going to make it,” according to the naysayers. And today, “Out of all those kids he played with, he’s the only one who did make it!” His grin is larger than a Bentley grill because he knows Ian “worked his tail off.”
Referring to the team’s meltdown down the stretch of the game, Ian says, “I feel like that it was [a lack of] execution for us down the stretch of the game. We weren’t on the same page, communication-wise. We kind of fell apart, couldn’t execute plays, turning the ball over.”
Ian is getting used to playing with college athletes and “dudes that are pros.” He acknowledges he didn’t get much playing time at Clark University during his freshman year but is eager to use this experience to get better. He says, “It’s all part of the process.” He wants to develop his leadership skills and help lead the young Clark University team.
Donovan Price, a rising sophomore at Clark University, plays on The Firm with Ian. Referencing Ian, Donovan says “Obviously, we’re really good friends, so being able to play more together and get to know each other’s playing style has definitely been really cool.” He says, “I’m looking forward to the rest of the games, the playoffs, and seeing where we can take this as a team.” He plans to use the league as a way to work on the mental aspect of the game, to understand spacing, and when to post up.
Jadon Archer, who plays for The Firm, will be a junior (sophomore for basketball) at Saint Anselm in New Hampshire this fall. Had he made two free throws down the stretch, they would have been up by three points, forcing FAVOR to attempt a three-pointer for the tie. Jayden says, “I have to make my free throws. We should have won down the stretch. They only had five players.”
Jadon is proud to be a part of the legacy of the league. He wants to use the GHPA to develop “a winning mentality” and to get some game reps in and get some wins. He knows that he has to spend some time in the weight room to get stronger, based on his experience playing with former professional players, who backed him down into the low-post and scored several easy baskets during Tuesday’s game.
No Summer Vacations
Pete has lots of summer memories, but few of them include relaxing on the beach. He has not had a summer vacation in 25 years because he’s too busy running the GHPA. In the past 25 years, the league was dormant only in 2003, the year Pete’s dad passed away, and in 2020, during the beginning of the pandemic.
Pete, the New York Knicks fan from the era of Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and Patrick Ewing, has GHPA stories for days. He says, “I can’t say I have a favorite player in the GHPA. I probably have a top-20.” He is a fan of Ray Allen, Michael Finley, Andre Drummond, Gary Forbes, Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, AJ Price, Wes Matthews, and Ryan Gomes, who all played in the NBA.
There have been memorable performances. One year, Gary Forbes, the former NBA player, dropped 78 points. Spectacular scoring performances are not rare because the players want to entertain.
Many players have come through the doors to measure their games against the best competition Connecticut has to offer. Kirko Bangz, a Tennessee rapper, played in the league. Rapper J. Cole attended a game but did not play. Some local legends are Charles “The Beast” Easterling, Will Solomon, Tyson Wheeler, Roosevelt Lee, Mike Anderson and Jared Jordan.
In the GHPA heyday, top NBA players might walk through the doors on any given night. Arguably, the best year was during the NBA lockout year in 2011, when the GPHA was the only game in town. That year was one of the most successful in terms of the players and the number of fans in the gym; crowds reached close to 1,500 people, despite the suggested capacity of 800 people. The gym could not handle the crowds. According to the Hartford Courant, 70,000 people watched the free games that year.
The games attract all types of people, from parents and young adults to Barbara Reisner, 81, who has a team in the league (Barb’s Bouncers) this summer, which was a birthday present. She’s treated like royalty because she has been coming for years. She remembers seeing Ray Allen play in the GHPA. When her team plays, Pete’s crew arranges a personal courtside table for her next to the scorer’s table.
You won’t hear the word “regret” come out of Pete’s mouth. He doesn’t seem to have any. In the early years of the GHPA, Pete wanted Allen Iverson to play in the GHPA. It never happened—that would have been something he could tell his grandkids one day.
Pete remembers when Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K), the former Duke University coach, showed up to scout a player. “He was there!” Pete shouts into the telephone, indicating it was 2002 at Weaver High School. Chewy (Ashon Avent) was the announcer at the time, and told Pete, “Coach K is in the gym.”
Pete replied, “Who are you talking about, Kevin Kirksey?” He looked toward the door and sees the Duke University men’s basketball coaching staff: Johnny Dawkins, Steve Wojciechowski and Coach K in the middle. A day Pete will never forget.
Coach K is in the gym.
It's Not About the Money
The GHPA is organized as a nonprofit. Pete is constantly raising funds to run the league. He’s tried to raise money from the sneakers companies but being between Boston and New York has been a disadvantage for Connecticut.
“In a perfect world,” the GHPA would have a budget of $75,000, according to Pete, and would be in Hartford. The money would cover the cost to rent the gym, buy insurance and uniforms, pay referees, the DJs, announcers, and staff (including Pete, who would prefer not to be a volunteer) and have a marketing budget.
One of the main reasons the league left Hartford was the escalating expense, approaching $45,000 for the gym and other facility costs. To keep down costs, the league has had a variety of homes in Hartford, Waterbury and Middletown.
Pete operates the organization on a shoe-string budget of about $30,000. From the outside, people think the league must make big money. They assume Pete drives a Bentley—he wouldn’t mind having one. He’s the CEO, the janitor, the first worker there, and the last one to leave the gym. The work is all-consuming and constant in the summer and during the off-season.
It’s not really about the money.
Some years the league has operated in the black, making some money, and other years, there have been deficits. Pete has been the one who has covered the tab when the league loses money. After the games, you can find him working the third shift as a clinical services worker.
“It’s not really about the money,” Pete says. “If that was the case, my wife would have shut that down.” He adds, “I’m going to have to go into my own pocket this year, but again, I’m just blessed.
“I have no reason to be upset about anything. I actually told my wife we will probably go into debt this year, but don’t worry because my ideas for the 25th year will be so great that we will get it back.” If the numbers work, he hopes to bring the league back to Harford next summer, creating buzz.
Pay it Forward
Pete can't stop doing good deeds when it comes to the community and helping others. Whether he is shaking hands with people, closing sponsorship deals, providing commentary during the games, or taking time to talk with parents, players, coaches and referees, he’s all about living life.
His wife of twenty years, Sandra, has been a steady influence on him. “My wife gets on me all the time because I will see somebody in the street with a sign, and she will say, you know that’s a hustle.” It is against his nature not to help when he can, if even it may be a hustle.
Throughout our conversation, Pete drops gems like John Stockton assists. He says, “Always strive to be the best. Always strive to help others. A lot of people think, ‘Well, I’m going to be left with nothing.’ We can change our mindset on what we give out and understand that you will get your blessings—it might not be in a monetary way. It might not be as immediate as you want it to be. But if we had more people who wanted to help others do for others, I think we’d be in a better place.”
In terms of the legacy of the GHPA, Pete says, “We were able to create something that engaged the community and brought people together in a peaceful way that was helping the community grow as one in a diverse way, using basketball as the carrot to bring lives together.”
With his focus on giving, Pete may just be the most valuable person (MVP) of the GPHA.
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.