End Of An Era

There was much cheering at the Bridgehampton boys basketball team’s last game in the historic Beehive. Independent/Gordon M. Grant

“This is a little bittersweet for me,” Bridgehampton basketball great Carl Johnson said prior to the Killer Bees’ final game in what will soon be the old Beehive. “If this gym could speak, it’d tell a lot of great stories.”

Despite being one of the smallest gyms in the country, some big names, like Johnson, have entered and exited. Inside the ancient and historic 37×55-foot-court built in 1931, the Killer Bees have won thousands of games that led to nine state titles, second only to the 11 won by Mount Vernon, 25 Class D crowns, and 33 league ones.

“We had a dominant history of winning,” said head coach Ron White, who is also the district’s school board president. “Through it all, we persevered.”

Bridgehampton is the smallest school ever to make the overall Suffolk County final. The maximum enrollment for a Class D school is 149 students. This year, Bridgehampton has just 54, being ranked the 25th-smallest school in the New York.

Carl Johnson. Independent/Gordon M. Grant

Johnson said the Hive was often referred to as the team’s “sixth man,” although it wasn’t built for a competitive advantage, but because it was all the district could afford. Bridgehampton may not have even needed it though, boasting players like Bobby Hopson, Troy Bowe, Javon Harding, Charles “Mo” Manning, and Carl Yastrzemski. The Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder helped Bridgehampton to a Suffolk County title in 1957, setting a county scoring record that season with 628 points, which was broken by East Hampton’s Kenny Wood 30 years later. His team also broke the record for most points that season, with a 117-49 win over Hampton Bays. Bridgehampton broke that one though, with a still-standing state-record 155-71 rout of Shelter Island in 1970. The Killer Bees were up 101-30 at halftime.

“I’m sure most of the opponents like Shelter Island, Pierson, Longwood, Riverhead, and Southampton are happy,” Johnson said, smiling. “They’d come through this gym and look around and the first thing they’d say is, ‘Oh yeah, we’re in trouble.’ Most of them don’t know how to brace themselves for a fall, or hitting a wall, the stage, cheerleaders shoving pom-poms in their face.”

The current district educator, and former player and head coach of the Killer Bees, is estimated to have been part of around 500 games at Bridgehampton. He won three state titles as a player from 1978 to 1980, and four more as coach, from 1996 to 1998 and again in 2015. In his 27 years as head coach, Johnson had a .602 winning percentage, 330-218. He led the Killer Bees to 13 league titles and 11 Suffolk County crowns, along with the four state titles. The 2020 Basketball Coaches Association of New York Hall of Fame inductee was also the center of a critically-acclaimed 2017 documentary “Killer Bees,” written and directed by Bridgehampton graduates Benjamin and Orson Cummings. Shaquille O’Neal was the film’s executive producer.

“We’ve shown other teams we can play just as well as they can,” Johnson said. “Sacrifice, commitment — that’s what I’ve asked of my guys, and when you start realizing that you can mold these kids’ lives, it becomes a year-round job on and off the court. It’s not just basketball. I want to have some idea of what they’re doing, what they’re going to do.”

Bridgehampton’s Beehive. Independent/Gordon M. Grant

He worked with players like White, who won state titles from 1996, when Bridgehampton was the third-smallest school in the state, to 1998, and came within a basket of becoming the first player to go to the state tournament all four years of his varsity career; and current Center Moriches head coach Nick Thomas, who played point guard from 1992 to 1996, helping Bridgehampton win the first of the three straight state crowns, success he carried over to his Red Devils team. He even beat his mentor in Johnson’s final season as head coach.

“People always ask me what it was like playing in such a small gym,” Thomas said. “I always tell them, ‘Home is home.’ Yeah, we needed more room — for more banners.”

What has emerged from the confines of the small space on Montauk Highway means just as much to the community as the admiration felt inside it.

“Carl knows he carries a legacy that people are proud of and that people want to see continue,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele said.

On February 5, when Bridgehampton’s boys basketball team competed in its last regular-season game before it makes the move to a new regulation-size gym as part of a $25-million expansion project, which will also include new classrooms and a fitness center, those in attendance felt that deep approbation for the Killer Bees’ storied past. That excitement may even have been heightened considering the number of times the school almost closed, and once was, although the decision was quickly overturned. That news actually boosted a former Bridgehampton team to top rival East Hampton in the playoffs.

While this year’s team, which started with only eight players — one senior, two juniors, one sophomore, and four freshmen — finished the season 0-14, the current student-athletes still feel connected and inspired.

“We wanted to go out and do the best we could, and close out this gym with a bang,” said freshman Scott Vinski following the season finale 70-40 loss to Shelter Island. “We’re all aware of what’s happened here. We may not have gotten to live through it, but from stories we’ve heard, we know what it means to everyone else. It’s given me a goal. I want to achieve the same things as those before us.”

Killer Bees. Independent/Gordon M. Grant

The atmosphere, while not typical for the games he’s competed in this season, excited him for the future. Especially when he got that “bang” he was hoping for, hitting the final basket in the Hive — a three-pointer with eight seconds left. He hit shots from beyond the arc twice on his way to accumulating a game-high 20 points. It’s impressive given the fact three-pointers cannot be scored from the corners, because a player would technically be out of bounds.

“We’re hot and steamy, elbow-to-elbow, there are legends out there,” White said. “It was really an outer-body experience. It’s a blessing and a privilege to be in your hometown and say that you’re able to give back in this capacity; say that you’re part of the heartbeat.”

For White, like Johnson, the experience has come full circle.

“There’s some tradition,” Johnson said. “But we’re going to start a new tradition with this current team, and I can’t wait to see what they’re going to accomplish.”

As a coach, White took the team to the subregional championship two years in a row, and helped the Killer Bees win their first-ever Long Island championship. It was the inaugural game, because there’s never been a Nassau Class D team for Bridgehampton to compete against. He’ll continue to lead the team next season in its new space.

“I’m really proud of those guys,” White said. “I put them through so much and they accepted the challenge. There were bumps and bruises, and regardless of wins and loses, we’ve grown so much.”

The Hive boasts a colony that just keeps growing.

“Bridgehampton basketball is like a river,” Johnson’s former assistant coach and esteemed artist Joe Zucker said. “It’s constantly flowing, and all the people involved in it are part of that moving river. It doesn’t matter if you jump in during a period where there’s no victories, no state championships, you’re still part of something that’s been going on a long time, and you really gave a lot of people a lot of happy hours.”

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