A Place Called Hoop

There’s always basketball in Oak Bluffs, but there’s only one weekend like this.

On a bright blue-sky day in early July, Niantic Park comes alive with banners, music blasting from speakers, and kids of all ages and backgrounds dribbling basketballs and shooting jump shots. While this might not be unique in a city like New York or Chicago, on Martha’s Vineyard it is the once-a-year event that kicks off the rest of the summer’s basketball program in Oak Bluffs. It is the Battle in the Bluffs – or BITB – and the brand new Niantic Park courts, tucked behind the main streets of Oak Bluffs, are hot with all things basketball.

Co-founder Ian Thomas-Minor walks the perimeter, taking in every child, every coach, and every on-looking parent. He makes sure that everyone is getting enough water and being encouraged. But most important, he makes sure they are having fun.

Thomas-Minor (also known as Coach Ian or Coach ITM) started BITB in the summer of 2012 in homage to the very courts, the park, and the Island that he believes saved his life. “I was always the kid who bumped against the edges,” the thirty-three-year-old said of his adolescence. So much so that his mother decided to move her family from Queens to Martha’s Vineyard when he was a sophomore in high school. He had summered on the Island with his grandfather – a pediatrician who owned a home in Oak Bluffs – but wasn’t ready for the difference between the on and off-season life. “It was a real culture shock for me,” he said. “Not only did I come from a school of 5,000 kids, I came from a school of all black and brown students. Being at [Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School] was the first time I ever had to communicate with white kids and I attribute that to being one of the keys of my success in evolving as a young adult.”

Shannon Rynd-Ray

After high school Thomas-Minor returned to New York City, where he makes his living as an educator, mentor, and assistant coach of the Molloy College men’s basketball team. But he’s made it his goal to connect as many people as he can to the experience he had on the Island. “Basketball has been one of the greatest interactive classrooms of my life,” he explained. “So many lessons are learned and taught on the court. Kids understand what it means to work hard on a jump shot. Through basketball I can help them understand how to put that hard work, that love, into everything they do.”

The first year there were about fifty kids on the court; that number has gone up every year, with last summer bringing in more than 100 players. According to Thomas-Minor, the participants are a strong mix of both off-Island and year-round youths. “Every year we see new faces and every year we get kids who’ve been on the court since we started,” he said. The co-ed program is open to anyone between the ages of six and sixteen.

It’s this diversity of basketball backgrounds that appeals to thirteen-year-old Michael Noel of Vineyard Haven. “Growing up on the Island, you only learn to play the way we play here,” he explained, “but basketball is different in different parts of the U.S., especially the fouls. It was good to learn about how things are done in other parts of the country.”

For twelve-year-old Maria Andrade of Edgartown, who participated for the first time last summer, one of the best things about the program is that the coaches make sure the girls get to play as much as the boys. Her older brother, Ricardo Andrade, is one of the starters on the high school boys’ team and has participated in the program every year. This year he will return as a BITB coach in training. “My favorite part was when we scrimmaged with the coaches,” she said, “because it was cool to play on the same team with guys who are so good.”

Ian Thomas-Minor, co-founder of the Battle in the Bluffs, with Zora Morais, Kamryn Bishop, Nala Pitman, Madis Pitman, and Zanai Thomas-Minor.
Shannon Rynd-Ray

Andrade also picked up a few pointers about working with others. “I learned not to be so hard on my teammates,” she said. “I learned that if I encouraged them more, we would all do better and the coaches explained that this was the same in the rest of my life and I think that’s true.”

Arielle Hayes, who lives in Katama, brought her sons Miles, nine, and Christian, six, for the first time last summer. It was a great opportunity for her sons to interact with other kids from around the Island, she said. She liked that the program was focused on “building confidence and independence, and that they got to play in an environment that was more about teamwork and less focused on competition.”

While the program aims to provide high-level basketball instruction, for Thomas-Minor the off-the-court lessons are just as important as the ball handling. “The message hits home,” said Sterling Bishop, the head coach of the high school girls’ varsity basketball team, who has been a BITB coach for two years. “And this is important. It’s not just about playing the game and what they see on TV. It’s about hard work, dedication, and structure and that carries over into life.”

Thomas-Minor’s message isn’t just for the kids, either. “Being a BITB coach is about empowering and being empowered at the same time,” he said. All the coaches have played and/or coached at the collegiate level, but he also looks for candidates who he believes can model how the skills they’ve learned through basketball can be used off the court as well. Many of them come to the Vineyard for the first time through the program. “Almost every single person who has come up to the Vineyard to coach has said to me, ‘No matter what, I want to come back next year,’ and I do whatever I can to make that happen for them.”

It’s never too early to learn the fundamentals. Participants range in age from six to sixteen.
Shannon Rynd-Ray

Sometimes that means paying for expenses out of his own pocket, or emailing for weeks in order to find places for everyone to stay. But it’s worth it. “That coach may be the one person who says something that connects to that one kid. I can’t risk not having that.”

While he has some donors who have been on-board since the beginning, such as Caleb Nicholson of Contemporary Landscapes and Alex McCluskey, co-owner of the Locker Room, as the program has grown Thomas-Minor admits he’s had to spend a good amount of time “emailing and annoying people” in order to get needed support. The first few years, BITB was dedicated to raising money to help rebuild the Niantic Park courts and playground, and raised close to $10,000 for that project. Now that the courts are finished, the focus has shifted to creating and expanding similar programs both on and off-Island, and donating to local causes, including Alex’s Place. This year he is in the process of developing a music and videography workshop for students who may not be interested in basketball, but still want to be part of the program. Thomas-Minor is also adding in an educational component for parents.

“I want to reach as many kids as I can, and to do that, you have to make the love make sense,” he said. “If I can provide something, anything, to someone else, that’s my job – not that I get paid for, but my job as a human being.”

And, perhaps, as a grandson. More and more, he said, he feels that he’s following in the footsteps of the grandfather with whom he summered as a child in Oak Bluffs. In addition to his private practice, Lloyd Thomas served as a volunteer pediatrician for the Black Panther Party’s free medical clinic in Brooklyn.

“Basically, I’m following the Lloyd laws and being my grandpa to kids who aren’t my kids,” he said. “Which means empowering even when it infringes on your own personal comfort.”

BITB 6 will take place July 1–2 at Niantic Park in Oak Bluffs. You can register at, at the event, or at a bowling/registration night that will include a short workshop for interested parents on June 30 at the Barn, Bowl & Bistro from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Comments (4)

Fern Thomas-Minor
Oak Bluffs Massachusetts
A Rennaisance my father ... his grandfather...Lloyd A Thomas...Dr.DAPPER...The Family tradition of giving back and paying continues... via Ian Thomas-Minors..Dreams.. WORDS and Deeds
June 21, 2017 - 5:43pm
Fern Thomas-Minor
Martha's Vineyard
All in the family....It's a Beautiful Thing...and I'm so pleased and proud One..LOVE
June 21, 2017 - 5:53pm
George Stein
In a life of memories playing on that court and dominating some verbally abusive kids remains a high point. A lot of laughter and friends are made there all year
June 24, 2017 - 10:46pm
Anne Hunter
Rockville Centre, NY
So proud of this fine man. I watched him grow as a student in the Communications department of Molloy College and develop as an athlete. Through determination and hard work, he is making a real difference in the world, and I am proud to say I know Ian Thomas-Minor. God bless him, his family and all he does in the future.
June 27, 2017 - 10:39pm