Idled Irwin summer basketball league hopes to bounce back in 2020
Something was missing this year at Irwin Park.
Except for sporatic groups of shootarounds or an occasional game of H.O.R.S.E., the sound of bouncing basketballs mainly was absent this summer on the hardcourts at Irwin’s chief recreational compound just off Pennsylvania Avenue, near Main Street.
The Irwin Men’s Summer Basketball League, referred to in recent years as the Duncan Financial Group Summer League after its sponsorship group, was idled following the death of one of its beloved figures, Richard “Doc” Fondrk.
The league operated for 28 consecutive years before being shut down.
“Hopefully, we’re going to revisit the idea of bringing it back next year,” said Mike Gaffney, the league’s longtime commissioner, who counted on Fondrk’s dedication over the years to keep the games going.
“He kept the scoreboard. He kept the clock. He was just there every day, and I couldn’t commit to it without Doc.”
Fondrk, of Jeannette, for many years a self-employed large animal veterinarian, died Feb. 8 of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 63.
‘My right-hand man’
Gaffney, a former district circulation manager for Trib Total Media, said he did not feel he could handle the league on his own this year and decided to call it off in hopes of a return in 2020 to Irwin Park.
“We had maybe 15, 16 teams possibly lined up for this year,” said Gaffney, who works in the pro shop at Hannastown Golf Club in Hempfield and also officiates college, high school and recreation sporting events.
“I just couldn’t guarantee I’d be there from beginning to end. Doc was my right-hand man.”
Gaffney misses the league, but he knows there’s a good chance it will return. While he can’t replace Fondrk, Gaffney will try to find someone close to “Doc’s” standards.
“I really miss him. He was there for me every day,” Gaffney said. “I knew Doc through the years — he actually played in the league at one time — and I would see him at all the games. We just built a relationship, and he stuck with me.
“Doc loved the game of basketball, and he liked watching the college kids come back and play.”
The league was made up mainly of teams from Westmoreland County, though it was open to anyone, and some teams came from surrounding counties.
As afternoon gave way to evening, shadows lengthened in the September sun’s still-brilliant light over Irwin Park.
An unusually warm, late summer day offered a serene stillness that helped accentuate faint voices and the far-away sound of a few bouncing balls on the macadam courts across a wide-open field.
Near the entrance to the park, a man and his dog were walking. On the open space, frisbees sailed for what seemed like forever.
For much of the season, it’s been this way at the park: a laid-back scene, people freelancing, enjoying quiet time, family time, whatever helps them relax.
Periodic concerts at the park’s amphitheater aids in filling the bill.
“A lot of people looked forward to watching the games,” said Brad Baughman, 48, of North Huntingdon.
The Norwin High School graduate was always one to check out the action.
“It’s weird not having the games,” he said. “It filled up your evenings and gave you something to do. I always enjoyed watching the different talent that came together on those nights.”
Baughman, who is employed by Norwin School District, where he works in the grounds maintenance department, hopes to see the league back in operation next year.
“I would have an interest in running it, and I have some other people who would help me,” he said. “I live five minutes from the playground.”
Gaffney, who coordinates the league’s officiating schedule, sometimes taking on games himself, likely would be open to the idea of someone else stepping in to help handle the operations.
“I’ve got some feeders out there,” he said. “People have asked about it. Maybe my son will give me a hand. Those are all things we’ll discuss.”
Until then, the summer sounds of birds, dogs and the occasional bouncing ball fill the air.
A few players shot baskets at both ends of a court as the sun began to set. The lights that normally illuminated the league’s games in years past would remain dark, as they have every other day since the league was shut down.
One of the young men shooting hoops stopped long enough to answer a curious visitor’s question: “Did they have the league this year?”
“I’m not sure,” the man said. “I didn’t see anyone here this summer.”
The evening air was ushering its way in by now, and the visitor turned his attention to the other man and his dog still standing over by the park entrance, and the flying frisbees at midfield.
Perhaps next season, there will be more bouncing balls and a lighted basketball court again.
Gaffney, among others, sure hopes so.
“We want to be back next year,” he said.
Dave Mackall is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.