Participants in the James Hardy Birdcage Classic confer before a game at the Andrew Jackson Houses in Melrose on June 30.

Local star brings his game home with Melrose tournament

Growing up in the Andrew Jackson Houses in Melrose, Dwight Hardy witnessed those around him with potential on the basketball court succumb to the dangers of their environment before they could fulfill their dreams of making it big.

Hardy, who garnered national attention and captivated New Yorkers last year while leading the St. John’s University’s basketball team to its first N.C.A.A. Tournament berth in a decade, said those experiences helped motivate him, by pushing him to achieve where others have fallen short.

Now back from a stellar season playing professional ball in Italy, the rangy point guard is looking to help young people in the neighborhood stay on the right path, by launching the first Dwight Hardy Birdcage Classic. Six teams made up of local young people came to hoop it up for three days in “the Birdcage,” as the courts at Andrew Jackson are locally known. Residents gave the basketball court its distinctive name because of its forbidding, fenced-in look.

“This where I started at. I grew up playing here,” said Hardy while keeping score from the sidelines. “I wanted to come here, do something positive for my community, where everyone can get away from all the negative and violence and just enjoy themselves,” he added.

Hardy recently returned from Italy after playing for Pistoia in the country’s second-highest professional league. He was named MVP of the league, after averaging 22.6 points per game and leading his team to the league finals.

Like Hardy, James Stokes, 21, grew up playing in the Birdcage. Seeing Hardy return to his home court was inspirational, he said.

“It motivates me. You see the strive he had and see that if he can do it, so can you,” Stokes said.

Bragging rights will be the only trophy for the Birdcage Classic’s winning team. Hardy himself paid for the uniforms.

Hardy’s father, Dwight Cannon, watched the games from the sideline, as they played out on the same court where he had seen his son play so many times.

“I hope some year in the future we will be here doing a 35th and 45th annual tournament,” Cannon said.  “He always said he was going to come back and help, and now he has proven himself.”

Hardy hopes the event will grow, and says he wants to expand the tournament to include younger kids next year.

But the former Andrew Jackson tenant’s path to basketball stardom has not been an easy one. He starred at John F. Kennedy High School, but St. John’s turned him away because of low test scores.

So Hardy found another route to the college. He attended a prep school in North Carolina and then a community college in rural Iowa, before getting his grades up and reapplying to St. John’s. It took two years, but he got in.

In the coming weeks, Hardy hopes to catch on in the NBA’s summer league en route to what he hopes will eventually become a career in the NBA.

But along the way, he says he will continue to encourage local kids to do well in school, to back up their hoop dreams.

“One day basketball is going to stop. You can’t play forever,” he said.

Local resident Robert “Dude” Jackson, who was one of the event’s volunteer referees, recalled that years ago basketball tournaments were common at the Birdcage. He thinks there need to be more of them, to steer young people away from violence.

Last year the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms broke up a local gang on drug related offenses. Last April, 26-year-old resident Terrence Martin was found fatally shot in one of the complex’s buildings.

“This is something positive where guys can just come together, as opposed to smoking weed and selling drugs,” Jackson said.

Another aspiring hoopster from the neighborhood who played in the tournament, Dawyne Moore, 21, sees Hardy as an example of what he is aspiring toward.  Moore will attend Hudson Valley Community College, where he hopes a short stint will help catapult him to a university with a major basketball program.

“Seeing how hard he worked, I can do it too,” said Moore.

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