By Annette Hinkle
Bring up the topic of high school sports on the East End, and one name rises to the top — the Killer Bees, the Bridgehampton School basketball team which embodies the very definition of tradition, heart and soul.
To say nothing of stellar success.
The Killer Bees have nine state Class D basketball championships under their belt — pretty impressive when considering that this most diminutive of schools has fewer than 200 students in grades K-12. Some years, coaches struggle to find enough high school players to field a team, so they reach down to the eighth grade in search of varsity starters.
And over the years, basketball has reigned supreme in the Hive — as the school’s tiny vintage gymnasium (and cafeteria) is affectionately known and where state championships began accumulating in the late 1970s.
Brothers Orson and Benjamin Cummings know all about the Killer Bees legacy and the team’s close relationship to the small, tight-knit Bridgehampton community. The brothers were students at Bridgehampton School through the 8th grade and they remember watching upperclassman Carl Johnson, the Bee’s star player, lead the team to its first trio of state championships in 1978, 1979 and 1980.
Bridgehampton wracked up more state championships in the mid-1980s, and again in the 1990s, after Johnson returned to the school in 1991, this time as head coach of the basketball team.
Orson and Ben Cummings are professional filmmakers now, and the “Killer Bees” is the title and subject of their new documentary, which has its world premiere this weekend at the 25th Hamptons International Film Festival.
The documentary follows the Killer Bees throughout the 2015-16 basketball season and is the story of a small group of players led by their coaches, Carl Johnson, and his unlikely assistant coach Joe Zucker, a renowned artist who just happens to have a passion for Bridgehampton basketball and the kids who play it.
When the film opens, it’s on the heels of the Bees’ most recent state championship in 2014-2015, thanks largely to superstar player Charles Manning, who had lived in Riverhead, but moved back to Bridgehampton for his junior year and the winning season. Manning’s father had played on one of Coach Johnson’s championship Killer Bee teams back in 1998, and the Cummings’ plan was to document the 2015-16 season — Manning’s senior year — and possibly a repeat run at the state title.
“Carl wanted to do it. With Charles Manning coming back, he knew that there would be this superstar to capture the glory and ride off into the sunset,” said Orson.
But as documentary filmmakers know, real life has a way of taking its own twists and turns, regardless of the expectations and hopes of those who make movies. That’s what happened in this case.
“Charles went off to Long Island Lutheran for his senior year,” explained Orson. “This team lost their superstar, and they had to play without one, which I think made it a more interesting film.”
Without Manning, “Killer Bees” became a documentary about the other players on the team — seniors Josh Lamison, Tylik Furman and Matt Hochstedler, among them, who, between games and practices shared details about their lives and struggles in Bridgehampton. It’s a place where residents of the largely African American community live on the literal “other side of the tracks,” marginalized and overlooked by the wealthy seasonal residents whose mega mansions are encroaching on all sides.
“It’s not unique to here, you read about the same problems of gentrification everywhere,” noted Ben.
“But it is about the extreme divergence as the crow flies,” added Orson. “The location of one player’s modest house in relationship to the Rennert estate worth $250 million.”
It’s this dynamic that ultimately makes “Killer Bees” a broader story — a documentary that uses basketball as a way into larger societal issues facing the Bridgehampton community and much of the United States. These issues involve stereotype, prejudice and thinly disguised racially motivated attempts to define school boundaries and close the school altogether.
The documentary also takes a hard look at promising high school basketball players who have had their lives derailed by their involvement in drug crimes — including Julian Johnson, Killer Bees captain of 1986 and an old friends of the filmmakers who interviewed him as he was serving time in a penitentiary in Elmira. The promise of easy money is a temptation for many who live in poverty amidst over the top wealth where the cost of living is out of sight and good paying jobs few and far between.
“There’s a certain lack of awareness about what’s going on. This place has become something different — a commodity,” says Orson. “If you live here, it’s this legendary story of the Killer Bees. From the outside, it’s hard to grasp how completely unaware people are that they exist. It’s a completely different reality. We hope to bridge that and show them who the people are.”
This is not the Cummings first foray into the HIFF. In 2007, their narrative film “If I Didn’t Care,” starring the late Roy Scheider, was screened at the festival. But this film, their first documentary, has some pretty heavy hitters backing it, including legendary NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, who signed on as a producer.
But come the night of the premiere, it will be another set of celebrities who will be soaking up the limelight.
“The players are coming,” said Orson. “They’re very excited.”
“Killer Bees” will be screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival on: Friday, October 6 at 6 p.m. at Bay Street Theater; Friday, October 6 at 6:30 p.m.at Southampton SH2; Friday, October 6 at 9 p.m. at Southampton SH2. For tickets visit Hamptonsfilmfest.org.