Rachel Minkove had a talent for bringing together people for a common cause, inviting neighbors over for Shabbat and working with young adults in their fight against cancer. In many ways, her family remembers her as a community connector.
So it seemed only fitting that her brothers, Jon and Sam, honor Rachel for her giving spirit after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Though Rachel lost a three-year fight against the disease in 2012, her memory lives on through Tour de Court, an informal basketball tournament that has taken on new meaning in Northwest Baltimore. She was 28.
“If we were going to continue doing this every year, it was going to be for a greater cause,” said Jon, one of the tournament’s founding members. “We wanted to find a way to come together and rally as a community. It used to be something that our parents and neighbors would just laugh at but still fully supported.”
The year was 1995, and Jon, 37, a Pikesville native, and three of his Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Upper School classmates were looking for a way to kill a hot summer afternoon. So they started the tournament, which has grown from a single two-on-two game to 24 three-player teams with both a men’s and women’s division.
At 8 a.m. on Sunday, Tour de Court XXIII participants will lace up their sneakers, get on their bikes and travel to neighborhood and backyard basketball courts in the spirit of community. Organizers say the event continues to serve as a primary source of inspiration and provides the event with more meaning after it started out with no real long-term goal in mind.
“[Rachel] was able to see some of this and where some of the money we have raised has gone,” said Jon’s younger brother, Sam, 32, who has competed in the tournament for more than 15 years. “I don’t know if she would have expected it to become as incredible as it has, but she loved every part of this. This is a celebration of her life, not a mourning.”
Since 2012, Tour de Court has helped raise more than $150,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s research portfolio. Last year’s gathering raised more than $35,000, and organizers are confident they will exceed that total. As of Friday, $15,000 had been raised, a number that they expect to pick up the day of the event.
Players have turned out in droves to show their support, traveling from as far north as Boston for what has served as a reunion in many ways for old friends. Jon, for instance, will make the trek from New York to play in his record 22nd Tour de Court (a torn ACL sidelined him in 2000).
“This is an event I wouldn’t miss for the world,” Jon said. “It’s really grown to a lot more than basketball, but I would say the underlying connection for everything we do with this is through our love of basketball.”
DJ Balagan will kick things off with live music, and Baltimore Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck will act as master of ceremonies, a role he has held the last several years. Baltimore Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh is also expected to make an appearance for the second straight year. In the past, former Pikesville Jewish Congregation Rabbi Daniel Lerner has said a prayer before the teams broke off to their respective game sites.
But make no mistake. Once the games get underway and the competitive juices start flowing, trash talk, hard fouls and chippy play is sure to ensue. In between the banter and physical play, there are occasional signs of respect with butt slaps, high fives and fist pounds when someone from an opposing team makes a noteworthy assist or basket.
“Things definitely get a little heated when we all get going,” Sam said with a laugh. “At the end of the day, it’s all in good fun, no matter who wins or loses.”
City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5), 28, who was part of last year’s winning team, is out to defend his title. At a recent council meeting, Schleifer presented Sam and Kenny Friedman, one of the event’s organizers, with an honor celebrating their dedication and commitment to Tour de Court.
“This has really turned into one of the premier basketball tournaments in not just the Baltimore area, but the entire nation,” Schleifer said.
Players range in age from 17 to 44 and consist of many white-collar professionals, such as accountants, doctors and lawyers, putting their aching bodies on the line. Jon is a lawyer, Sam a doctor and Friedman a chiropractor.
Teams compete not for prize money or bragging rights, but the coveted “Golden Helmet,” a set of gold-painted bicycle helmets that include the names of every tournament winner. The winning team keeps the helmets for a year, which have been quite the talking point at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and even brises.
Though Friedman, 44, is still seeking his first golden helmet after six years, he was part of a team that reached a final before an undisclosed teammate “was assisted in dislocating his shoulder.”
To this day, Friedman, a Pikesville resident, holds a grudge for that incident and “will never give the other team credit for that win without an asterisk.”
“One of the lowlights of the opening ceremonies is when the current champs ride their bikes in to a litany of boos and hisses and unprintable words in these family pages,” Friedman added.
All basketball jokes aside, Friedman has not lost sight of Tour de Court’s mission: to help eradicate blood cancer. That’s a big reason why he has helped put together some happy hours and an NCAA March Madness bracket called “Tour de Bracketology” to make that fight year-round.
“We like fundraisers based on all of our existing bad habits,” Friedman said.
For more information and to make a donation to LLS, visit tourdecourt.org.