McConnell: Tourney time not what it used to be

This story comes from longtime staffer Jim McConnell, the man we call, “The King” around the office. He writes a weekly Then & Now column. He gives us a bit of history today about high school basketball tournaments. It doesn’t involve our area teams but it was such a great read I had to post it. Enjoy.


MEMO TO: High school basketball coaches and athletic directors.

RE: Basketball tournaments.

MESSAGE: If you are thinking about starting a tournament, do not under any circumstances label it a classic. A 1957 Chevy Bel-Air coupe is a classic. Your puny little eight-team tourney – jury-rigged so that the home team will always be in the championship game – is not.

There’s no question today’s high school basketball players – boys and girls – are bigger, stronger, faster and can jump higher than those of 50 years ago. But, somehow, the local basketball tournaments have lost a lot of their luster. December just isn’t the same for hoop fans.

Back in the 1970s, the area was famous nationwide for the Tournament of Champions. That event, hosted by San Dimas High School, brought together the best teams in the state.

Tournament director Bob Espinoza did a great job of luring the top teams to San Dimas. True, the format meant that host school San Dimas was going to be routed, game after game and year after year. But, looking back, those Saints players can now tell their kids they played against the likes of Bill Cartwright, Bill Laimbeer, John Williams, etc. Who remembers scores?

San Dimas ceased hosting the Tournament of Champions in the 1980s. The T of C is still around, now based in Orange County, but it is no longer the premier showcase of prep talent it once was.

In this area, the granddaddy of basketball tournaments emains the Covina Christmas Tournament. The tourney will mark its 55th year when play gets under way on Dec. 26.

To their credit, Covina High officials have tried to maintain the tradition of bringing outstanding teams from outside the area to the tourney. Also to their credit is the retention of the word “Christmas” in the official tourney title. “Holiday” is the politically preferred version these days, the folks at the ACLU tell me.

Indeed, in many ways the Covina Tournament is a throwback.

The tournament was started by the late Doc Sooter, longtime coach at Covina. Sooter believed two simple things about the event: 1.) Strong competition would help his team, not hurt it; 2.) Local fans deserved to see the best basketball possible.

Through the Sooter years, the likes of Long Beach Poly, Lynwood and Verbum Dei won the tourney, not surprising considering the talent level at those schools. Even so, Covina managed to be quite competitive, winning the tourney seven times by the time Sooter retired in 1975.

Probably Sooter’s biggest coup was getting San Diego Helix into the 1969 tournament. Helix had a big, red- haired kid named Bill Walton. At the time Walton was little known outside of San Diego, but his performance at Covina quickly changed that. He scored 50 points in one game and led Helix to the tourney title. For his efforts, Walton was named tournament Most Valuable Player.

Other notable Covina Tournament MVPs include Covina’s Mike Lynn (1961); North Torrance’s Ron Taylor (1964); El Segundo’s Dana Pagett (1966); Long Beach Jordan’s James Hardy (1974); Verbum Dei’s Leonel Marquetti (1977); Morningside’s Byron Scott (1978); Los Altos’ Mike Smith (1982); Muir’s Stacey Augmon (1985); Bishop Amat’s Geoff Lear (1987); Charter Oak’s Jeff Von Lutzow (1988); and Glendora’s Cameron Murray (in 1992 and 1993).

The Chino Tournament – started in the 1930s – is no longer with us, but for more than 50 years was one of the premier tourneys in the area. It was also remarkable for fielding a 32-team field in many of those years.

One of those years was 1974. I certainly have reason to remember.

The tourney started on Christmas Day. All 32 teams were in action, which meant games started bright and early at 9 a.m. at the Chino High gym and continued until nearly midnight.

As a cub reporter at the Pomona Progress-Bulletin, I was assigned to cover the tourney. We were going to run short stories and full boxscores on all 16 games. It all worked out to a 16-hour work day for yours truly, even after factoring in coffee breaks, potty breaks and lunch.

Since it was a holiday, that meant overtime piled upon overtime. To this day, that Christmas remains my biggest pay day in the business.

The next year, the tournament once again opened on Christmas Day – and the newspaper management declined to cover it. My managing editor said I had “broken the bank” the year before. He wasn’t smiling when he said it.
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