Basketball league honors Little Neck Sept. 11 victim

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The pair of nets that hung from the basketball hoops last weekend in the gym at Samuel Field YM-YWCA appeared perfectly intact. A closer look, however, revealed a lone string dangling out of place beneath the rim at the northern end of the court.

The only other link missing from the inaugural game of the Robert Speisman Basketball Scholarship Fund — a tribute held Sunday afternoon that drew about 40 players and more than 100 fans to the Y’s gym — proved to be Speisman himself.

A Little Neck native who spent countless hours as a kid playing hoops on that floor, Speisman died on Sept. 11 while traveling on the American Airlines plane crashed into the Pentagon by terrorists.

Basketball was one of Speisman’s greatest passions, a pursuit the 47-year-old senior vice president for sales at Lazare Kaplan International followed from his childhood to Irvington, N.Y., where he lived with his wife, Rena, and their three daughters: Tara, Brittany and Hayley.

In 1990, Speisman, the son-in-law of Lazare Kaplan Chairman Maurice Tempelsman, founded an adult basketball league that continues to meet every Sunday morning in Irvington. In the past year, his parents, Jack and Joyce Speisman, started the fund named for their son that has provided northeast Queens with its first free basketball league for youths.

“The whole idea is that my son will always be remembered, as well as where he grew up and what he liked,” Jack Speisman said.

The new league is open to boys and girls in grades 7-12. Registration began at the Y Sunday night and will continue through Oct. 23 from 7-9:30 p.m. Games will be held every Wednesday night beginning Oct. 30.

“The beauty of this league is that everybody’s welcome,” said Nancy Amalfitano, the Y’s director of activities and athletics. “We’re not looking for a certain level of skill, and it’s free. It’s totally sponsored through this fund. We’ll include refs, T-shirt costs, the basketballs, the coaching — everything will be covered through this fund. So that’s what makes this really unique.”

On Sunday, a squad of Speisman’s fellow players from Westchester County squared off against a large team of his family members and childhood friends.

“He lived basketball,” Joyce Speisman said of the second of her three children. “I’m so happy that we’re doing this. I think he’s up there having a good time. I don’t think he would know which team to root for, though. That’s the only problem.”

Every action on the court represented Speisman’s memory, including the unveiling of a plaque with his image and an inscription to be displayed permanently at the Y. Every jersey worn in Sunday’s game bore a common moniker: ‘Speis Ball.’

His daughters tossed up the game ball. Marion Klepner, a family friend who had known Speisman since he was 8, sang a stirring rendition of ‘America the Beautiful.’ His older brother, Steven, 51, who traveled from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. to emcee the event, introduced many of the players from the local squad and even scored a bucket on a turnaround jumper from the foul line in the fourth quarter.

Speisman’s nephew, Michael Weltman, 11, subbed into the game in the final minute and sank a hook shot from the lane.

“We’re here because, you know, a piece of Robby’s in it, a piece of his heart,” said Steven Speisman. “My brother was a very charismatic guy, and he made all this happen. It was a beautiful day.”

The aging all-stars from Irvington outscored the hometown crew, many of whose players traveled great distances to play in the game. But the day’s real winners should prove to be the youths of northeastern Queens.

“They came from all over — Washington, Florida, California, all over,” Amalfitano said of the hometown team’s members. “We’ve seen that same response in the donations we’ve received, and the money’s still coming in, which is wonderful.

“So at the rate we’re going, I know that this league right now, just based on the money that we’ve brought in so far, could run at least a good five years.”

Reach reporter Joe Whalen by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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