The first time I attended a holiday basketball tournament in Illinois was when I went to work for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1966. I had heard so much about the Centralia Holiday Tournament and the Centralia tradition that I couldn't wait to make the short trip to see for myself.
I wasn't disappointed. The old gymnasium, named for legendary coach Arthur Trout. The retired jerseys of Centralia icons Lowell Spurgeon, Dike Eddleman and Bobby Joe Mason hanging in the foyer, amid all the trophies, plaques and pictures of championship teams and all-state athletes.
But the most memorable recollection I have of covering holiday tournaments throughout the state for the last 45 years happened at Carbondale in 1967. Tom Parker of Collinsville scored 50 points in the championship game to beat Alton, the most in tournament history.
It was a spectacular performance for a 6-7 player who was a two-time All-Stater, the Player of the Year in the St. Louis area in 1967 and a future star at Kentucky. Living in Collinsville at the time, while working for the Globe-Democrat, I had an opportunity to get to know Parker and see him play on several occasions. In my view, he is one of the most unsung players in state history.
Since then, I've seen a lot of great players, a lot of great teams, a lot of great coaches and a lot of great games in holiday tournaments from Centralia to Carbondale to Proviso West to De Kalb to East Aurora to Lemont to Lincoln-Way to Collinsville to Bloomington to Kankakee to Pekin to Wheeling to Elgin to Rich South to Pontiac to Luther North to the Chicago Public League.
When I returned to Chicago in 1968, I relished the opportunity to see as many games at as many holiday tournaments as I could. In one day, I would plan to start at 9 a.m. at one event, then go to another, then another, as many as five or six. One year I started in Pontiac, another year at De Kalb, usually ending up at Proviso West or the Public League.
Now there are even more tournaments being conducted, more than any other state. In fact, I am thunderstruck that some states, like basketball-crazy Indiana, don't even have holiday tournaments. For me, it's hard to imagine high school kids not playing basketball during the holidays. Or fans not showing up to see them.
High school coaches relish the holiday competition because it gives them an opportunity to prepare their teams for the conference and state tournament grind ahead, to find out one and for all who can be counted on under pressure, who deserves a starting spot and who are his best and most reliable players.
The fans get an opportunity to see the best teams and players compete against schools that they might not otherwise play, except perhaps in the state tournament. They are on a big stage under state tournament-like conditions. The finals at Pontiac, Centralia, Rich South and Proviso West carry all the fanfare and pageantry and pressure of a supersectional matchup.
One question always lingers: Will the best team in December be the best team in March? Some holiday tournament winners go on to win the state championship. Others peak too soon, burn out and don't play up to expectations in February and March. Others pick up the pieces from a December disappointment, improve and go on to win in March.
Remember the Tom Parker/Collinsville team I mentioned earlier? Well, the following weekend, they lost to that same Alton team in a conference game, then later lost to another conference rival Edwardsville in the sectional tournament. Parker averaged 35 points per game, a school record, but he couldn't carry his team to Champaign.
Other great players triumphed in December but couldn't get to the state finals. Isiah Thomas made it to the state final in 1978 as St. Joseph lost to Lockport but he didn't return in 1979, losing to De La Salle in a memorable sectional final. Glen Grunwald was a four-time All-Stater and his East Leyden teams lost only four games in four years--but he never got to the Elite Eight.
Pontiac used to have a unique format that attracted me to the tournament in the 1970s. The top-seeded team, usually Bloom or Quincy, would play in the second game (10:30 a.m.) on the opening day. It gave me an opportunity to see the game, then head north for other events.
East Aurora once was as good as it got during the holidays. It was only an eight-team event, as it is now, but the field included Ernie Kivisto-coached East Aurora, Maine South with Pete Boesebn, Norm Goodman-coached East Leyden with Grunwald, Tom Dore and John Hendler and later De La Salle, all state powers.
Remember when the Public League/Catholic League tournament was conducted at Illinois-Chicago's old gym on Roosevelt Road? The championship game was played on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, not after the holidays as it is now. It was a must-see event with Crane and Leo dominating the competition in the 1970s.
Proviso West has grown from an eight-team tournament in 1961 to the premier event in the state. I remember the old days, when St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore was a punching bag--before Isiah Thomas showed up at the school in Westchester and helped to create a dynasty. The late Bill Chesbrough brought several outstanding Elgin teams in the 1970s but couldn't win so he left and established his own holiday tournament.
And so it goes. I'm sure everyone who has ever spent more than a few days at a holiday tournament has his or her own special memories. It is a special time of the year, as much a part of the season as mistletoe and egg nog and opening presents on Christmas Day.