In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.
Basketball has been part of my life since about the time I could walk.
As a kid, I watched my cousin Keith Nies and the Cathedral Prep Ramblers compete in three state championships, including the 1996 showdown with Lower Merion and Kobe Bryant. I had dreams of following in his footsteps, lacing up my sneakers for the orange and black, earning a Division I scholarship, and playing in the NBA. I never realized any of those dreams. After playing freshmen and junior varsity basketball for Prep, I was cut from the varsity team as a junior, steering my basketball career into another direction playing in the local CYO league for my home parish of St. Jude.
Although my basketball career fell a few steps short of a Hall of Fame enshrinement, I’ve had more than my fair share of shining moments. They may not have been ESPN or even Erie Times-News headline worthy, but they stand out in my memory just the same. To this day, basketball is entangled in my identity—player, coach, fan, student of the game. My relationship with the game changes and evolves depending on my role in it, but I cannot imagine my life without basketball being a part of it.
As I approach age 30, it’s pretty clear that my best basketball-playing days are behind me. Still, I plan to continue to find opportunities to play as long as my body will still allow it. Whether it’s a game of H-O-R-S-E or P-I-G at a family bonfire or a student-faculty game at Prep, if there’s a court calling my name, I’m going to answer.
In my life, I’ve had the pleasure of playing basketball in a variety of different places and in different contexts. Click to read the full list counting down the top 30 places I’ve played.
30. The Hubert pool
This one is unique. Pool basketball is its own animal, but we had some terrific summertime battles in the pool on Dutch Road.
29. St. John’s (Erie)
No team dominated my Our Lady’s Christian (OLC) Raiders squads in 5th-8th grade quite like St. John’s. The main reasons? They were bigger, faster, and better than we were. The secondary reason? Their court. The court was so narrow that the corner 3-point line was out of bounds. It was an added weapon for their full court press, and it caused me more turnovers than I’d like to admit to. On the positive side, the 6th and 7th grade tournament I played in there was a huge confidence booster for me heading into my 7th grade season, proving I could hang with the would-be 8th graders and earning me valuable minutes the following season.
28. Melrose Ave. driveway
My wife and I bought our first house late last August, so we missed out on the prime basketball months. With help from my dad, the hoop was installed last year and christened with a game of H-O-R-S-E. Most recently, I conned my cousin-in-law (is that a thing?) into a one-on-one game that I won 21-4, earning his assistance in moving furniture. The best days on this court are yet to come, but I hope in time to learn the tricks to establish a true home court advantage
27. Scott Park
Making a single jump shot at Scott Park always felt like such an accomplishment. The rims are so thick. Located across the street from OLC, we occasionally had recess here. For me, it was a major upgrade from asphalt football or, worse yet, foursquare.
26. Lake Cliff Park
Located in Lawrence Park, I spent limited time here as a child. We would sometimes walk there when visiting my aunt Julie’s house. Bonus points for the fact that my wife grew up down the street. Who knew that years later I would drive by this park on a regular basis picking her up and dropping her off on date nights?
25. Hagerty Park
Higher quality than Scott or Lake Cliff. I specifically remember playing in a summer league here when I was in high school.
24. Villa Maria Academy
I played here in grade school, but the court scores bonus points for being my first home court as a coach. I was an assistant coach for Villa’s boys team during the 2006-07 season.
23. Girard High School
My best memory here came in the summer after 5th grade when I played for a traveling all-star team called the Dunkin’ Dutchmen. We won the local tournament and earned a memorable spot in the regionals (see #2 on this list).
22. Mercyhurst Prep
A few reasons for this inclusion. For starters, I very nearly chose to attend Mercyhurst Prep. Their coach at the time, Pat Flaherty had coached me back when I was with the Dunkin’ Dutchmen, and he showed interest in me going there. Secondly, my OLC competed in a tournament or two at Mercyhurst Prep while I was in grade school. It was a big deal back then to play on the big high school court.
21. LECOM Medical Fitness & Wellness Center
This is a great facility. Unfortunately, my playing experience here was limited to my worst league experience ever. I played there in 2013 on the house team (AKA a collection of solo signups who didn’t know each other or have anyone else to play with). Our team was not good, but the kicker was that one of our players was every stereotype of the worst pickup basketball player. Ballhog? Check. Airmailing absurd no-look passes? Check. Finger-pointing at everyone but himself for mistakes? Check. Cherry-picking on offense/reaching and fouling on defense? Check. And-1 mixtape wardrobe? You already know the answer. These tweets tell the story of how frustrating it was to have this person as a teammate and also the reason why I was only moderately disappointed when an ankle injury prevented me from rejoining the league this past winter.
20. Mercyhurst College Rec Center
This is definitely not about the quality of the court. The rubbery green surface was terrible, and level of competition there often was as well. However, as a graduate student, I teamed with my brother Mike and his friends for an intramural season that featured the infamous “shirtless Kinzel incident.”
19. Our Lady of Peace
The weird playing surface at OLP might have been enough to crack the countdown. Bonus points for being the home court of the CYO team I was an assistant coach for this past season.
18. Fairview High School
One of my favorite memories here was the “annual” tradition of the Nies family Turkey-ball game on Thanksgiving morning that only happened once. The adults quickly realized that full court basketball was not very forgiving on old muscles and joints. Bonus points for being the home court where I had my first head coaching gig, leading the Fairview freshmen team during the 2011-12 season.
17. St. Peter’s Cathedral Center
A half court shot at St. Pete’s is basically a regular 3-point shot. The length of their court is so short that the over-and-back violation had special rules on this court. This was an ancillary court for Marcel Arribi’s legendary Rambler Roundball Camp, where I spent time each summer in elementary school chasing my dream of becoming a Rambler baller myself.
16. Blessed Sacrament
In some ways, B.S. is where my organized basketball career came to a close. I can still vividly recall the final moments. Trailing the Bulldogs in the final seconds, I drove and dished to an open teammate for a would-be game-winning 3-point attempt rather than forcing the shot myself. The shot was on line but missed. They secured the rebound and won the city tournament championship, ending my senior CYO season and my hopes of returning to the state tournament.
15. The Lutton family’s driveway
Family driveway basketball is always a blast. Because the driveway courts are all of nonstandard dimensions, each location has its own quirks. Everything was pretty much straight-on on the Lutton court with a fence on one sideline and a slope on the other side.
14. The Washek family’s driveway
Almost opposite of the Lutton court, the Washek court had deep corners but a short distance straight from the basket.
13. The Kleinhanz family’s driveway
Primarily used for games of H-O-R-S-E, the Kleinhanz court is very long but not very wide.
12. The Nies family’s driveway
I’ve always shot very well on this hoop. It’s a simple rectangle of concrete. Just don’t miss badly to the right or you’ll have to hop the fence!
11. Gannon University Hammermill Center
As the home court of Prep’s varsity games and the McDonalds Classic/Burger King Classic, the Hammermil Center was held in high regard. Although I only played a limited number of games here during my sophomore season on Prep’s JV team, its place in Erie basketball earns it this spot on the countdown.
10. Pavilion for West family parties/graduations
I don’t really know how else to identify this place. It’s located on West 23rd Street across the street from Rabe Environmental Systems. All I know is that I played and won more games of Knockout here than anywhere else.
9. Burton Park
The Dunkin’ Dutchmen spent a summer competing at Burton Park. Tough competition all around.
8. The Washek’s basement
As a kid, I spent some memorable days hanging out with my cousin Brian in his basement. The court may have been small, but it was concrete, which allowed for dribbling, and the hoop was low enough to dunk on using a mini-ball. It wasn’t a nerf/children’s hoop either. I still remember stoving my finger on the solid metal rim on a failed dunk attempt.
7. My parent’s basement
Growing up, my brother Mike and I would organize our extensive sports card collections into teams. Individually we would then ceate entire seasons using our imaginations. The hours spent playing basketball against myself, staging dunk and 3-point contests, are among my favorite childhood memories.
6. Family First Sports Park
Over the years, I’ve had many different playing experiences at Family First. Two stand out from the rest. First was teaming with Matt Wachter and Bob Barber as the “Flying Toasters” and winning the 3-on-3 tournament. The second was the Charlie Ward basketball camp I participated in.
5. Mercyhurst Athletic Center
Because we were three years apart in school, my brother Mike and I had limited opportunities to play basketball together in any formal context growing up. That was part of what made intramurals at Mercyhurst so fun. The other part was our championship run for the ages. We snuck into the playoffs as the 8th and final seed. Our first round opponent featured a former D1 player from Penn State who had matched up against Greg Oden when he was at Ohio State. We won. Hours later we pulled a second upset and earned a spot in the championship. That game was one of the most competitive games I ever played in. Both teams were in a zone and the intensity felt like a high school playoff game except with zero crowd noise. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before or since. It was such a well-played game that it felt like anything but intramurals. Eventually, we prevailed. Mike and I still bring up this championship run any time an underdog team makes a run in the tournament.
4. Cathedral Prep gymnasium
In addition to being the home court during my freshman and sophomore seasons, the Prep gym was also the home to the aforementioned Rambler Roundball Camp that I attended summer after summer as a youngster. More recently, I returned to the Prep gymnasium for the Faculty vs. CYO All-Stars showdown. Our faculty squad won the game in 2013 but came up a bit short this past season.
3. Our Lady’s Christian School
I was playing at OLC pre-renovation when the court was made of the slipperiest tile known to man. Whether it was Sr. Ann Louis’ legendary intramurals (“Aim for the orange square!”), gym class, or playing for the school team, I had a lot of great times at OLC. Earning the team MVP award in 8th grade was arguably the zenith of my playing career. I also called OLC’s gym home in 11th and 12th grade as a member of St. Jude’s CYO team. Being cut from the varsity team at Prep stung a lot, but helping the Judes earn a trip to the state tournament as a junior helped ease the pain.
2. That court in Ohio where my team played against LeBron James
My favorite basketball anecdote goes a little something like this. In the summer after 5th grade, after my Dunkin’ Dutchmen squad won the local basketball tournament, we advanced to regional competition. The game was held in some M-city in Ohio. My memory fails me here as to exactly which city it was. Madison? Mansfield?Mentor? Anyway, we went up against a team of all-stars from Ohio, featuring a 6-foot-something phenom. On the first play of the game, I spotted up for what I thought was a good look at a 3-pointer. That same phenom swatted it into the third row, which is even more impressive when you’re playing in a grade school gym that only has a few rows of seating. Although we were top dogs back in Erie, we found ourselves down 30+ at halftime in Ohio. The phenom left at halftime to go play with the older kids, who would presumably offer a better level of competition. Our parents were skeptical that this young superstar wasn’t perhaps one of the older kids himself, so they demanded to see his birth certificate (apparently, they weren’t the only ones). The birth certificate showed that the kid in question was, in fact, legit. He was born Dec. 30, 1984, making him more than three months younger than me. The birth certificate also showed his name: LeBron James. And the rest, as they say, is history.
1. My parent’s driveway
There is no court where I feel as comfortable as I do on this court at my parents’ house in Fairview. My parents bought the house before I was born and have lived there ever since. The story goes that one of the first things my dad did after they moved was to put the hoop up on top of the garage—all the more impressive because he was not a huge sports fanatic the way I am.
Whether it was one-on-one games with Mike, two-on-two with Ryan Colvin and I going against Mike and Mark Demski (during which Demski gave me my streetball nickname, Half Court Hero), or epic family games of around the world, knockout, H-O-R-S-E or P-I-G, I know this court like no other. There’s a dropoff in one corner. The other corner slopes upward. For me, the straight-on 3-pointer might as well be a layup. Every dream that I was unable to live out in real life was at some point played out in my mind on this court. The number of game-winning buzzer beaters I hit here would surely give MJ, Kobe, Reggie, and Bob Horry something to be jealous of. And for that, my parents’ driveway court, my original home court, earns the number one spot on this countdown.