Since an early age, Northeast Philly native Greg Sacidor has been passionate about the game of basketball — and the community that forms around it. When Sacidor was 12, he began keeping score for summer league games at Picariello Playground. When he was 19, he founded the Martha League.
Seven years later, the Martha League has become one of the most popular college-age basketball leagues in the area.
Named after St. Martha Parish School, where games are held, this isn’t the kind of league where a bunch of pros will stroll in, like happens at some summer leagues across the country. You won’t find guys dunking from the free throw line or see highlights on ESPN SportsCenter.
But if you happen to stroll into Brian Butler Gym on a Tuesday or Thursday night between late June and the end of August, you will find a wide assortment of young men engaged in positive competition — and having a great time.
The Martha League has become known for its use of modern tech, like posting on social media and keeping online stats updated. Combined with Sacidor’s dedication, young men in the league say, these things give the program a professional feel, and make it stand apart from others in the region.
Starting from scratch
The idea of starting a summer league for college kids first popped into Sacidor’s mind seven years ago, when he was a freshman at West Chester University.
“When kids are in grade school and high school, their school, their club team or their AAU program always has leagues for them to play in during the summer,” Sacidor told Billy Penn. “Most of the kids in my neighborhood, however, don’t go on to play college ball. This leads to a lack of opportunities to play in a structured league.”
Back in 2011, he asked friends on Facebook to see if anyone would be interested. After getting positive feedback, he made moves to put the idea into action. But it wasn’t easy.
“I remember sitting at the gym in the nights leading up to our first season, waiting for teams to pick up the league information and their schedules,” Sacidor said, “only to have them not show — or even back out last minute.” During its first year, he spent money out of pocket to keep the league afloat.
Sacidor will be the first to tell you how much of a perfectionist he is — so the last-minute snags on the league’s opening night stressed him to no end.
“The day of the first set of games I was supposed to pick up the shirts for all of our players. One thing was wrong, however: the shirts were not done,” Sacidor recalled. “We had to host three games where our players had to wear red and yellow practice pinnies that my dad and I duct taped numbers to.”
He was mortified enough that he worried people would never come back.
Filling a void
The league has come a long way since that day.
“This year we had about 10 new teams express interest and were actually able to get three new teams into the mix,” Sacidor said. “A few teams from last year have changed their rosters over as well, so there will be plenty of new blood in the league for the 2018 season.”
The original idea was to have teams only from Northeast Philadelphia. Then people from surrounding areas began inquiring about the league. Now the league features players from Frankford, Bensalem, Warminster and New Jersey, plus other areas.
One of the ways the Martha League attracts players is via social media.
In particular, via Snapchat and Instagram stories. Players are featured pregame, postgame and sometimes, even during the game. This allows people to showcase their personalities, and always includes some trash-talking to get teams excited to play.
Sacidor has also implemented an All-Star Game and seasonal awards. These things incentivize players to work hard, even if their team doesn’t have a shot at winning.
“Things like new uniforms, trophies and even just having water with cups, it adds to the atmosphere, making it more than just a neighborhood men’s league,” said Ade Owodunni, who’s been playing since 2015. “Everyone that comes to play comes to compete and leave everything on the line. Makes everything else hold more value.”
Running on elbow grease
The league charges a fee of $50 per player. Often times, players can’t afford this fee at the beginning of the season when the money is due. Sacidor allows those players to pay this total over the course of the season rather than at the beginning. The kindness means he often ends up paying for things like league shirts and ref fees out of his own pocket.
This dedication to keeping to keeping the league going is what kept it afloat during its early years, when Sacidor was also maintaining a 9-to-5:30 day job at two summer camps.
The league’s first game starts at 7 p.m., so with the help of his parents and sister, Sacidor would transform the gym from a day camp into a space ready to host a high-level basketball league in just an hour and a half.
“It was certainly tough,” Sacidor recalled. “However, when I take a step back, occasionally being tired or burnt out is so worth it when I see how the league has evolved over the years — and more importantly, how the league brings players and fans from all different backgrounds together.”
The hard work and effort that he puts in to making sure that league runs smoothly and all players are accommodated does not go unnoticed.
“It’s great because of the owner,” said Gab Joseph, a player in the league since 2012. “He builds a relationship with all the players.”
Sacidor values the league’s success by how the talent has grown.
“In the early years one or two teams would dominate the league, while the others were basically there just playing for third and fourth place,” Sacidor said. “But last year every team was playing like they had a chance at the championship – and rightly so.”
Ultimately, Sacidor hopes he can own his own gym to house this league — which he sees becoming one of the best in the country — and his goals don’t stop there.
“I would love the facility to be a staple of the community, where everyone can come together as one and unite over the game of basketball.” Sacidor said. “But also give the younger generation a place they can come and learn the game of basketball.”
The Martha League’s seventh season will tip off at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 19 at Brian Butler Gym.