Maui Invitational turns 30 years old
And it has one unforgettable upset to thank for its start and its longevity
If you really think about it, the Maui Invitational owes its existence to a broom.
That was the only way legendary Robert E. Lee High School coach Paul Hatcher could simulate for his players what it was going to be like to play against all 7 feet, 3 inches of Ralph Sampson's high school frame. If you could arc your shot over this broom, Hatcher would tell his team, you might have a chance to get it over the unreasonably athletic, unfathomably tall force standing (or worse) leaping between you and the basket. So Hatcher would hold the broom in the air, and the Leemen would launch shot after comical shot over it.
Tony Randolph literally knew the drill. Randolph was from Staunton, Va.; he'd played enough pickup runs against Sampson, a Harrisonburg native, to gawk at how much taller Sampson seemed to be getting every new time he took the court. Coach Hatcher's visual aid was dead on. You had to take Sampson outside. Posting him up, Randolph said, "was like asking to get your shot snatched off the backboard." If you couldn't step away and make a few funny-looking, high-arcing jumpers, you were done.
The next time they met, in the winter of 1982, Sampson was at the height of his powers. He'd already handily dispatched Georgetown center Patrick Ewing -- he had 23 points, 16 rebounds and 7 blocks against the Hoyas -- just before No. 1 Virginia flew to Tokyo for the "Game of the Century" against Phi Slama Jama-era Houston. Virginia didn't even need Sampson to top Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler; he sat out with pneumonia and the Cavaliers still won.
There was one stop left on the grand season-opening tour: A quick Dec. 23 trip to Honolulu, to tune up against Chaminade. Virginia coach Terry Holland had suggested the stop-off; it would break up the travel and keep the Cavaliers loose. Besides, the Silverswords had an old high school friend of Sampson's on the team, didn't they? Also: Hawaii in December. Why not?
"We broke off the travel, stopped off, and Sampson was [feeling better] and ready to play," said Dave Odom, then assistant coach at Virginia and now the Maui Invitational tournament director. "We had a great practice.
"Of course," Odom said, "we lost the game."
Randolph led the way with 19 points. He made 9 of his 12 field goal attempts against Sampson, most of them step-back 20- or 22-foot floaters -- the same parabolic broom shots he learned from Hatcher at R.E. Lee. Sampson scored 12.
Two years later, the Maui Invitational was born.
Of course, "of course" only applies to "Chaminade 77, No. 1 Virginia 72" in retrospect. By now, the greatest upset in college basketball history is codified legend -- the best example of David's primacy over Goliath in a sport that celebrates the underdog more than any other.
The legend is so dominant that even the tiniest of details are well known. "Yes, Virginia, there is a Chaminade," began as a Honolulu newspaper headline and was silkscreened onto who knows how many T-shirts. Randolph was dubbed the "Miracle Man." Newspaper editors checked numerous sources before they felt comfortable running the story; a day later, in footage you can still find online, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw would tell the world about college basketball's equivalent of "a Golden Glover beating world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes." Merv Lopes, Chaminade's coach at the time -- the picture of perfect dispassion in his NBC close-up -- had claimed it would be a moral victory to stay within 20 points of the Cavs. Chaminade often had to "borrow" its team towels from hotels. And so on.
"It was more of a miracle than an upset," Lopes told USA Today in 2007.
True enough. But the mythos of the miracle tends to overshadow the work Chaminade did in its wake -- both on the court and off -- to give birth to a premier early-season college hoops tournament, which begins its 30th consecutive competition Monday afternoon.
The idea for an annual tournament began almost immediately after the upset: Holland told Chaminade the buzz around the Silverswords was an opportunity to turn the win into a lasting, yearly event.
"We were determined not to just be that team that beat Virginia that one time," Randolph said. "We were always trying to sustain what the night was like as a team. It was one of those perfect nights. We played fearlessly. It was a great, great win. But we weren't quite finished.
"And that drew a lot of attention too. Let's face it -- the ACC, Big East and West Coast, that's where all the focus was for basketball. Now there was this exciting team in this exotic paradise of an island whooping up on these great programs -- it got people excited."
That collective excitement allowed Chaminade to not only get the tournament off the ground but keep it there, no small feat for a tiny school in an era when teams were just beginning to play around with the idea of nonconference, neutral-court events.
"All of a sudden there was this huge calling for other teams to come over," Odom said.
The first few tournaments were practically beta tests. The inaugural edition was played in Kona, the Big Island. It moved to War Memorial Gym in Wailuku in 1985; it expanded from four to eight teams a year later. In 1987, Chaminade picked out Lahaina Civic Center as its venue -- and hosted Danny Manning and his Miracles from Kansas -- and it has remained in Lahaina since.
In 1990, Chaminade president Dr. Kent Keith approached Chicago-based public relations firm KemperLesnik -- which already had operated the Women's Kemper Open, the first live sporting event ever televised in Hawaii -- and proposed the firm take over the operations for the tournament. In 2001, EA Sports became the title sponsor.
There have been other, more recent, changes: In 2011, the tournament expanded to 12 teams, adding opening and regional round games. Odom spearheaded the transition, which kept the original holiday tournament from falling prey to a glut of early-season events that offered less travel and more attractive financial propositions, in the form of hosted "preliminary" round games.
Lahaina has changed too: The event brings roughly 4,500 people, and an estimated $8 million a year to the island. The Civic Center has seen at least $1 million in renovations, from a new floor to new scoreboards to, in 2003, good, old-fashioned air conditioning.
Meanwhile, plenty of other tournaments have copied the Maui formula, and are getting better at it all the time. In recent years, even as the Maui field has remained loaded, events such as the Battle 4 Atlantis have put together excellent fields on the promise of similar benefits -- Thanksgiving in paradise -- without all 5,000 miles of travel to go along with it.
"People seem to wonder all the time ... are you going to be able to keep this thing going?" Odom said. "The way I see it, there are enough teams for everybody."
Meanwhile, 30 years on, a few things have stayed the same. The venue still seats 2,400 fans for each game. Thanks to that size, the atmosphere -- which is probably best described as "high school gym on steroids" -- stands in stark contrast to many of the events that have followed in its wake, where cavernous gyms are quiet no matter how good the basketball is on the floor.
And, of course, there is the most notable constant: Chaminade, which has hosted, and participated in, every field since 1984.
"Seeing the Chaminade kids every year, knowing that's where this thing originates," Randolph said. "That's pretty special."
The 2012 Maui Invitational was probably Randolph's favorite.
Randolph, who spent 20 years as a juvenile outreach counselor in Honolulu, made it to a handful of tournaments over the years. Usually, his work schedule prevented it. But in 2012, he was invited back in an official capacity, when tournament organizers honored the 1982 upset with a reunion ceremony.
"Ralph and I were sitting courtside near scouts and coaches, and we had just seen [Clarke's shot]," Randolph said. "It was the first time we'd talked in 31 years, the first time since we played. We finally got to reconnect as home boys, like we were back in high school. We were chatting about life -- about how things change."
The next game on the docket was Chaminade-Texas. Randolph and Sampson joked.
"We were just like, hey, what are the chances," Randolph said, laughing.
Then, for the next two hours, the two men most responsible for the creation of the Maui Invitational -- the gifted Goliath carrying a tragically short NBA career on his shoulders; the old rival whose high school coach put a broom in the air to prepare him for his foe -- sat side by side and watched.
The Silverswords upset the Longhorns 86-73.
"That gave me goose bumps," Randolph said.