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Turning 35 has not resulted in a midlife crisis for the Wheeling Hardwood Classic.
And that's saying something in an era of boys basketball holiday tournaments where Illinois teams are free to travel anywhere in the country. Prestigious events such as Proviso West are super-sizing and doubling their fields from 16 to 32 teams while other tourneys battle to survive and continue on with fields that really aren't compelling.
But the Hardwood Classic continues to give basketball coaches, players and fans what then head coach Ted Ecker envisioned when he started the event in 1978. A first-class experience that makes for a happy holiday -- unless you've gone 0-4 and just played three straight 9 a.m. games.
The Hardwood may not have the eight decades of tradition and talent of Pontiac or the star power of Proviso West. But starting Wednesday it will continue to thrive by providing four days of good basketball with a local-oriented flavor and hospitality that is second to none.
"It's almost like a small-town feel," said Wheeling assistant principal for student activities Steve May, who is in his 12th year at the school. "The parents get really involved. The coaches all know the people who are working, the people working know the coaches and they all know the Booster Club people.
"It's a good mix, a good tourney and everybody at some point is going to find games they're competitive in."
Rare is the tourney such as 1997 when Maine West, featuring future Division I starters Kevin Frey (Xavier) and Lucas Johnson (Illinois), overwhelmed the field on the way to Peoria and a fourth-place finish in the Class AA state tournament.
That's why teams keep coming back year after year and others are hungry to join in the fun. Losing might keep coaches from sleeping but it won't stop them from indulging in the booster club's annual spread that will add some extra calories to those New Year's weight-loss resolutions.
"The number one thing about the tourney people talk about is the hospitality room," May said with a laugh about a place that looks like rush hour during halftimes and between games.
But fans could also be talking about how they saw future NBA players such as Naperville Central's Anthony Parker or Walther Lutheran's Andrew (Ashraf) Amaya. Or one of basketball's all-time greats when the gym was packed with fans hoping to get a glimpse of Michael Jordan watching his sons Jeffrey and Marcus play for Loyola.
They could have seen a future NFL tight end in Naperville Central's Owen Daniels or a former Bears legend in Matt Suhey watching his son Joe play for Loyola. Stevenson's Chris Coleman, Libertyville's Matt Heldman and Loyola's Colin Falls were also among those who had the gym buzzing.
It figures to be the same this year as Naperville Central and 6-foot-9 junior Nick Czarnowski look to defend their title after last year's surprising run. Junior standout Ore Arogundade hopes to lead St. Viator to its first title since 1996 when coach Mike Howland was playing point guard.
Notre Dame, one of Viator's rivals in the rugged East Suburban Catholic Conference, also figures to challenge for the crown with Jake Maestranzi. Looking to make their case for a title chase are Prospect and Devin O'Hara, Fremd and Riley Glassmann, Loyola and long-range threat Jack Morrissey and Niles North and Malachi Nix.
And making sure everyone is treated right are people such as Neal Weiner, Sandy Dranka, Jeff Bott, Marilyn Kent, Beth Anderson, Mike Burke, Pete Ogilvie, Tim Falconer and so many others. There is never a shortage of food or a long wait for stats or information on what's happening at the Hardwood.
"The tourney runs itself only because of the people who work it," May said. "Those are the ones who are there 17 hours a day and happy to be there because they want everyone to leave with a good experience.
"If you treat people well and you're nice to people and make them feel welcome they'll want to come back."
For the next 35 years and beyond.
Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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