You don’t know Dexter Gardiner, but you should be thankful for him. Every neighborhood has that one person who is completely, selflessly, and maybe even maniacally dedicated to their community. When I was growing up in my hometown, it was Sharon Bacon. When my mother was a child, I’m told it was her father - Babe Kennedy. Well in the Bronx, right now it’s Dexter Gardiner. And last weekend, I was lucky enough to be involved for my second go-around in his foundation’s main event, the Gardiner Family Foundation Memorial Classic. “This is our sixth year,” he told me, “and god-willing, I’m gonna keep having them as long as I can.”
Do you know what a local legend is? Like a real local legend? The kind that not only does something great, but comes back to your hometown - and does something good? That’s Dex. He grew up at 198th on Briggs. He’s a local kid that led the nation in scoring twice in junior college. And, he’s the kind of man that you can’t walk with for fifteen feet without having to stop as he strikes up (or gets pulled into) a conversation. Old women, kids, grown men - everyone wants to talk to “Twin.” They ask him about the tournament, thank him for doing what he’s done… And then they hug him, and let him know they still pray for his family.
You see, this is a memorial tournament after all. It’s hard to remember that when the music is playing, the food is on the grill, and the announcers are calling the game. And there are hundreds - even thousands - of people crowded around St. James Park in the Bronx, cheering on players as they dart up and down the court, and soar through the air. But you have to remember, because Dexter can’t forget.
This was supposed to be for his mother and sister. In 2006 Dexter and his twin brother Derrick - both local basketball legends and former college players - started the Gardiner Foundation. The idea was to honor the women they loved, raise money for local kids, and give the neighborhood something to cheer for.
Derrick had moved to Mississippi, “He was a pioneer. He opened a clothing store and a barber shop. He moved away from New York City to make a better life.” So he had to pack up and head to New York for the first annual Gardiner Foundation tournament.
The court is beautiful in a way that can only truly be appreciated if you love basketball. A fresh coat of bright blue paint, lines crisply drawn to show you where the boundaries are. The kind of asphalt that grabs your sneakers as you change directions, no slipping, no excuses. The hoops are old-school NYC hoops, metal backboards with holes that clang when you slap them, and single rims - bright, orange, and sturdy. The kind that are honest enough to reward a good shooter, but sound an ugly alarm if you don’t have the stroke. They’re surrounded by three 15-foot chain link fences, and a row of parade barriers opposite the scorer’s table, to hold out the crowds. No cracks, no divots, no broken glass, and no blood. With apologies to Rick Telander, if heaven truly is a playground, it’s at 193rd street, and Jerome Avenue.
There’s been a rash of violence at street tournaments this summer. Shootings, stabbings, and fights. Dexter met with the local police to make sure there was an extra presence, he couldn’t afford to have an incident at this kind of positive community event. Or maybe he’s just had enough tragedy for one life time.
Derrick doesn’t make it to his tournament game. Dexter’s twin brother, his niece and two nephews are killed in a car crash on the Bronx River Parkway on their way to the tournament. Dexter’s mother, his sister, his brother, his niece, his nephews - most of his family, gone in mere months. “We buried three in New York, three in Mississippi.” Dex tells says, “But we had to have the tournament, Derrick would want to keep going. This is how I keep going.” So a second memorial tournament was held that summer. Which is why this is the sixth year, but the seventh edition of the Gardiner Foundation Classic.
He tells me the story like he’s told it a hundred times, probably because he’s re-lived it a thousand times. I don’t know how he does it, I worry I couldn’t handle it. He has a calmness about him that only acceptance brings. But it’s obvious that the foundation is driven by way his family lived, not the way they died.
“Derrick used to bring kids up every summer from Mississippi. He’d call me and say, ‘Hey, I got another one, he’s a good kid. Make sure you have room for us.’ And we’d put that kid up for a summer. Put him on a basketball team, show him there was more to the world than just his neighborhood.”
If you’ve ever played pickup basketball, you know: more often than not, fate chooses your teammates. Randomness. It runs most basketball courts.
Dexter was playing in a league in Westchester, and told some of the guys about his foundation, and what he was trying to accomplish. He was looking for a little help, somebody to volunteer, or maybe just a small donation. Instead he got Jeff Korek, who wanted to do a little more than that. His firm Gersowitz, Libo and Korek decided to sponsor The Classic. Because sometimes, even a really dedicated player still needs an assist.
So how did I get on a team? I know Jeff from a very different game. East Hampton summer pickup. It’s mostly fathers and 20-somethings, getting a sweat out before heading to the beach. Oh, there are nicknames… But it’s things like “The Ninja” (a white guy that does a ton of pregame yoga), and “mouthpiece” (he wears a mouthpiece).
Jeff invited me to come play on the “house” team. This year we had guys that played for St. John’s, guys with nicknames like “The Matrix”, and “Go Get It” - who played at Long Beach State.
My brother and I showed up, played pretty well - and we even got nicknames ourselves! He was “Mikey Likes It” and I was “Erik Estrada.” Okay, admittedly, not the coolest nickname in the world, but it’s the second year they’ve called me by it… So at least they remember me. And it’s better than “The Cable Guy” - which was given to another white guy.
And our team, the “lawyertime.com” team won our first game this year. Making it to the semifinals after beating “Jet Blue” and the rest of Max’s All-Stars. We got to keep our uniforms, which are some of the nicest I’ve seen from any tournament. The crowd went crazy for every crossover, every blocked shot.
It was electric, you could feel the current every time you subbed in. When the game was over, kids ran up and asked for your sneakers, or your shorts, or an autograph. MC’s and Announcers called the game live over the speakers, opined the Dwight Howard trade, complimented my hair, said whatup to friends that arrived, and took moments between quarters, halves, and games to give out gear to the kids, and remind us why we were really playing. Dj’s played Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra so loud, you could hear it from the Kingsbridge 5-train stop. A 5’7” dude named “Jet Blue” was dunking everything, Walt Frazier’s son was there, Half-Man Half-Amazing showed up - this was a a place for both real ball players, real fans, and people that just wanted to see their neighbors, and maybe eat some Pepsi Chicken (as delicious as it sounds).
But even if that last paragraph doesn’t mean anything to you, this will: They gave out three $1,500 dollar scholarships to local kids, to help pay for college. “I wish you could hear them, when I tell them they’re getting the scholarship…” Dexter says, laughing, “They go crazy! Yelling at me, like ‘Nah! Stop lying!’ “
They gave away 12 laptops.
They doled out 150 backpacks loaded with school supplies.
They gave away socks, hats, sneakers, tee shirts…
They fed everyone in a 8 block radius - anything to make sure that people showing up to this event know, as the announcers put it: “This is for our community. We have to do it, nobody is going to do it for us.”
Well, nobody except for Dexter - who’s already planning ahead. He wants to be able to give out 4-year scholarships to each kid. It’s not enough to just get them to school, he wants to keep them there, let them know that somebody is pulling for them to graduate. To make a better life, just like his brother.
“I can’t live without this tournament. I have to do it, it keeps my brother alive.”
Him and many others, from what I can tell.