Beachdawgs are en Fuego When It Comes to Rec League Basketball Streaks

The Beachdawgs or the Cut-Ups? (Photo by Joseph Baroud)

When I discover the Beachdawgs have not missed a game since their 1987 inception, I am intrigued. So I call Erin Wilson, one of the recreational basketball team’s co-founders, to find out what the Beachdawgs are all about. We speak for a little bit before I mention I need to come down and meet the team for a profile. But Wilson has a better idea, asking if I want to JOIN the Beachdawgs for one game, after which we’ll all go to the team hangout for a group interview. A feeling of excitement shoots through me as I reply, without hesitation, “Hell yeah!” You see, I love basketball. I’ve loved it since I used to call it “backetball” as a little shit. I cannot wait to impress the Beachdawgs with my mad skills. We set a date, and I start warming my jumper.

In team sports, success, camaraderie, friendship and loyalty are qualities that have short life spans. Even dynastic teams and organizations find ways to blow themselves up because of internal conflicts and behind-the-scenes drama. So when you come across a team that has stayed together for more than 30 years, you know something besides the game holds together that bond.

That’s the story of the Beachdawgs. You won’t see them on TNT. You won’t see their boxscores in newspapers. They appear on no Wheaties boxes. The only place you can catch them is inside a sweaty Newport Beach gym or their official headquarters, Original Pizza II in Costa Mesa, on Thursdays nights.

They play year-round in the Newport Beach City League (NBCL), which has four separate seasons annually. Starting with the Beachdawgs’ first game was in 1987–before your reporter was even conceived–the team has not missed a game in more than 120 consecutive seasons.

They first came into existence when Erin Wilson met Jay Stocker through a mutual friend. The pair lived on separate sides of the Balboa Peninsula and shared a love for sports. Their conversations eventually led to the idea of gathering some friends to joining the local basketball rec league.

Sneaking into a gym to play pickup games on weekends, Wilson met Dave Kruse, who joined that first Beachdawgs team and has remained one of the three original players on what is currently a nine-man squad. A rotating cast has filled the other slots over the years, but the weekly game night has remained the same.

“It’s a standing rule, even if it’s Valentine’s Day,” Kruse says. “It’s Thursday, sorry honey, I’ve got a game.”

“That’s the magic of the Beachdawgs,” adds Stocker. “We’ve been able to do this every Thursday night since 1987.”

The anticipation gnaws at me as Thursday’s game night nears. Since getting the call to join the Beachdawgs, I have been going to the local park’s court to shoot hoops for about an hour a session as I’m rusty. The last thing I want to do is embarrass myself and give journalists a bad name once the game starts. Whatever the outcome may eventually be, I am excited that I will be playing a game that I’ve loved for so long–and for it to be intertwined with something else I love (writing). I keep playing in my mind the moment I first slip into a purple and yellow Beachdawgs tank top. 

Laying it up. (Photo by Joseph Baroud)

Once the Beachdawgs became established, something was missing. They needed a place to go to after each game so they could wind down, discuss the game and catch up on one another’s lives. Eventually they found Original Pizza II, which is owned by Rudy Kaminski and Steve Calatchan, who are now also proud members of the team.

With Kaminski and Calatchan’s Costa Mesa pizzeria serving as the Beachdawgs’ official home base, it was only natural that an official team drink would emerge. Nope, it’s not Gatorade. As soon as a player’s butt touches an Original Pizza II chair after a game, said player dutifully orders a Purple Hooter, which is a sweet-tasting drink (with a kick!) that is made up of vodka, 7Up, pineapple juice and Chambord.

Original Pizza II has also served as something of a farm system for the Beachdawgs, as customers have been recruited to join the team or fill in spots when a player has had a Thursday night conflict.

Some spot recruiting over the years has been comical. Wilson recalled his 6-foot-9 mortgage guy bragging about how he was a high school basketball star. When he showed up to play for the ‘Dawgs, he had a decent first half but then quit in the middle of the game, complaining he could not run anymore.

Stocker had a roommate who did run–off the court and out of the building,  never to play with the team again–alleging that his roomie would not pass him the ball. Stocker swears he was not being a Kobe that night. “I was open. I had the ball. I had a decision,” he explained. “I could throw it, it could bounce off of his head and it would go out of bounds. Or, I could, you know, score.”

During their amazing run, the Beachdawgs have even had a famous fill-in. Former NFL No. 1 draft pick Ryan Leaf played a game with them after a friend, who was also a Beachdawg, asked while they were golfing if the ex-quarterback wanted to join the “famous” rec league team for one night. Leaf  couldn’t refuse; the team’s reputation preceded them.

In 2007, the Beachdawgs held a reunion game for anyone who had ever put on their purple and yellow jersey. Eighteen players showed up, and everyone had a blast–including one fellow who was blasted. Bringing the ball up court, he drunkenly launched it from  half court and watched it swish through the net. When he realized he’d made it, he threw his arms up triumphantly and ran off court with his legacy intact.

Celebrity guests and players from the past can make for great fun, but what’s most important to the core team members is maintaining their bond. Ask them to a man, and they will say they’ve become like a family. They’ve attended each other’s weddings and pulled together through thick and thin (read: losses). To prevent the formation of a toxic atmosphere, they’ve relied on healthy doses of humor, which to an outsider might come off as a ton of ragging. Anyone who has played team sports knows such ribbing underscores a deep brother/sisterhood.

As Kruse puts it, “Camaraderie is probably the core of our existence.”

Proudly wearing my Beachdawgs jersey, I arrive before the 9 p.m. tip-off. Joined by six other Beachdawg players, we notice the opposing team only has four guys. As the clock strikes 9, the officials say they are going to call a forfeit; they don’t want to wait for a fifth player to show up because the want to go home for dinner. To avoid a scratched game, I volunteer to play for the other team. The officials look at one another, kind of shrug their shoulders and give us the okay. I rush to the scorer’s table, delete my name from the Beachdawgs’ roster and put it on the other one. Then I take my prized team the jersey off, put on the other team’s orange jersey and go on to play the full 40 minutes. Call it brilliance born out of desperation, but my adopted team wins. Fortunately, the Beachdawgs take it in stride and still invite me to join them at Original Pizza II, where we devour a pepperoni pizza and a second one with everything on it. I wash it all down with a much deserved Purple Hooter. Cheers!

From downtown! (Photo by Joseph Baroud)

Other than the non-core players on the roster, nothing much has changed in the Beachdawgs’ 32 years. Well, actually, some have maybe lost a step or three, but the journey has been so fun no one would change a thing.

They says they’ve won the league 10 times. Or is it 12? (The first thing to go after losing a step or three is the memory.)

There have, of course, been down seasons, but even one of those had a silver lining. Their record was so bad, they did not make the playoffs, but but a couple of teams couldn’t participate in post-season, so the Beachdawgs were penciled back in.

They wound up winning the whole thing!

Sure, the original three may be getting up there in years, but their Beachdawgs are still going strong. Despite the ages on their driver licenses, they remain young at heart . After winning last season’s title, Wilson got a tattoo on his left leg of a basketball with “Beachdawgs” in purple and yellow.

When I ask the guys when they think they’ll walk away from the team and the game, Stocker shoots back, “Have the Rolling Stones ever thought about not playing rock ‘n’ roll?”

“I don’t believe any of us thought we’d be going this long,” Wilson concedes. “We never really think about it, we just keep going for the game and the camaraderie.

“We’ve all been through tough times, divorces, marriage [issues], work issues, but the reality is that it is a place and time of support in positive ways. We talk about our kids, our loves. We just keep it focused on the good times.”

A month after the game I played in, I come to another, not to participate but to take photos for this story. I see a player from the team I had joined at the last minute, and he informs me that with their win, the Beachdawgs were knocked out of the playoffs. But my new pals in yellow and purple can’t really blame the loss on me. It had been years since I ran up and down a basketball court, and the lack of wind threw my shot off drastically. Although I may have helped the opponent in other ways, I missed every shot I took. I had a great time though and remain a Beachdawg at heart.

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