TERRE HAUTE — I know virtually nothing about wine, but I do know that the best of it gets better with age. That’s apparently true of the Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic, the great high school basketball marathon at Terre Haute North last week that left me as full as a Christmas dinner and as tired as any hoops fanatic should be after he’s just watched 28 basketball games over four days.
There have been other great Classics in the past, and certainly there’s been considerably more suspense going into the final moments of other championship games, but this year’s tourney was just plain fun. The basketball was competitive, the conversation lively, and I don’t seem to have missed much more than a few college bowl games with my time investment.
As usual, I planned to leave the game analysis, the facts and stats and coaches’ comments, to the corps of Tribune-Star sports writers who rotated the use of their brains and backsides to the War and Peace-sized task of covering the games themselves. I sat in every section of bleachers in the gym, talked to dozens of people, and in the end, placed my own spin on what took place.
Keeping that wine analogy in mind, I think the Classic is a little like a tasting party. I sampled about everything the tournament had to offer, but I’m still savoring the last drop. It was a good year, a very good year.
My Other Brother, Darrell — If you’ve been to many Classics, there’s a good chance that you found Earl and Darrell Roundtree there. The two are brothers — no, I don’t know if there’s another brother Darrell — and they get to the games early and stay late. They eat just about every form of food the tournament fare offers, visit with anyone who sits within a 25-foot radius of their black and yellow stadium seats (so heavy-duty they look as if they were custom-built by Caterpillar), and are about as big of fans that the PHWVC has.
“I’ll watch professional and college games,” Earl told me on Day 3, “but no one plays ball like these boys here.” Earl did go on to tell me that he missed one game at last year’s tournament, but that was to go to the Indiana State-Purdue game at the Hulman Center. “That was a pretty good one too,” he added, just before he tackled his barbecue.
Oh, To Be 14 Again — After I’d spent most of two days roaming the gym like an old house cat hunting for a spot in the sun, I settled on a decidedly more comfortable chair at the media table on the floor, and my back immediately thanked me. By the middle of Day 3, I was joined by Tyeson Mundy, a 14-year-old Otter Creek eighth grader, whose dad was working security nearby.
Tyeson plays for the Otters and most often pulls for North to win, but I noticed that regardless of what game he watched, he kept the individual scoring in his program; he truly got into the games. “I just like to watch,” Tyeson told me, and he apparently did it well. On Day 4, tournament director Gary Fears, who was double-checking his stats, wanted to know how many points Rockville’s R.J. Mahurin had scored. “Don’t ask me,” I told him, “ask Tyeson.”
Still a Case of Mistaken Identity — One of the best things that happened to me this year was that I got to meet Harley and Arley Andrews, two Hall of Famers who’ve put their own marks on the Wabash Valley Tournament. I actually approached the pair on Day 1 to apologize.
In my yearly trivia quiz last month, I had a question in which I misidentified Harley as the Gerstmeyer Black Cat brother who had hit the game-winning shot against Wiley in the 1953 title game of the Valley. Glenn grad Mike Bridgewater e-mailed to tell me that he saw that game, and he was pretty sure that it was Arley who did the deed, which I appreciated. Correction: Arley hit the shot that sank the Red Streaks, and he was gracious, telling me that the mistake was no big deal. After all, these two men have been confused before. Harley added, “If he had missed it, I’d have hit it anyway.”
My time with the Andrews boys was fun. We spoke of the three-point shot that they never had, of Howard Sharpe’s “forgetfulness” in leaving a gymnasium window unlocked so they could get in to shoot in the summer, of how their era’s game was less about brawn and more about finesse, and about many of the fine teams they played against. One opponent they spoke of was Glenn’s Cliff Phillips, who passed away just before Christmas. “He was a real gentleman,” Arley said, and Harley soon echoed the sentiment. That he was, and so are Harley and Arley Andrews.
One Great Reason — Within a few minutes of Thomas Anderson’s last-second shot as North beat West Vigo, I heard more than one fan say that the Patriots-Vikings game was one reason why a non-class tournament like the PHWVC is a keeper. In fact, one reason this year’s Classic was a classic was the number of big school-little school match-ups. Champ South has nearly 2,000 students; host North had nearly 2,100, but I don’t think any school in the field will underestimate just how good both Marshall and Rockville will be next year.
Like Mother, Like Son — The Rockville-Owen Valley game on Day 4 held a surprise for me that I never saw coming until two of my former players (maiden names only here) — Shawndel Nickle and Emily Fellows — walked up to my seat. Seeing them is always a nice reunion, but this time proved to be a little weird.
Shawndel’s son, Caleb McMullen, is a starting guard for the Rox, and Emily’s boy, Randy Lientz, is a starting guard for the Patriots. So, two guards who played for me have sons who are guards who played in a game I watched. Let me take this a little further: both women work at the same place and both drive about the same distance to get there. By the way, both sons are underclassmen who will be at the Classic next year.
This and That — I found the steady stream of fans who watched highlights of the 1953 state championship game on the lobby television interesting. I heard one older fan explaining to perhaps a grandson that the odd-looking lane was the reason we use the term “key” now.
• The best T-shirt I saw last week read: “I’m in shape: round is a shape.”
• The fan of the week for me was a white-haired lady that I spied in South’s student section. For reasons of my own safety, I no longer guess people’s ages, but it is safe to say that she stood out among the mob of teens. Appropriately, I heard her chant “Air Ball” right alongside her younger Braves’ enthusiasts.
Finally — I have a good bit of my notebook filled with more from my days at the Classic. For instance, I’d like to name an all-tough guy team of players I enjoyed watching whether they scored many points or not (Bloomfield’s Rick Tally and Andy Cochrane, Marshall’s Alan Wolter, North’s Chris O’Leary, and West Vigo’s whole team come to mind), but my writing space is spent for this year. It’s the people I meet who make my time at the PHWVC so much fun, and spending my days there swapping stories with the likes of Chuck Culp and Jack Myers and Turk Roman, who all have something to say about this great game we love, is the best thing of all.
As I got ready to watch yet another game last Friday afternoon, Bob Decker came down from the stands to introduce himself. It’s my understanding that Bob was a fine player himself at Honey Creek, and he said something that stayed with me. “It’s the old-timers who are helping making this tournament a success,” he said. “It sure brings back a lot of memories for us.”
It’s making memories for a lot of young players too.
You can contact Mike Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808