The history of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, which began in 1926, is filled with great teams, coaches and players from Centralia to Simeon, from Arthur Trout to Robert Smith, from Dike Eddleman to Jabari Parker.
Don Cash Seaton, Pontiac's coach at the time, founded the event because he believed there needed to be something for the high school basketball players to do during the holidays, to help them prepare for the state tournament in March.
Seaton's motivation went further. He sought to attract teams from all regions of Illinois and he especially looked for teams with different styles of play. He was eager to pit teams against teams that normally didn't compete against one another.
Over the decades, Pontiac has attracted virtually all of the most celebrated and successful programs in the state, including Taylorville, Centralia, Quincy, Bloom, Lockport, Peoria Manual, Pekin, West Aurora, Rock Island, Collinsville, Proviso East, La Salle-Peru, Peoria Central, Peoria Richwoods, East Moline, Carbondale and Simeon.
"What I enjoy most," said tournament director Jim Drengwitz, "is that I can recall former principal Roger Tuttlet telling me that the tournament is like homecoming. People show up for the tournament. You don't see them any other time of the year."
Drengwitz, who was principal at Pontiac from 1994 to 2007 and has served as tournament director since 1994, said his mission is to persuade the best teams available from different geographic locations in the state to come to Pontiac for the holidays.
"We don't have the diversity that we had 30 years ago because of the proliferation of holiday tournaments throughout the state," he said. "But this year I'd stack it up with any tournament in Illinois--with Simeon, Warren, Curie and Peoria Manual."
The 81st annual Pontiac Holiday Tournament is scheduled for Dec. 28-30. The opening-round pairings will pit West Aurora vs. Danville, Curie vs. Niles West, Joliet vs. Waukegan and Warren vs. Plainfield North in the upper bracket with East Moline vs. Lockport, Simeon vs. Bloomington, Peoria Manual vs. Pontiac and Oak Park vs. St. Charles North in the lower bracket.
Old-timers remember the way it was. The Palomar Motel, which once housed all the participating teams, closed 20 years ago. But local businesses such as Wright's Furniture, Pontiac Sports, Bank of Pontiac and Pfaff's Bakery have supported the three-day event for years. Local radio station WJEX-FM broadcasts every game live with Mark Myre and his staff doing play-by-play.
"Fans have shown up for years, from the 1960s and 1970s," Drengwitz said. "They appreciate the hospitality of the community and the barbecue sandwiches, always a staple of the tournament. They know we have a good product."
Old-timers talk about Jerry Leggett and his great Quincy teams of the 1980s. They recall how outgoing Leggett was. They still talk about the QuincyProvidence game that pitted Michael Payne against Walter Downing.
They talk about Wes Mason and his outstanding Bloom teams of the 1970s. And they recall Bloom star Audie Matthews, who later played at Illinois. They talk about the coaches, including Will Kellogg of Brother Rice, John McDougal and Gordon Kerkman of West Aurora, Bob Basarich of Lockport, Bob Hambric of Simeon, Dick Van Sycoc and Wayne McClain of Peoria Manual and Jack Margenthaler of La Salle-Peru, who added flavor to the tournament.
No tournament has as much history as Pontiac. Adolph Rupp took his Freeport teams to Pontiac in the 1920s, before he left to become the legendary Baron of the Bluegrass at Kentucky. Centralia's Arthur Trout and Dike Eddleman were there before Trout left to found his own holiday tournament at Centralia in the 1940s.
The A.C. Williamson Award didn't start out as an MVP award. Originally, it was selected by floor officials and presented to the player who best exemplified sportsmanship and leadership. Over time, however, it has become an MVP award that recognizes the best player in the tournament. Simeon's Derrick Rose and Peoria Manual's Howard Nathan are the only two-time recipients. But Simeon's Jabari Parker won last year as a sophomore. So he could be a three-time winner.
The all-time Pontiac team? You could win a few games with Derrick Rose, Howard Nathan, Bruce Douglas, Sergio McClain and Kenny Battle. But you might have to find room for Jabari Parker, Walter Downing, Dike Eddleman, Alando Tucker, Audie Matthews and Bob Bender.
And this is the trivia topper: Seaton invited a friend, James Naismith, the founder of the game and former coach at Kansas, to speak at a post-tournament banquet. Naismith said he was amazed at how his invention had taken off, how people would be so excited to watch kids shooting a round ball at a peach basket.
Drengwitz said the biggest fear for tournament organizers and officials always is weather. But there never has been a cancellation. Another fear is if the top-rated team lost its first two games and was eliminated. But that hasn't happened, either.
Officials always hope that Pontiac will do well so more local fans will attend the event. But Pontiac has won only once, in 1974. "We don't build the tournament around Pontiac," Drengwitz said.
He admits he doesn't see much of the tournament, however. "I'm mainly working, making sure everyone is where they are supposed to be. But the coaches are fun to work with. I have developed good friendships with many of them over the years," he said.
And he can't pass up a barbecue sandwich.