Filmmakers Train Lens on Killer Bees
[The following article appeared in the Sag Harbor Express]
By Stephen J. Kotz
The Bridgehampton Killer Bees are the stuff of legend. Stretching back four decades, they have won nine state basketball titles, often with barely enough boys in the tiny high school to field a team. They have served as ambassadors for an often beleaguered school and been a source of deep community pride for the traditionally African-American population living along the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. Now as they attempt to defend the state title they won last year, they are starring in a movie.
Filmmakers Ben and Orson Cummings, two brothers, who went to grade school at Bridgehampton in the late 1970s and early ’80s, are filming the team this season—at practice, at games, in the classroom and at home—for a documentary they hope will gain wide release.
The Cummings brothers have already written and produced two feature films, Roy Scheider’s last film, originally titled “If I Didn’t Care” and renamed “Blue Blood” when it was released internationally, and “Pacific Standard Time,” a psychological thriller, that is awaiting release. This will be their first documentary.
“We hope to use the basketball team as a lens to try to understand the community,” said Ben Cummings in a recent interview. That community has come under tremendous pressure as the East End grows ever more affluent, forcing out working class black families, many of whom first came to the East End a couple of generations ago to work on the potato farms that once dotted the landscape.
“And you have the efforts to close the school and that whole thing, the existential threat that hangs over the school and the team,” he added, referring to a protracted fight in the mid-’80s to close the school. That battle exacerbated the white flight that had already reduced its enrollment. After the school began to climb back, another attempt to shut down its high school was led by school board member Joe Berhalter in 2008. That effort was shot down by a large majority of district voters.
Although Bridgehampton is still tiny for a kindergarten through 12th grade school with only about 200 students, its enrollment is now about equally divided among whites, blacks and Latinos. Yet, as Mr. Cummings pointed out, “It’s always been known as the black school.”
“Below the surface there is always the issue of racism,” added Orson Cummings. “There are all these forces conspiring against them, and yet, despite that pressure, they seem to thrive.”
The basketball team, like the school itself, has gone through droughts. Bridgehampton won the first three of its state titles under coach Roger Golden from 1978 through 1980. Just four years later, John Niles coached the team to a title in 1984, a double overtime loss in the title game in 1985 and another championship in 1986. But it would be 10 years before Bridgehampton would win another championship, ringing up another three-peat from 1996 to 1998 under its current coach, Carl Johnson. That run was followed by a 17-year dry spell until last year’s squad rolled through its competition on its way to another championship.
The Cummings brothers say the seeds of basketball greatness in Bridgehampton were planted when the Bridgehampton Child Care Center put in a basketball court in the early 1960s. The center itself was created in the early 1950s after children, who had been left unattended while their parents worked the fields, died in a house fire. It grew into the summer camp and after-school daycare program for kids living along the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike.
“You have to trust your teammates to have a good team and that’s easy to do when you grow up with the kids you play with,” said Coach Johnson, who honed his basketball skills at the childcare center and played on Coach Golden’s championship teams.
Even though the team has the power to bring the broader community together, Coach Johnson said his players and the school itself continue to face a problem of perception. “It seems like Bridgehampton is the school that is forgotten, and yet whatever the kids do here, they give it their best,” he said. “The kids on my team are always asking, ‘Why do we always have to prove ourselves?’”
Their dedication shows itself when 15 minutes before its scheduled 6 a.m. practices, players are already warming up on the court and going through their drills in a silent, almost Zen-like state, Orson Cumming said. “They all behave and they are all so nice, but once you get them on the court, they are savage competitors,” he said. “They are ferocious.”
Aware the presence of cameras at practices, let alone games, can be a bit unnerving or even disturbing at first, the Cummings brothers have been treading carefully the first few weeks.
“You need to earn some trust,” said Ben Cummings, adding that the filmmakers would bide their time before trying to film the players at home with their families. Eventually, though, they expect their subjects to forget they are there.
In the meantime, the filmmakers and their crew are themselves becoming immersed in Bridgehampton culture, marveling at the tiny gym, learning about the team’s reliance on tough defense and sharing the ball on offense, and even scouting upcoming opponents.
“In the end, what’s cool,” said Orson Cummings, “is they are just playing for themselves. There isn’t any cynicism. It’s just very earnest and truthful.”