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Hardwood reunion in the Falls; Basketball league gathers current, past players

Niagara Falls High School basketball players can look up at the banners hanging in the gymnasium to remind them of their school's rich hoops tradition, but on Wednesday afternoons this summer they needed only to glance across the court to find it -- in human form.

That's where nearly 40 current and former Wolverines players mixed in an hour and a half of organized games as part of the first season of the Niagara Falls Alumni League.

Niagara Falls varsity basketball coach Sal Constantino originally looked for a summer league for his players to join but was disappointed in the competition he found. He decided he'd start his own league, which held its first session June 15 and concluded with a championship game Friday.

"We wanted to get our guys, the current high school players, a good run in the summer," Constantino said during one of the league's games earlier this month. "For the college guys, when they come back it's tough for them to find competitive places to play, so we kind of just put one and one together and came up with this."

Levels of experience ranged from juniors in high school to college players, and even a former Western New York Player of the Year in Carlos Bradberry, who is 35 years old.

Constantino said there were no expenses for the league or its players, whose insurance was covered by the Niagara Police Athletic League. It was just shirts and skins, volunteer officials and scorekeepers, and a court full of players who love the game.

"The young guys love it because they get a style of play they aren't used to," said Constantino, who also serves as the league's referee. "They're obviously playing against better players and even the physicality of it you know [there are] quicker and stronger guys."

The younger players took from the older players' experience while alumni had the chance to play "serious basketball" -- something they say you can't find in a typical adult recreational league.

"These are like some of the best runs in town," said 2004 Falls graduate Robert Harris. "You go somewhere else and they're gonna play around. Here it's serious."

Student Taijay Williams gained a sense of confidence from the summer league that he says he'll carry with him this season.

"I feel like I'm getting better every time I play the older guys," said Williams. "If I can check an older person I know I can check people in my league."

Williams appreciated being able to see the past of Falls basketball on the same court with the present. "It helps you to see how many people came before you and how good they were," he said.

During one Wednesday night session, Dowling College head basketball coach Steve Hayn made the trip to the Falls to watch Williams play. Before he left, the soon-to-be senior was offered something so many who come from a city rich in basketball history dream of -- a basketball scholarship.

It's easy for the high school players to believe in that dream when they're sharing the court with players who have already reached it.

Participating alumni included former Wolverines who continued their basketball careers at Gannon University, the University of Texas-Permian Basin, Keuka and Monroe colleges. Some sessions even featured star appearances from Falls natives Jonny Flynn, who is now playing for the Houston Rockets in the NBA, and Paul Harris, who plays in the Philippine Basketball Association. Both Flynn and Harris watched from the sidelines.

Other alumni picked up new tricks on their old court.

"It helps me work on my jump shot, handle and to stay in shape," said Gelajiee Brown, who graduated from Niagara Falls in 2010 and now plays for Keuka College. "It's great. I'll come as much as I can. I'll continue to come."

Niagara Falls 2009 graduate Kelvin Agee said he wishes the league was every day.

"These are probably the best runs in Niagara Falls really, and plus we know we're playing against good players here," said Agee, who is attending Midland College in Texas this fall. "Sometimes you can go to some courts and there are some players who are just there, but here you know you've got players who know the system, the right basketball, the right way to play. Sal has got it set up so it's fundamental."

Agee said that while the younger players look up to him, he still has players to look up to, as well.

"People like Rob Harris, he's here every week, and Marcus Henderson, I watched those guys play back when I was younger," said Agee. "Seeing players that I didn't get to play with and watched play growing up is always something good."

Constantino was pleased with the league's first season.

"[We had] older guys not ready to pass the torch and young guys trying to make a name," he said.

Next summer the league may even see an expansion.

"I am looking to getting NCAA certified," he said, "and [having] local colleges teams allowed to play."