A key presentation ceremony honoring Paradise Jam founder Nels Hawkinson not only focused Friday on the benefits the annual tournament has had on the territory, but the kind of person Hawkinson is and his dedication to sports in the Virgin Islands.
Before Hawkinson got to the podium in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, a range of speakers had the chance to relate personal stories about their interactions with him and his organization, Basketball Travelers. Without mentioning Paradise Jam, Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty and Assistant Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Calvert White spoke about how anxious Hawkinson was about the state of the territory after September’s hurricanes and how involved he and his team were in getting equipment to the island that could get local sports fields back in working condition.
“This organization is primarily focused on basketball and organizing basketball tournaments,” White said. “But after the storms, when Nels called me and asked what he could do, I told him that right now, baseball was big in the territory and with the fields destroyed, getting that sport off the ground again would make a big difference for our athletes.”
White said that within two weeks, Hawkinson and Basketball Travelers had sent to St. Thomas an $18,000 machine that could help in the restoration of the ballparks.
That’s the “kind of person he is,” White said, adding that five years ago Hawkinson had donated all the basketballs for Sports, Parks and Recreation’s 12 and under league.
Speaking about the economic impact Hawkinson’s Paradise Jam has had on the territory, Nicholson-Doty described the return on investment for hosting the tournament as “awesome.” Between advertising, flights in, hotel rooms and spending on-island, Paradise Jam is the cornerstone of the territory’s sports tourism industry and Hawkinson has done more than his share in developing it.
“This year, it was even more heartbreaking for him to have to cancel Paradise Jam than for us,” she said, speaking of the move this year of the tournament to the mainland in the wake September’s storms. “He knew what it meant to us psychologically and financially to have to cancel, and he didn’t want to do it.”
And that’s because the Virgin Islands is Hawkinson’s second home, said Sen. Janette Millin-Young, who sponsored the legislation to present Hawkinson with the key to the territory.
“If you ask Nels, he’d tell you there’s no place he’d rather be and there’s no place he’d rather do this than the Virgin Islands,” Millin-Young said about Hawkinson and the Paradise Jam tournament. Millin-Young said that even in the absence of Paradise Jam on island, Hawkinson was able to bring the spirit of the territory to the mainland by paying homage to the Virgin Islands when games kicked off this year at the University of Virginia.
“On the back of the athletes’ shirts it said V.I. Strong, and that’s what we are,” Millin-Young said. “And Nels knows that. And he’s part of the reason why.”
In accepting the “key to the territory,” Hawkinson spoke about his own memories of Paradise Jam, including the issues he encountered kicking off the tournament in its first year at the Ivanna Eudora Kean gymnasium. Working with then principal Sinclair Wilkinson, Hawkinson said his main concern was the grass in front of the facility, which he said just “kept growing,” and remained unmowed right up until the day before tip-off.
“Sinclair said he had it covered, and the next day, when I drove up, I saw a group of goats out front eating the grass,” Hawkinson joked.
Using his trademark humor, Hawkinson announced that Paradise Jam would return to the territory in November 2018, bringing seven to eight of the top women’s teams in the nation and an equally competitive men’s field. With Marriot Frenchman’s Reef, the hotel of choice for Paradise Jam, still rebuilding, Hawkinson said his team has been scouting for rooms and planning trips in the off-season for other sports teams, from volleyball to baseball, to the Virgin Islands to continue with ongoing plans for the development of a sports tourism industry.
“We want the island to have a lot of things beyond basketball,” Hawkinson said. “Because the things that break down barriers in life are sports, music and laughter, and we are committed to being here for the long haul.”