By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Marty Derer was one of the strongest people I’ve ever encountered.
I first came upon him about 25 years ago on a warm Saturday morning on the basketball courts at 24th and Delaware in North Wildwood. Trying to stop Derer from dominating around the basket was akin to trying to stop a freight train from barreling down the tracks.
Those are the initial memories that first popped in my head when I learned that Big Marty, as he was often called by those who knew him, had passed away Monday afternoon after suffering through a severe bout with COVID-19. A resident of Williamstown with a summer residence in North Wildwood, Marty worked for the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office and was a longtime respected high school basketball official.
If this virus could take down someone like Marty, it can take down anyone.
Marty was 6-foot-5, was always in great shape and was full of life. He was a heck of a player in his day, averaging 15.4 points per game during his college career at Division III Rutgers-Camden, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was previously a standout player at Camden Catholic, graduating in 1982.
I played on a team with Marty for a few summers in the North Wildwood Recreation men’s basketball league, back when that league was really, really good. It included anywhere from eight to 12 teams each summer back then, with many of the teams featuring quite a few former high school and college stars, both from this area and the Philadelphia and South Jersey region. Playing on the Tony’s Café team in the mid 1990s, we went unbeaten and won the league championship that summer.
Some talented players were on that team, including Terry McGovern, these days still a terrific rower on the South Jersey lifeguard circuit; former LaSalle University guard Steve Fromal; former Wildwood head coach and current Lower Cape May assistant coach Rocco Sansone, himself a tremendous player on a Philadelphia Catholic League championship team at St. John Neumann; and a few other guys who could play, too.
But it was Derer who carried us, grabbing just about every rebound and scoring every critical basket. If the league had an MVP Award, he’d have won it that summer.
After winning that title, we celebrated at Tony’s, now the Salty Mermaid, and Marty was the life of the party. He loved basketball, but he seemed to have more fun simply hanging out with the guys and downing a few beers.
His playing days long behind him as he moved into his 40s and 50s, Marty often rode his bike around the Wildwoods in the summertime. He’d frequently stop at the local playgrounds along his route, watching the kids and the guys play. He would always know at least one person on the court, usually more. And they’d all stop the game momentarily to say hello.
Marty worked his way up the ranks as a basketball official, eventually becoming one of the more trusted arbiters of the game for Board 34, which services high school basketball mostly in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties. In time, Marty earned such status as an official that coaches preparing for a big game usually breathed a sigh of relief when he walked onto the court ahead of a game. Those coaches knew they had a guy who was going to work hard and give his very best over the entire 32 minutes of the contest. He also had a habit of engaging with just about everyone in the gym. He loved to talk hoops.
Thanks partly to his size, Marty appeared tough and stern as an official. But at the same time, he was incredibly fair and very approachable. Coaches and players could talk to him and he’d listen and give his best answers and comments.
Marty was a dedicated servant to Board 34. He thoroughly enjoyed officiating basketball and it was evident he cherished the relationships he established through it.
Marty officiated games in this area from time to time. In June, he’d work the AAU Tournaments played in the Wildwoods. But even during the high school season, he’d occasionally make it down this way during the state playoffs. This past season, he worked the Palmyra-Pitman girls game in the South Jersey Group I semifinal round.
In what turned out to be his final contribution to high school basketball as an official, Marty was on the court for the girls state Group I semifinal between Woodbury and Bound Brook at Deptford High School on March 12.
That was the last day high school basketball was played in the state, thanks to this wicked virus that has changed all of our lives forever.
And shockingly took the life of a fabulous lifelong basketball guy and a great all-around person who had so much to give.