By DARREN COOPER RECORD COLUMNIST
MAHWAH – Love and basketball filled the Bradley Center at Ramapo College on Sunday.
The cause was as good as it gets, the Threes for Sandy Hook campaign to raise money for Newtown (Conn.), the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The draw was a benefit girls basketball game between Saddle River Day and Newtown High School.
The theme was one of hope, compassion and healing.
During halftime, Saddle River Day head of school Eileen Lambert, a Newtown resident, summed up the day by addressing the Nighthawks sitting at midcourt. She said that their actions, by starting the Threes for Sandy Hook drive and giving back to their grieving community, set the tone for the nation’s response.
“You chose love,” Lambert said. “And the power of love will always be stronger than the power of anger and hate.”
Saddle River Day girls basketball coach Danny Brown reached out to Newtown coach Jeremy O’Connell shortly after the massacre and said his team would join Threes for Sandy Hook, which donates money for every three-point shot made by a team or group. Several other area programs joined.
The idea of a basketball game between the two schools came up almost immediately and Sunday was the culmination of a special weekend for the Nighthawks.
Officials at Saddle River Day carefully orchestrated the weekend to make it as fun as possible for the visiting Nighthawks. They wanted the girls to be able to get away and, well, just be girls.
“I think my best memory was probably when we walked into the hotel [Saturday] and the whole team and coaches just came up and hugged us,” O’Connell said. “That’s what it’s all about right there.”
Saturday the teams practiced together at Saddle River Day. Many had emailed one another, but it was a chance to put the face to the name. After practice, both teams got together for a private party at the hotel. There were games, dance contests and conversations past midnight.
“We actually talked,” Saddle River Day freshman Jaide Hinds-Clarke said. “We talked about boys a little and we talked about life. We didn’t want to bring up [what happened]. We just wanted to hang out and have a chance to be teens again.”
“That was great,” Saddle River Day’s Dani McMahon said. “We all had a great time. Everyone was just playing and having fun.”
Activities at the Bradley Center started about 90 minutes before tipoff as every organization involved in Threes for Sandy Hook took part in a clinic.
Before tipoff (even the basketball was stenciled with the Threes for Sandy Hook logo) Lambert announced to the crowd that all of the proceeds were going toward building basketball courts in Treadwell Park in Newtown. Bergen County executive Kathleen Donovan asked the crowd for 26 seconds of silence. The gym was about half full.
The game had the flow and pace of an NBA All-Star game. Saddle River Day won, 68-53, and junior guard Izzy McMahon pumped in 21 points and caught the eye of the Newtown coach.
“They are good,” O’Connell said. “We have some good guards, but we don’t have many that small and quick that we see. A lot of the good guards in our area are stronger and have more of a mid-range game. She has everything.”
Aside from rotating in a lot of players, the game was played straight by both coaches. Saddle River Day pressed for a while. Newtown, defending Class LL state champs in Connecticut, attacked and shot threes.
There was a long halftime presentation that included a proclamation from the town of Mahwah saying it was officially Threes for Sandy Hook Day and a plaque was given to Newtown First Selectman Patricia Llodra. The Rebels gave the Nighthawks signed basketballs.
There are already plans for Saddle River Day to participate in a holiday tournament in Newtown next year if the dates can be worked out.
Sunday, some money was raised for a good cause, there was a basketball game, but the most important thing was just welcoming the Nighthawks to North Jersey and letting them feel some love.
“I think my favorite memory will be bonding with the girls,” Hinds-Clarke said. “They are all so sweet and it was fun to hang out with them. We had a good time with each other.