Greg Canzater looked out at the dozens of players, coaches and spectators lining Michael L. Bivins Court at Ramsey Park in Boston’s South End. He saw a basketball community embracing itself and its future, in a year in which many wondered if street hoops would even be possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Pleasantly overwhelmed,” Canzater said last week, describing his emotions. “It’s been a while since this park has had this type of vibe, but as you can see, it’s almost an outlet for everyone.”
The 36-year-old Canzater is the founder of Sisterhood in Sport (SIS)-run — a summer startup organization that has brought together female basketball players ranging from high school freshmen to those older who have played professionally overseas.
On Wednesday night, after six weeks of open pickup basketball, the league hosted the first SISrun Invitational, with two six-team divisions.
Boston Elite won the Elite Division championship in a 36-35 nail-biter over upstart Charlie’s Angels. Jeremiah Burke grad Khadijah Ellison, who played collegiately at Eastern Carolina and Lincoln University of Missouri, won the division’s MVP award.
In the High School Division, Tatum Forbes, a rising senior at St. Raphael’s Academy in Pawtucket, R.I., and daughter of former Providence guard Trent Forbes, paced the Dragons to a 40-36 victory over Swish University in the final. The winning roster listed players from Rhode Island and Beaver Country Day.
The competition was fierce, players attested, no matter the experience level.
“It’s intense,” said Jordan Atkins, a rising senior at Brookline High who suited up for Swish University. “I definitely grew as a player from playing with college kids.”
Canzater’s initial vision came on a rainy spring day two months before SISrun’s opening on June 29. He has just been hired as the girls' basketball coach at Brighton High, his alma mater.
But with the pandemic gripping the country, basketball seemed on a faraway horizon. As professional leagues planned their restarts, Canzater felt his community needed a restart of its own.
“I just knew we had an opportunity,” he said. “I thought we had a chance to really give [girls’ basketball] a stage.”
Canzater floated the idea to a few of his friends and coaches, hoping a handful of girls would attend the first week. Instead, 30 hit the outdoor courts.
“I was really nervous because I’m seeing people from the high school level to the collegiate and pro level,” said Niyaree King, an Edward M. Kennedy Academy junior who attended the inaugural week of SISrun games. “But once I got on the court I was all good — I was happy.”
As word spread, Canzater put together a volunteer staff to oversee the weekly team-building process and safety precautions. Mask-wearing is enforced at SISrun. Staff members give players temperature checks and hand sanitizer upon arrival. Today’s new normal still changes sports, even at the streetball level.
“We have to learn to grow and live with this,” Canzater said.
In later weeks, Atkins said 60-plus players were showing up every week for SISrun games. High school stars made spot appearances. Those included Taina Mair, a rising junior at the Brooks School in North Andover, and Caroline Ducharme, the state’s 2020 Gatorade Player of the Year at Noble & Greenough who has already committed to UConn. In addition to Ellison, Michigan State junior Janai Crooms (Cranston, R.I.) also showed up to play.
“This is special,” Canzater said, “but I always knew the ladies were yearning for this. So part of me isn’t shocked.”
High school athletes have considered SISrun a much-needed substitute for their usual summer slate of AAU ball.
“It definitely gave me a lot more exposure,” said King.
“I want to go to bigger schools and bigger things … but because of coronavirus it took a toll on what I want to do for college. Now, the photographers give you the opportunity to actually be seen by coaches.”
For 25-year-old New Bedford resident Allexia Barros, the matchups took on an entirely different meaning. She was playing professionally in Portugal before flying back to the states in March due to the coronavirus.
“I drove an hour out here to come and play because this is the only place where we can play pickup,” said Barros, who played for the Cape Verdean national team in 2013. “We tried [to play] in New Bedford one time and they started taking down the hoops.”
With the summer season complete, Canzater has fall plans for SISrun. A high school showcase event is in the works to give players increased access to college coaches and scouts. Canzater also hopes to add a “middle school combine,” with a mentorship program that pairs younger players with some of this summer’s older talent.
“We’re so in line to really tap into the younger generation,” he said.
The pandemic’s impact globally has been unyielding, but for Canzater and a number of players, SISrun has offered a silver lining.
Many believe the program could not have existed any other year.
“I think it took this,” said Atkins. “Everyone was excited; I know I was because I got to play — finally.”