Photo courtesy of Laverne Goulbourne.
By David Cordova
The Lower East Side of Manhattan is a nice, trendy area that specializes in hip-hop culture and fashion. Now, there’s something else, that’s trending in that festive area of the city, and that is basketball.
The LES Express tournament, which is located on East Houston Street at Sara D. Roosevelt Park, was started in 2011 and has fast become one of the most premier events in the city.
“Well, LES Express stands for Learn, Educate and Succeed, and it’s basically my non-profit and it was geared for student-athletes. I wanted to show kids that you can play basketball, but you also had to have a degree and also the educational component to be successful and then make it to college. The LES Express mission is to get kids prepared for the next level, whether they’re going to middle school, high school or college,” says Brian Gardenhire, the founder of the tournament.
When asked what the basketball scene was like at the LES, he replied, “It’s great, it’s incredible, we’re located right in downtown Manhattan, in the SoHo area, which is historic for shopping, tourists, a lot of different ethnicities and genres that come down here, so it’s streetball, but you get a diverse crowd, and it’s a unique experience and you’re getting a lot of people who just love the game of basketball, watching the game, and cheering on the guys that’s playing.”
On a regular day, you can expect to see some good action at the park, in the pro-am/unlimited division and also in the youth league division. “A typical day in the park, is standing-room only, you have a lot of foot traffic, the F train is right there, like I said, we’re two blocks away from Broadway in SoHo,” says Gardenhire, “So there’s a lot of people that watch the games, a lot of different versatility and a lot of different ethnicities, you might have people from China, Europe, France, you have people from New York City, so you have a different mix in the crowd, which I think the players love, so that’s why you have a lot of players that love to play here.”
Also, there are players that come from places such as the Bronx, uptown Manhattan, Queens and even Brooklyn to come out and ball at LES, being that it is a hub. And this year, after a few years of being independent, the tournament secured a sponsorship with major apparel company, Adidas.
When asked how it felt being sponsored by Adidas, Gardenhire replied, “It’s super big to have a deal with Adidas, to bring it back to my hometown, I’m from the LES, so the tournament means everything to me, and to have a brand like that to come out and sponsor us to give back to the kids and the community all over New York is major. I mean, it’s incredible, I’ve only had my tournament for five years, so to do that in that short span of time means a lot, and I think it encourages people to do the same thing, if not more.”
This past summer, the tournament even got a surprise visit from Def Jam Records recording artist and multi-platinum-selling rapper Desiigner for a game, as he came to cheer on his team, Team LOD.
LES has had some notable players in the park, such as former NBA player and playground legend Smush Parker and Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. “We’ve had a couple of NBA players play in it, we’ve had a lot of overseas guys and a lot of typical New York streetball players play in it,” says Gardenhire, “We have some of the best [playground] teams in New York City. This year, I feel like we had the best high school division from top to bottom, as far as talent.”
Another notable presence at LES Express, is Kyleek “Smoove Ky” Alford, one of the city’s most respected grassroots coaches, who is also a co-commissioner with Gardenhire and also doubles as the tournament’s emcee. When he is on the mic, there is bound to be plenty of laughs and entertainment.
“Smoove Ky is everything to the tournament,” says Gardenhire, “We call him ‘The Voice,’ he gives the crowd everything they need to know about the players, the history of the tournament, and of the area, so he does a great job, and he keeps it very professional and entertaining, and people love him, I’m appreciative of him, and he does a magnificent job, and we’re just going to keep growing.”
As the LES Express continues to grow as an event, there is no telling what’s in store for the event. But Gardenhire promises that there is more to come. “We’ve got a lot of things coming next year. We never really did a younger division, but this year, we’re launching our middle school division, which will be pretty unique, we’ll have some of the top middle school teams in the city. Next year, we’ll have an indoor league, which is going to be pretty dope, it will geared towards pro athletes, so stay tuned, we’ve got a lot in store, Adidas is going to do a lot more. We’re going to have a brand-new park, we’re going to have bleachers next year, which is going to be unique, and we’re actually going to have a screen out there, almost like a television screen, that people can watch the games as well.”
The sky is the limit in the Lower East Side.
Highlights of LES Express:
Courtesy of Shay’z Dayz.
Courtesy of Jonathan Perez.
Courtesy of Primetime87.
Courtesy of Stay Shootin’.
Courtesy of Stay Shootin’.
Courtesy of East Coast Hoops.