STONE HARBOR - The guys who get up at 7 a.m. on summer weekends to play basketball near 96th Street and First Avenue are a hearty sort. Tossing elbows and hacking at shooting arms as the sun rises after Shore party nights takes stamina - or a little insanity. .
One morning a few years ago, though, a tall, well-hewn guy of about 40 came on the court dressed in a crisp white polo, seemingly ironed white shorts, and almost-washed white sneakers. This guy couldn't possibly have game, the looks around the court said.
Yet game he had, with an outside shot, some good moves around the basket - and Oprah. The guy in whites was Oprah Winfrey's longtime beau, Stedman Graham, a boyhood basketball star at nearby Middle Township High School who comes down to the Shore to visit relatives just about every summer.
Despite the Shore's plebeian roots, it does at times attract celebrities to more than Atlantic City casinos. Often, it draws celebrities with a story or a reason to visit New Jersey.
"If they want to do their social glam thing, then, of course, they do it on Long Island," said Curtis Bashaw, who owns Congress Hall and the Virginia, two hotels in Cape May, and the Chelsea, the new hip hotel in Atlantic City. "If they want to wear sweatsuits and sandals and hang out with everybody else, they come to the Shore. They feel they are embraced in an entirely different way. There are no paparazzi and everything is just in a simpler context."
Frankly, the celebrities themselves are simpler. In Ocean City, what goes for celebrity is usually a politician. Former State Sen. Vince Fumo, for as long as he is out on bond, has a house there. So does Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell. One summer week a couple of years ago, there were three governors in Ocean City - Rendell, Gov. Corzine, and then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, now President Obama's secretary of agriculture. Vilsack comes nearly every summer, apparently to visit with in-laws, but clearly to stay out of Iowa's limelight, such as it is.
Ocean City, too, is the summer home of author Gay Talese, who grew up there but has been part of the New York literati for several decades. All-around sports-and-pirate guy Pat Croce rebuilt his oceanfront home at the north end of the island. Eagles kicker David Akers has a house on the south end of the island and, at various times, former boxing champ Mike Tyson, Flyers captain and executive Bobby Clarke, and Eagles running back Brian Westbrook have been reported to own or rent in Ocean City.
Perhaps the most famous summer resident of Ocean City was Philadelphia's Grace Kelly, the actress and Princess of Monaco, whose family still has summer residences in the city.
Long Beach Island has a few legacy-from-youth regular visitors - entertainment guys whose parents had houses or rented there when they were young. Comics Joe Piscopo and Ray Romano apparently came there for years when kids, as did the hottie of the political-satire scene, Jon Stewart. Doyenne of the theater and movies, Olympia Dukakis, is a regular visitor there as well.
To be sure, Atlantic City has all sorts of celebrities, but it is hard to count someone playing a casino showroom as a "Shore person" and certainly not a "shoobie," a day-tripper. Back in the day, though, Atlantic City had its share of legit celebrity sightings.
According to Atlantic City history buff Allen "Boo" Pergament, march king John Phillip Sousa's wife, Jane, was an Atlantic City girl, and he performed along the Boardwalk frequently.
"Diamond" Jim Brady and his girlfriend, Lillian Russell, had suites in the Shelburne Hotel. "It's said they had the most lavish parties in the country there," Pergament said.
"Somewhere after that, George M. Cohan came to town often, and Irving Berlin had his honeymoon here. It's because of Thomas Alva Edison that the Marlborough-Blenheim was the first big building made with reinforced concrete, which he developed. He stayed down there as long as he needed to, then came back to visit."
Comedian Jerry Lewis, in a recent NPR interview, said he used to visit Atlantic City from his boyhood home in North Jersey, but his landmark visit came when he was paired for the first time with Dean Martin at the old 500 Club, which stands just about where Jay-Z's 40/40 Club is now. He said that on the first night, he played two hours to about 20 people, but since the mob wanted more people at the 500 Club, the next night, there were a couple thousand people packed in, which made him and Martin stars.
Curtis Bashaw said that celebs old and new have stayed at Congress Hall. President Benjamin Harrison's good buddy, Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker, persuaded him to make Cape May the summer White House when the real one in Washington was undergoing renovations, so Republican Harrison decamped to Congress Hall for several months. A few decades earlier, Congress Hall was a Democratic summer bastion, with congressmen, and future presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, visiting.
More recently, Bashaw said, designer Nicole Miller, whose family had a house in Cape May Point in her youth, has been a Cape May habitue, and "you can see Phillip Seymour Hoffman all over town."