Hall of Famer David Hixon’s Western Mass basketball camp shaped generations of Pioneer Valley hoopers

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 08-08-2023 4:44 PM

Rumors of The Shot circulated as early as Monday’s arrival, a tradition deeply rooted at Dave Hixon’s Western Mass Basketball Camp at Amherst College.

On Friday, the camp’s final day, all of the coaches gathered the campers. Each coach and counselor attempted a 3-pointer. The campers considered the results then narrowed the field to five and eventually three before pegging their mark.

“Sometimes they selected him because they thought he was really good and he knew he would make it, and sometimes they would select him because he was really bad and they knew he’d miss it,” Hixon said.

The makes stood on one side of LeFrak Gymnasium and the misses on the other. Whoever guessed wrong ran the hill out back.

“The hill was damn steep,” said Northampton’s Mike Ellerbrook, who attended from the mid-1980s until 1990.

Stan Zieja seemed an easy target. The Hadley native and longtime athletic trainer had a “real funky shot,” Hixon said. He air balled a few of the practice rounds. Of the roughly 200 assembled campers, about 190 picked him to miss.

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“Son of a gun, he made it,” said Hixon, the longtime Amherst men’s basketball coach who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this Saturday in Springfield.

Moments like Zieja’s shot and the beldam that followed occurred often at Western Mass Basketball Camp. The institution ran from the summer of 1979 after Amherst hired Hixon until 2019. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 edition after Hixon retired. Basketball players from all over the Pioneer Valley flocked to form friendships, compete and improve. Parents attended as children then brought their own kids.

“It was really special. You set out because you wanted to run a camp. You wanted kids to get better and to have basketball be something in the area,” Hixon said. “It became a right of passage.”

‘What do you think about a camp?’

While Hixon grew up in Andover, he’s spent the vast majority of his life in Amherst after stepping on campus as a freshman in 1971. The college hired him to coach men’s basketball in 1977. Then-Smith Academy coach Al Wolejko, who later became Hixon’s assistant, stopped by the gym and invited Hixon to breakfast after his maiden season.

“What do you think about a camp?” Wolejko asked.

“Well I’ve been thinking about one,” Hixon responded.

“I’ve got a lot of contacts with local high school coaches and kids,” Wolejko said. “Together, we can do it.”

Accessing the facilities proved no problem. There were no camps at Amherst during the summer except tennis. Just 26 kids showed up that first July. Hixon spent around $100 to run it.

The camp grew into the area’s premier summer basketball improvement destination. Julius Erving ran a camp at UMass with his high school coach Ray Wilson at the time.

“Naturally, Dr. J was a big name,” Hixon said. “At the time, UMass was only up in their upstairs gym in Boyden that was a sweat box. The kids much preferred our facilities. We beat Dr. J.”

They also survived a UMass Basketball camp led by Ron Gerlufsen. When John Calipari arrived in Amherst, he thought he found the perfect weeks to run his own camp. His assistant Brian Gorman, who lived with Hixon at the time and worked both camps, told Calipari those weeks wouldn’t work.

“Why? This is a Division 1 program?” Calipari wondered.

“Because Dave Hixon is running his camp those weeks,” Gorman told him. “And if you run those weeks, you’ll get about five kids to your camp.”

Camps for everyone

Hixon’s camps appealed to nearly everyone in Western Mass. They attracted players not just from Amherst but across the bridge in Northampton, up to South Deerfield, down to South Hadley and out to Ware and beyond.

“It gave you this great framework for understanding the area you grew up in. Western Mass is a deceptively big place geographically when you’re a kid. When you’re young, you don’t go too many places outside of your town,” said Andrei Berman, who grew up in Northampton and went to the camp. “It was a great way to have a sense of the broader local landscape and to make friends in other towns, some I stay in touch with today.”

The footprint extended to Montana, Virginia, California and New York, among other places, as friends of participants visited the Pioneer Valley. Former UMass coach and point guard Derek Kellogg brought his son Max and a group of friends up when he coached LIU-Brooklyn starting in 2017. They stayed at Kellogg’s house in Amherst.

“My son and all his friends looked forward to that week as much as any week all summer and were totally bummed when it ended,” Kellogg said.

The days began at 9 a.m. with stretching and hard drill work. After a long lunch, campers raced back to LeFrak to watch the counselors, which included UMass, Amherst College and other local college athletes, play pick up. Wolekjo delivered afternoon announcements in a booming but nasally voice before the work resumed. Camp ended for the day at 4:30 p.m.

“We really loved running camp. It was more about camp than anything else. It was to try and get local kids interested in basketball, get better at basketball,” Hixon said. “You coach the whole year with college kids and I looked forward to the two weeks of coaching young kids. We all had a ton of fun.”

The swag, connections

Every camper received a shirt for participating: a white T-shirt with a purple basketball in the middle ringed with the words “Western Mass. Basketball Camp.” The camp advertised itself when players wore the shirts during the winter season.

The real prizes were the cups, though. They don’t look like anything special, just a white plastic cup emblazoned with the same logo as the shirts. Hixon and the counselors bestowed cups for winning contests, tournaments or displaying the qualities of a good teammate like hustling.

“Every kid in Western Mass measured themselves against one another based on how many cups you took home,” Berman said. “I think I got five one year, and that was probably the height of my athletic accomplishments.”

Northfield’s Garrett Cote earned 12 over a half-decade as a camper. The camp shaped him so much he became a counselor for three years after that.

“I’ve been to a bunch of different camps throughout my life whether as a player or a counselor, but none were like this one. Hixon was very driven to build individual connections with each kid, no matter how many kids were there,” Cote said. “He made sure to give feedback, good or bad, and did his best to learn something about everyone. You don’t get that really anywhere else.”

Those connections began on the first day. Hixon welcomed the campers seated on LeFrak’s back court behind the curtain. Even as some kids filed in late, he never became upset, just asked them to sit down and kept talking about the things they’d do at camp.

“At the time I didn’t realize how special it was, but he was talking about basketball, everything,” Amherst’s Ryder Rietkerk said. “It was really something, man.”

Rietkerk once begged his mom to move one of their family summer vacations so he could attend both sessions instead of just one.

The camps were a vacation for most of the kids. In addition to playing basketball games and drills, they swam, ate ice cream and enjoyed unlimited food from Amherst College’s dining halls.

“There’s a community there. I’d see my guys at the high school who have built-in friendships and built-in connections to coaches and players from all over,” said Northampton coach Rey Harp, who played at Amherst College and ran the camps’ youngest division for years. “It really was one of the special things about the summers that we spent. That week before July 4, that week after July 4, we are in camp, and it’s going to be fantastic.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>