St. Raphael’s Winter Classic draws crowds


The gym at St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Parish in East Meadow hosted dozens of basketball teams from parishes across Long Island in the 15th annual Winter Classic basketball tournament.

The 10-day event, with squads from the fourth- to the eighth-grade level, ran from Feb. 16 to 26, with 40 teams showing their skills and sportsmanship.

The inaugural tournament tipped off in 2007 with a small number of teams, but has grown into a highly anticipated event that players and fans alike look forward to. Teams that reach the semifinals and finals are given NBA-style player introductions before games, in which they walk onto the court to a show of strobe lights.

“We make it a big spectacle for all of the kids,” said Dave Hudzik, the director of the church’s CYO basketball program. “For most of these kids, this is going to be the highlight of their lives, athletic-wise, getting the same treatment that a professional basketball player would get. So it’s a really big deal.”

This successful tournament is the largest fundraiser for the boys’ basketball program at St. Raphael’s. “It’s just been off the charts with the crowds, and how much money we’ve been able to raise,” Hudzik said.

Hudzik, who considers himself a big basketball guy, said that when he took over as director four years ago, he knew he wanted to make the tournament a big deal and it gets bigger every year. The event has a DJ and local businesses donate raffle items.

All of the money raised goes back to the basketball program to support the local youth, Hudzik said. At the end of the season each player gets a gift, and the rest of the money goes toward the basketball program and other needs.

“Our main goal is to provide a competitive environment and a great experience for the players and the families,” Hudzik said. “When you see kids that really commit themselves, and really buy into a positive culture, and go out there and they compete, and at the same time, they’re having fun — that’s when everybody wins.”

This year Hudzik had some local help putting together some of the detailed aspects of the tournament. East Meadow High School seniors Domenic Steinmark and Thomas Benedetto chose to do their senior project on the Winter Classic.

Every senior needs to do a community service project. Steinmark and Benedetto, who once played in the tournament when they were younger, helped by restocking concessions, closing up at night, handling the music, and other tasks as needed.

“So it seems like just yesterday, they were playing in this tournament, and now they’re back, and they’ve been a tremendous help,” Hudzik said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch them and see these two guys who used to be a little kids running up and down the court now as responsible young adults, who are taking initiative and helping out.”

Many coaches return every year to help out their child’s team, some even stay with the program after their children move on from the league. John Abels’ 12-year-old son Jordan has played for St. Raphael’s since he was in fourth grade. Abels got involved because the team needed a coach. He stayed, though, because he liked was Hudzik wanted to do for the league.

“Once I met Coach Dave (Hudzik), we turned what was supposed to be a five minute conversation into a half hour conversation. We clicked on everything,” Abels said. “I knew that he had a good program here, and I want to be part of it.”

Abels said that he’s grown to like coaching more than he thought he would.

“I’m a firm believer in developing the right program where kids can grow from a basketball standpoint, and also from a personal growth development standpoint,” Abels said. “I’m trying to develop the boys in the program to be future men and future leaders.”

Hudzik wants the kids that come out of this program to always remember the tournament.

“I want the kids to leave and I want them to have a family one day of their own,” Hudzik said, “And share with their child about this great basketball tournament that they participated in, from when they were in fourth grade, all the way through eighth grade.”