By Joe Henricksen
Simeon is one of the elite high school programs in the country with arguably the biggest individual prep star in junior Jabari Parker. Coach Rob Smith has been bombarded by organizers with requests to travel here and there to play in national tournaments and events around the country. He takes them up on their offers -- as long as the dates don't fall between Christmas and New Year's.
There isn't another holiday tournament in Illinois that would have been able to keep Simeon in the fold. There isn't another holiday tournament in Illinois that Smith and his program would stay this loyal to -- or feel the need to. That says a lot about Smith and Simeon, but it says even more about the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.
The 81st Pontiac Holiday Tournament concluded with another Simeon title, its 10th title in the last 16 years. But unlike Duke, the Yankees or the Soviet Union hockey team from decades ago -- dominant programs and franchises people tend to despise, cheer against and get tired of watching win-- the people of Pontiac seem to grow closer to Simeon every year.
"The people of Pontiac have kind of adopted Simeon over the years," says tournament director Jim Drengwitz.
Well, when the host school is a little like Chaminade in the Maui Invite -- the friendly host who is always paired up with a basketball giant in a hopeless situation in the opening round -- why not adopt the best darn program in the state?
The people of Pontiac, from the fans to the tournament organizers, appreciate what Simeon brings to the table. Simeon brings instant credibility. Simeon puts seats in the 2,500-plus seat gym. Simeon brings enjoyable individual talent. And Simeon creates memorable moments for the area to look back on and talk about for years to come. Plus, Simeon has won with class over the years.
While the dynamic relationship between Simeon and Pontiac is unique, it's far from being the only way to describe this special tournament. The Hoops Report and plenty of others have written plenty of the Pontiac experience, hailing it as the best there is in Illinois during holiday tournament time.
It's almost eerie how, no matter what year it is, so many games in this tournament are tightly contested, well played and at a higher-than-expected level. It's as if that old gym floor brings out the best in the worst and the absolute very best out of the elite.
The geographical representation over the years has brought city, suburbs and different areas of Illinois together. As a result, the tournament offers up different styles of play and intriguing matchups. Pontiac has had some heavyweight teams from the likes of Simeon, West Aurora, Warren, Peoria Manual, Joliet, Waukegan and legendary teams like Quincy in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Providence St. Mel in the mid-1980s.
There is always quality team depth and top individual talent. Just recently Pontiac has showcased Mr. Basketball winners Derrick Rose, Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond, along with a likely future winner, Jabari Parker.
The unique format, which includes winner's bracket games mixed in with consolation bracket games and the semis and final on the same day, keeps people coming and going and talking about what is transpiring. There is a buzz throughout that final day after watching the semis and waiting for the top two teams to return later that night.
The gym is cozy and the fans are right on top of the floor, smashed in like it looked in the old Boston Garden photos. There is very little space between the baseline and the back walls. And there is even less space between the team benches and fans in the bleachers. Those fans who are lucky enough to have scored tickets behind those benches are often entertained by being smack dab in the middle of a huddle during a timeout.
There is an old school feel in that central Illinois gym. There is the monstrous tournament bracket up on the wall at one end of the gym for every fan to see, updated throughout the three days. There aren't gimmicks between timeouts and games. There isn't a P.A. man constantly blabbing in the mic. At Pontiac, there is no need to.
Then there are the people. Man, these people are friendly. I admit I don't travel to Pontiac at any other time during the year, but you almost want to make the trip in February or June or October just to see what it's like. Are these people really this friendly all year long? They treat the visiting teams, the media, the officials, the college coaches who are recruiting, and the fans so well. And it's genuine, in that make-you-feel-at-home way.
These people and the Pontiac community LOVE this event. To say the fans at Pontiac are diehard is an understatement. Every game of the tournament is broadcast live locally on the radio. The local residents -- moms, dads, kids, business leaders -- volunteer, provide sponsorships and rally together to make it one special event.
And the little kids who are involved in helping with the tournament as a ball boy, towel boy or working under the basket as sweepers -- or who simply come to watch with dad -- look as if it's just a continuation of Christmas morning during those three days of tournament action. The kids line up for autographs of the players or the big-time head college coaches who roll in to evaluate. They get their keepsake tournament programs out between games and fill in their brackets.
"Oooh, I can't wait for the Simeon-Manual game," one little fella said to the other on the baseline following the Warren-Curie game. "I think Kendall Pollard is going to be the difference."
Huh? How does a 9-year-old central Illinois kid from Pontiac know Simeon's fifth starter?
The Pontiac Holiday Tournament seems as if it becomes a sort of celebration for a community starving for just a little bit of excitement.
The fans are respectful, which is an accomplishment in itself and an achievement other sporting events can't even fathom. At Pontiac, there is just basketball and just those who watch it. These fans appreciate it, as shown late in the third quarter of a fantastic Simeon-Peoria Manual semifinal matchup. After several minutes of relentless play and action, high intensity, big-time plays and great hustle, there was a stop in the action and the majority of fans rose to their feet and applauded. It was like one of those appreciative cheers you see after a fantastic point on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
There have been few changes to the Pontiac experience over the years. The "If it ain't broke no need to fix it" theory works just fine. For a tournament that is over 80 years old to still be following close to the same standards is amazing. And that's why people turn out every year, whether it's the locals who cherish the fact Pontiac is a destination spot in late December, or those that make the trek down I-55 from the Chicago area or other parts of the state to watch some great basketball and enjoy hospitality second to none.
Fans were able to enjoy one heck of a final day at Pontiac this year. There were a couple of overtime games in the consolation bracket. There was the No. 1 team in the state -- and the country. There was the Warren-Curie double overtime classic in one semifinal, with a thrilling one-point Simeon win over Peoria Manual in the other semifinal. There was one of those eye-opening performances from the star, Simeon's Jabari Parker. There were people hanging from the rafters in a jam-packed gym. There was a buzz.
As one veteran basketball observer said to me with a smile but in all seriousness, "Think we'll see this in March?"
When writing or talking about Pontiac, it's almost becoming a broken record. So why the need to write about it again? Because the final day at Pontiac this year reminded all of those who have been coming for years why this tournament should never be taken for granted.
With all that is wrong with the high school basketball game -- the focus on individual players, selfishness, constant hyping of players on the internet and social media, yucky and poorly played AAU basketball, four-class basketball, transfers -- there is still something very right. Pontiac.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport