Promising NYC ballers make shots, memories in KIPP basketball tournament’s return to Gauchos after two-year absence

Basketball courts throughout NYC were vacant during summer 2020 thanks to the impact of the pandemic, leaving a whole network of hoopers on the sidelines.
Photo Adrian Childress

With a plethora of famous New York City b-ball courts from Dyckman to Rucker Park, and a lively AAU travel basketball scene to hone their skills, the Bronx has produced a wealth of ascendent basketball talents — with Rod Strickland, Kemba Walker and “Tiny” Nate Archibald to name a few.

Hoping to add his name to that list, seventh grader Vaun Vazquez, of the South Bronx, fell in love with the sport at a young age and envisioned a breakout in the summer of 2020, but COVID-19 interrupted those plans. A summer schedule of all-day tournaments, workouts with travel teams, and even the occasional outdoor pick-up game were shelved as the pandemic put a full-court press on large gatherings and recreational events.

“During the pandemic, I couldn’t often play because gyms were closed. I did a lot of home workouts, such as ball handling, calisthenics, plyometric movements and passing, and worked on my shooting form,” Vazquez said. “In the summer of 2020, with most of the basketball rims removed, I was only able to practice at the playground behind I.S. 584, where they hold the Kyrie Strickland Tournament because the basketball rims still happened to be up. My dad and I would climb under the gate every morning so that I could train.”

While only one team could walk out of the 2022 Kipp Cup tournament a winner. More than 250 kids returned to Gauchos Gym hungry to play the sport they love.

Vazquez would have to wait two years for his breakout moment at last month’s 17-team tournament hosted by KIPP NYC – a public charter school network — in the mecca for developing young ballers at the iconic Gauchos Gym in the South Bronx. Vazquez not only left with championship glory, but took home the tourney’s MVP honors, highlighted by a blistering barrage of three-pointers.

For some, the score was inconsequential.

In the tournament’s absence due to COVID-19, it had been a long two years for 13-year-old Joei Toledo, without her teammates. Even in defeat — Toledo’s shooting performances in tourney’s returnpowered his team’s runner-up finish — the eighth-grader was grateful to have the chance to play in the tournament one last time before going on to the high school basketball circuit.

“I was excited about finally participating and playing in (the) KIPP Cup … mainly because I was not able to participate the last two years,” she said. “Another highlight was sharing that experience with my KIPP Infinity friends and teammates since we all started together in fifth grade. ”

Youth sports is “a way of life” for many of its participants and parents, and during its extended interruption and cautious return, parents could only see their kids through livestream as school season began to start up. Manny Lopez, who coordinated the KIPP Cup Tournament, remembered the disappointment etched on the faces of players and coaches when the event was cancelled in March.

Lopez said when COVID rates started to dip in January, organizers went all-in for a KIPP NYC-only event, citing the trying logistical efforts to invite KIPP schools from other regions this year amid remaining public health restrictions and protocols.

Each player was only limited to two vaccinated spectators, but Lopez noted that the turnout was strong and there were several students and alumni who were disappointed that they couldn’t attend and root in person for their favorite KIPP school.

“For players to have missed out on that opportunity in 2020 and 2021 was devastating to many of them,” he said. “It was great for the event to return and to get a new wave of students to begin to experience the KIPP Cup experience. Eighth graders especially see the event’s significance because they’ve participated in it for three years.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes