Christmas gift: Holiday basketball in Illinois

Christmas gift: Holiday basketball in Illinois
December 21, 2012, 5:04 pm
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Holiday basketball was founded in Illinois, at Pontiac in 1926 and at De Kalb in 1928. Now tournaments are conducted throughout the state during the Christmas season. We take them for granted. But few other states schedule high school tournaments during the holidays.

I discovered holiday tournaments when I was working at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1966. I had heard about the Centralia tournament, founded in 1943 by legendary coach Arthur Trout, so I was anxious to attend and experience the competitive atmosphere of southern Illinois basketball.

At the same time, I attended the biggest holiday tournament in the country, at Normandy, a St. Louis suburb. The field of 32 teams always included most of the top programs and players in the St. Louis area. The talent wasn't comparable to Illinois but it wasn't chopped liver.

When I was hired by the Chicago Daily News to cover high school sports in 1968, I couldn't wait to feast on the holiday tournament menu. Pontiac and De Kalb were established, Proviso West was just starting up and other Christmas events -- East Aurora, Rich South, Chicago, Lemont, Wheeling, York, Elgin -- were in the works.

Pontiac and East Aurora were the dominant events in the 1970s. Bloom and Quincy were state powers and gave Pontiac a lot of flair, as Simeon does today. East Aurora featured Ernie Kivisto's host Tomcats, East Leyden and Maine South.

Then Proviso West stormed into the spotlight in 1968-70 when its three winners--Evanston, Proviso East and Lyons--went on to win state championships. All of a sudden, Proviso West was the place to be...the best teams, the best players, the biggest crowds.

In the early years, I used to play a game on the opening day of the holiday events. I'd try to figure out how many tournaments I could attend in one day. For example, I would start at Pontiac because they used to schedule the top-seeded team (Bloom or Quincy) in the 10 a.m game on opening day.

One year, I started in De Kalb, then went to East Aurora, Lemont, Chicago and Proviso West. Another year, I started at Wheeling. Another time, I started at Rich South. The Chicago event, conducted at Illinois-Chicago's old gym on Roosevelt Road, was unique because it scheduled its championship game in the afternoon of New Year's Eve.

My favorite holiday tournament memory? Watching Tom Parker score a then single-game record of 50 points as Collinsville defeated Alton in the championship game of the Carbondale tournament in 1967.

Parker, a 6-foot-5 forward, had one of the most extraordinary seasons in state history. He averaged 33 points per game. Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall recruited him to Kentucky, where he was the SEC's freshman of the year and a three-time All-SEC selection.

After Proviso West became established as the place to be, I used to show up at 8 o'clock on opening day, wish tournament director Joe Spagnolo the best of luck, then sit down in a comfortable chair under the big scoreboard on the east side of the gym and watch every game of the four-day event.

Because of the fierce competition, there were so many dramatic moments.
Fortunately, Spagnolo has brought them back to life for basketball fans by listing them on the Proviso West website, which has had over 2.5 million hits in three years.

How many of these games did you attend or how many of these incidents did you witness?

1. In 2005, with his future college coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke watching, Glenbrook North's Jon Scheyer scored 21 points in 75 seconds and set a single-game tournament scoring record with 52 points--but the undefeated defending state champion lost to Proviso West 85-79 in the quarterfinals.

2. In 1967, Evanston and Bob Lackey defeated Proviso East and Jim Brewer
60-48 in overtime in the championship game. Evanston went on to win the state title. Proviso East, led by Brewer, won the tournament and the state title the following year.

3. In 1994, Farragut's Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields of Farragut won the championship and dominated the tournament in rock star fashion, drawing huge crowds and signing autographs after each game. After the season, Garnett was a the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft.

4. Speaking of overflow crowds, Isiah Thomas and St. Joseph bested Glenn "Doc" Rivers and Proviso East 88-72 in the 1978 championship game.

5. In 1995, a Ronnie Fields windmill dunk over a Loyola player is the most remembered of his many slams. He drew a single-game record crowd of 4,188 and contributed 17 points and 14 rebounds as Farragut edged New Trier 47-44 in a quarterfinal thriller. Farragut held the ball and ourscored New Trier 4-3 in the final eight minutes.

6. Representatives from the Chicago Public League's Red-West Division won nine straight championships from 1994 to 2002. Farragut's 1994 squad, led by Garnett and Fields, won every game by at least 20 points.

7. Proviso East dominates the all-tournament selections with 30 different players, including Brewer, Rivers, Al Nunness, Joe Ponsetto, Michael Finley, Sherell Ford, Donnie Boyce, Roderick Floyd, Shannon Brown, Dee Brown, Kenny Davis, Jamal Robinson and Sterling Brown.

8. In 1996, en route to claiming consolation bracket honors, two Dunbar players broke the backboard in a first-round game, causing a one-hour delay.

9. The Proviso EastLyons rivalry in the 1960s and 1970s saw one of the schools advance to the championship game in 13 consecutive years. In 1970, Proviso East edged Lyons and Owen Brown, then the defending state champion, by a 71-68 margin.

10. King dominated the tournament in the 1980s, winning 16 of 19 games, and winning the championship in 1985, finishing second in 1981, 1983 and 1984 and fourth in 1986 with Efrem Winters, Marcus Liberty and Levertis Robinson. In all, coach Landon Cox won 24 games, two titles and eight trophies in 14 years.

Spagnolo has some special memories, too. "Two of my most favorite memories of the Proviso West tournament had to do with the weather," he said.

In 1987, eight inches of snow fell overnight before the second day of the tournament and teams arrived 30 minutes late for the first game. But the assigned officials never made it to the gym. So Spagnolo and Bruce Joslyn were summoned from the scorer's table and told by tournament director Bernie Skul, Proviso West's athletic director: "Move the game along to get us back on time."

"After the first overtime ended with the game still tied, Bernie came to me and said: 'You'll never officiate again.' Since then, I've gone on to become a full-time officials, working boys IHSA regional championship games for the last five years. But Bernie's remarks still hold true. I haven't worked a game at Proviso West since," Spagnolo said.

In 2010, only 30 minutes before the start of the tournament, the roof started leaking in the main gym, causing a 90-minute delay prior to the opening tipoff. Before the day was over, the tournament was back on schedule.

That night, Spagnolo had a dream. "What if we played games in the field house at the same time that games were being played in the main gym?" he said to himself.

So he arranged for a portable playing court to be installed in the adjacent field house and doubled the size of the tournament so it is the largest high school holiday basketball event in the country under one roof. Spagnolo's dream led to this year's plans for expansion to a 32-team field.

Finally, Spagnolo reports more history will be made on Dec. 26 when St. Joseph plays Manley in the 16th and final game of the opening round. But the focus won't be on the teams, players or coaches. It will be on the officials.

Three generations of the Olesiak family will be working the game together. Ron Sr., who worked the Proviso West tournament before becoming a 21-year official in the NBA, will work with son Ron Jr. and grandson Forrest. It will be Junior's 11th appearance at Proviso West. He was assigned to the IHSA's sectional at Glenbrook South last year.

Ron Sr. still recalls the first high school game he ever officiated--at his alma mater, Kelvyn Park. "Joe Tadelman was the coach. The ball was in-bounded in the backcourt and I blew the whistle after five seconds. Joe said: 'You can't have five seconds in the backcourt.' I said: 'You're right.' I was working with Burt Levinthal. What a good time we had," Olesiak said.

A Hall of Fame softball player, Olesiak has officiated for 45 years. He started at the high school level in 1969 and worked the state finals in 1986. He worked in Division I for seven years before moving to the NBA. He worked Big Eight and Missouri Valley tournaments and worked the NBA playoffs and two all-star games.

Now he is working with his son, who is 45, and his grandson, who is 20. They worked together for a few games last year and have worked together about 15 times this season. This is the first time they have worked together at Proviso West.

"I never had one game that I felt was my biggest game," Ron Sr. said. "Every time I go on the floor is the biggest game. Every game was a big game for me, high school or college or NBA."