Stevens: Farewell to holiday basketball treat

Stevens: Farewell to holiday basketball treat

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Stevens: Farewell to holiday basketball treat

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Who’d-a-thunk Gemil Holbrook would go down as the answer to a trivia question?

As in: Who was the last National Division Most Valuable Player in the STOP-DWI Holiday Classic?

Or, reworded: Who was MVP last time the tournament was truly relevant from the standpoint of genuinely high-caliber basketball?

Make no mistake, despite the decision to discontinue National Division competition, the event will still matter. It will continue to educate young people, open their eyes and ears with regard to consequences of irresponsible, destructive behavioral patterns. And after all, that is the very basis of an event that carries “STOP-DWI” as a part of its title.

It’s just that, given the news delivered last week, the event is finished in terms of providing a local showcase for big-time scholastic basketball in the period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“Really disappointing,” was how Chris Marion summed it up. He is Broome County’s STOP-DWI program coordinator, and so a primary decision maker regarding the tournament’s fate. “I was looking for every way over the last two months to put it together again for this year, but we’re just not able to come up with the resources needed to pay for the National Division as it was.”

Money talks, as we know.

But in this case, absence of backing sufficient to sustain the event as we came to know it up and shouted.

Arena turnstiles have spun with decreasing frequency of late, and while the old building’s blue chairs have given way to upgraded red models, far too many went unoccupied in recent tournament editions to keep the annual happening afloat.

And so now, Marion’s stated goal is to “host a top-level regional tournament that is more within our means.”

The plans is for two divisions, eight teams, eight games to be played over two days come mid-January 2016 at Binghamton High School.

The event that once featured Lamar Odom and Speedy Claxton (Christ The King), Majestic Mapp (St. Raymond’s) and Gerry McNamara (Bishop Hannan), has given way to something along the lines of three Section 4 schools and one visiting participant per bracket. Absent will be the likes of Lynn Greer (George Washington Carver), Mark Tyndale (Simon Gratz), David Lighty (Villa Angela/St. Joseph), Sylven Landesberg (Holy Cross) and Jahii Carson (Mesa, Ariz.).

Gone are the days of Bobby Lazor, Charlie Wightman and that Norwich crew bringing with them a huge, enthusiastic following to make the drive southwest on Route 12 to watch their boys look to add to a two-season win streak of 30-plus while opposing the best assembled. And make no mistake, lack of a local entrant worthy of National Division space in recent years has hurt.

That 1993 edition of the tournament drew 4,200 attendees for the Purple Tornado’s opening game against Binghamton, and three days of basketball were staged before a total of 11,448, according to tournament organizers.

December of 2014? Three days and 20 games made for 2,975 tickets sold.

In 1995, when Christ The King and Niagara Falls LaSalle came in as Nos. 1 and 3 in state rankings, a Day 3 gate of 3,400 boosted the total to 7,750.

The 2012 and ’13 editions combined totaled 5,877 tickets purchased by Marion’s count.

“There are pictures at Jim May’s house of the Arena full, even the ends,” said Marion, referencing the home of his predecessor atop the STOP-DWI program, the man who gave birth to the tournament in 1992.

But such obstacles as a lousy economy and destruction dealt by historic flooding came into play, hitting sponsors in the wallet and transforming some into former sponsors. Mirabito Fuel Group ponied up as title sponsor for three years, but that agreement expired with the 2014 tourney.

Costs to feed and lodge 220 or so athletes continued to rise, attendance and sponsorship were on the decline and so — voila! — the National Division of play has vanished.

What’ll remain will be a nice little tournament contested among mostly nearby schools at a high school venue, not unlike numerous others across the landscape. Whether or not the underlying message regarding the perils of substance abuse and impaired driving will be enough to sustain the tournament and distinguish it from the rest remains to be seen.

But here’s a salute to 23 years’ worth of entertaining, high-grade high school boys basketball staged in our backyard. It’ll be missed by those of us who appreciate the game played at a superior level, by those who’ve dedicated themselves to achieving that level of play.

Stevens can be reached by email at kstevens@pressconnects.com and on Twitter @PSBKevin.

Ed Nelson of St. Thomas Aquinas, left, battles with Mike Orfini of Gonzaga College High for a rebound in the 2000 STOP-DWI Holiday Classic.

Ed Nelson of St. Thomas Aquinas, left, battles with Mike Orfini of Gonzaga College High for a rebound in the 2000 STOP-DWI Holiday Classic.

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