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JFK alumni return back to the basketball court

JFK graduates have regrouped to play “Alumni Ball” between September and May. The age groups range from the Class of 1977 all the way up to this past year’s graduates.

As high school basketball is creeping up, you can find another group of ballers that meet up in the middle school gym once a week for some pick up hoops.

The guys call it — “Alumni Ball.”

Anywhere from 15 to 30 JFK graduates ranging from the class of 1977 up to 2012 meet up every Thursday night from 7 to 9 p.m between September and May for a few hours of competitive five-on-five games.

Starting out as a men’s volleyball group a few years before, Tony Pijacki Sr. took it over as a basketball group in 1978.

Gary Szymkowiak, Class of 1961, has been there since Pijacki Sr. launched the league, eventually taking the paperwork duties from him so they can continue to use the facilities.

“There’s not a whole lot of places to play,” said Szymkowiak, who graduated in 1979. “It’s such a good atmosphere. It’s easy going. Kind of keeps everyone coming back time after time. It has developed into long term friendships for a bunch of us.”

“I’m probably one of the youngest guys here,” said Zack Smith, 25, who graduated in ’05. “We all have a special bond. We all wear the same jersey. It’s pretty special.”

The guys pay fees every week not only to keep the facilities, but to also donate money into a scholarship fund that they give to JFK students.

They also have an annual summer golf tournament, which was created by Mike Ostempowski, that donates scholarship money, as well.

The glue that seems to keep alumni together from coast-to-coast are the weekly e-mails written up by Mark Klosko. Each member of the 100-plus person e-mailing list, which reaches out as far as California and Nevada to New Jersey, read and responded to the weekly summary.

“There were a couple guys that would try to send weekly reminders out. Then it evolved.” said Klosko, 33, who graduated in ’97. “A lot of the people respond to send jabs and defend themselves. Sometimes there are people that thank me for giving them a laugh during a down week. I even run into people that tell me they don’t respond, but they do read the e-mails.”

Teams, records and highlights (and lowlights) are included in the e-mail, which extend from what happened at the gym to what happened at Anchor Inn, the bar where some of the guys retire for the night to share drinks, food, football and laughs while naming the Player of the Week.

“What ever happens there, stays there,” said Jason Cwiklinski, who is the third generation owner of Anchor Inn. “Fights and arguments; we leave them on the court and head to the bar, have something to eat and just reminisce about what happened that day and growing up in the neighborhood.”

Cwiklinski, 38, graduated in 1992. He is currently number seven on JFK’s all time scoring list and was a part of the only basketball team in school history to win the Sectional championship. He was coached by head coach Len Kosobuki (who won over 300 games) and his assistant, Joe Ostempowski, Mike’s father.

“Almost all of us learned how to play the game from those two guys,” said Cwiklinksi. “They taught us the JFK way of doing things.”

When Kosobuki stopped coaching after the 1992 season, Joe Ostempowski took over as the coach. Ostempowski passed away recently, but his players have not forgotten how much he means to them.

“He was like a father,” said Jason “Wheels” Wheeler, 33, who graduated in ’97 as the second leading scorer in school history under Ostempowski. “He was our mentor, our coach, our counselor. What ever we needed, he was there for us. Through the good and bad. We miss him already.”

Four years ago, they started the Clash of the Classes Christmas Tournament. The guys team up within a few years of their graduating classes and compete in a double elimination tournament for bragging rights.

“It just happened…hanging around at the bar. That’s where the ideas happen,” said Wheeler. “We talked about it for couple of years. Finally, one day we were in the gym and said ‘Let’s do it right now.’”

In addition to the weekly regulars, the Clash of the Classes brings up to 50 guys that fly in from out of state or locals who have extra time during the holidays.

“We’re the reigning champs, so we have the target on our backs now,” said Smith. “The first year we were out in two games. The second year we were 2-2. And last year, we beat the ‘97 team. So everybody’s looking to knock us down now.”

“It’s not about just the guys you graduated with, but you’re linking generations together,” said Klosko. “There’s anywhere from teenagers to 55-year-old- plus guys. Each generation passes it along to the next generation. That’s what keeps it going.”

The Clash of the Classes is on Dec. 20, with a social gathering to follow at the Anchor Inn.

“We play hard, have fun, and play hard after,” Szymkowiak said.

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