Killer Bee Alums Reune in the Bee Hive

Giving back, everyone agreed, was essential.
Even Maurice (Mo) Manning gets the blues: Missing two free throws that would have nailed down an overall county championship win over William Floyd in 1997 certainly qualified as one of his stellar career’s low points, the former Killer Bee said. At left are Nathaniel (Kojak) Dent and Courtney Turner. Jack Graves

The “Killer Bees” documentary film that premiered recently at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, a film by Orson and Ben Cummings that followed Bridgehampton High School’s 2015-16 boys basketball team for the better part of a year, was, by and large, well received, though there were some demurrals from former members of that storied team, Nick Thomas and the Bees’ present head coach, Ron White, among them, who maintained there was more to the story.

“I appreciate Orson and Ben’s effort,” White said following a lively four-hour reunion of Killer Bee alumni Friday night at the school, a free-flowing discussion of what it was like to be a part of the school’s rich tradition of state and county championships dating to 1946. “But they could have elaborated a little bit more.” 

White said he had seen the film twice, and had as a result tempered somewhat his initial criticism, to wit, that the overall effect of the hour-and-22-minute documentary, which the Cummingses hope will be distributed nationally, had been melancholic. “I still think, though, that you were left wondering where the direction was, where was the perseverance.”

“I thought the movie didn’t encapsulate the entire legacy,” said Thomas, who, with The Southampton Press’s editor, Joe Shaw, moderated the ad hoc round-table discussion. He, too, appreciated the documentarians’ effort, he said, “but there are more pieces to the puzzle. . . . Perhaps some of this, what you saw and heard tonight, could be added.”

During a question-and-answer session following the premiere, the Cummingses, who were not at Friday’s session, said their major focus had been to follow the fortunes of the Carl Johnson-coached 2016 team, which, as it turned out, wound up one game shy of advancing to the state’s Class D Final Four in Glens Falls. 

Bridgehampton basketball served as a lens through which such issues as race, income inequality, a skewed judicial system, and the gentrification of a cohesive neighborhood, a neighborhood in which they grew up and knew well, could also be treated, they have said.

Had Roger Golden and John Niles, two of the Bees’ former coaches, lived to be interviewed, and had Charles Manning, who led them to a state championship the year before, not transferred to Long Island Lutheran, the compelling story of how the Bees had come to be that the Cummingses have told undoubtedly would have been fleshed out even further. 

“I had no problem with it,” a former Killer Bee, Tim Jackson, said in a separate conversation following East Hampton High’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies Saturday morning. “I thought they did a good job — they did the best they could with what they had.”

At any rate, the panel at the school, attended by 13 former Bees (or, in some cases, “Bridgies,” as they were known before the early 1980s), was, as aforesaid, lively, and, presumably for the participants (Thomas, White, Carl Johnson, Andre Johnson, Raymon Charlton, Jerry Jones, Bobby Hopson, Darryl and Michael Hemby, Nathaniel Dent, Courtney Turner, Maurice Manning, and Ray Gilliam), cathartic.

They spoke of the rigorous proving-ground pickup games they played at the Bridgehampton Child Care Center on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, and in the school’s gym on Sunday mornings, trials by fire that the younger aspirants took very seriously. Would they survive their rite of initiation? Would the older players acknowledge that they had game? Would they get a chance to wear the black-and-gold uniform and represent the tiny school at the highest levels, at the county and state tournaments? (Bridgehampton has won nine state titles to date, and is the only Class D public high school to win a Federation title to boot, in 1980.)

Charlton, a Deer Park resident and Marist College graduate who worked full time for the Long Island Lighting Company while coaching Central Islip’s team for 17 years and Bay Shore’s for five, said Bridgehampton had done a lot for him; it had helped him get started. People had to buy tickets to attend the home games then, and the gym, he said, was always packed. Afterward, he told this writer that the late John Niles had entrusted him with the keys to the school on weekends so that he, “obsessed by the game at the time,” could practice.

Carl Johnson, recently retired from coaching — the only coach in the state to win three championships as a player and four as a coach — recalled idolizing Gordon Johnson and Jerry Jones’s ’74 team, which he still maintains was Bridgehampton’s greatest. He was so into it, he said, that he asked its players if he could carry their bags. “I lived and died with them,” he said. “I cried when they lost in the playoffs.” As for his own team, which won state championships in 1978, ’79, and ’80, “We lost maybe nine games in three years.”

All agreed that they had come from a culture of winning, that the older players in passing the baton, as it were, expected the younger ones to excel.

“I was embraced by Bridgehampton,” said Thomas, a New York University graduate who coaches Center Moriches’s team and a powerful A.A.U. team at the Southampton Recreation Center. 

“I was awed to be part of this program,” said Bobby Hopson, a Wagner College alumnus who is Carl Johnson’s brother and a member of Wagner’s Hall of Fame. He still holds the school’s single-game scoring record of 52 points. “It’s hard to explain if you’re not an athlete,” said Hopson, who finished, if memory serves, with 1,776 points. “It’s hard to relate what we had to go through. . . .”

And Alexander Hamilton — the high school in Westchester County — continued to haunt his dreams, he said. The Bees’ narrow losses to Hamilton in state regional playoff games in the early 1990s “have bothered me more than anything. . . . I’ve got a brother who has won three titles as a player and four as a coach. He has five titles and I don’t have one. I can’t take it anymore!” he said, with a broad smile.

Hopson and others who spoke that night tipped their hats to their coaches, Golden, Niles, and William Hartwell Jr. among them, each of whom, they said, had helped to shape their lives.

On the subject of low points, even Maurice (Mo) Manning, certainly one of Bridgehampton’s best players ever, could recall one, to wit, the time he missed two crucial free throws that would have nailed down a win over William Floyd — a far larger school — in the final seconds of the 1997 overall county championship game. Floyd was to win it 41-40 thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that literally felled the Bees’ star, who lay prostrate on the Stony Brook University gym floor as Floyd and its fans celebrated.

Manning, a two-time national junior college champion when he attended Suffolk Community College-Selden, is to assist White, who played with him on one of those national-championship teams, in coaching the 2017-18 Killer Bees. Manning, whose basketball I.Q. was off the charts, everyone acknowledged, said afterward that he would do his best to get the players to think on the court. He was happy, he added, to be able to give back.

As are White and Johnson, who will focus henceforth, he said, on the younger kids. 

Giving back, everyone agreed, was essential in life, and imperative if the proud river of Bridgehampton basketball is to keep flowing.

Raymon Charlton, who played on Bridgehampton’s 1964, ’65, and ’66 teams, and Jerry Jones listened as Carl Johnson, the former Killer Bees’ star point guard and former longtime coach, talked about how he had revered the championship 1974 team (Gordon Johnson and Jerry Jones’s team) when he was growing up.Jack Graves
Bobby Hopson, a member of Wagner College’s Hall of Fame who once scored 52 points in a game for the Killer Bees, said that what went into making a Killer Bee might be hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t an athlete.Jack Graves