Joe Spagnolo is a familiar face around the Proviso West Holiday Tournament in Hillside, as familiar as a basketball. He has been affiliated with the state's premier event in one management position or another since 1981 and currently serves as the tournament director.
A Proviso West graduate of 1980, Spagnolo attended his first Proviso West tournament as a student in 1976. "I got hooked on high school basketball at a young age," he said.
He wasn't around for the first one, however. Walt Sawosko, then athletic director at Proviso West, was the visionary. He organized the first tournament in 1961. He started with eight teams, then expanded to 16 the following year. Next year, Spagnolo will oversee the first 32-team event.
"(Sowasko) wanted a local tournament so Chicago schools could be home during the holidays and didn't have to travel," Spagnolo said. "There was a great expansion of new schools at that time and it was easy to get new or older schools to fill the field."
At that time, the only "local" tournament was De Kalb. To compete during the holidays, schools went to Centralia or Carbondale or Pontiac. After Proviso West made its mark in the 1960s, several other tournaments were launched in the Chicago area.
"(Sowasko) was a pioneer," Spagnolo said. "He got a big bump in 1967, 1968 and 1969 when Evanston (with Bob Lackey), Proviso East (with Jim Brewer) and La Grange (with Owen Brown and Marcus Washington) won the tournament and went on to win the state title. That put Proviso West on the map."
Proviso West got another big bump in 1977, 1978 and 1979 with the presence of St. Joseph's Isiah Thomas, Westinghouse's Mark Aguirre and Proviso East's Glenn "Doc" Rivers. The future college and NBA stars were consecutive tournament MVPs and attracted huge crowds.
"The ThomasRivers game in 1978 was probably, along with the LackeyBrewer game of 1967, the two biggest crowds we've ever had at Proviso West," Spagnolo said. "The fire marshals locked the doors but some people broke down a door and let 500 people in. The capacity of the gym was 3,860 at the time and it was estimated that 4,700 people saw the game."
Two other landmark games that also attracted huge crowds were the Kevin GarnettRonnie Fields games in 1994, which marked future All-Pro Kevin Garnett's first appearance on a big stage in Chicago, and Jon Scheyer's spectacular performance in 2005 when the Glenbrook North star scored 21 points in 75 seconds with future coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke watching.
"(Scheyer) was the modern highlight," Spagnolo said. "That was voted as the No. 1 moment in the 50-year celebration of the tournament. He went on to become the tournament's all-time leading scorer.
"But what nobody remembers is that Proviso West won the game. Glenbrook North was the defending champion, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state but Proviso West won the quarterfinal game 85-79."
Proviso West's success spawned other holiday tournaments. Elgin left in the early 1970s to form its own event. York left in 1972 to launch its own tournament. And Rich Central left to help form the Big Dipper tournament at Rich South.
Some people never leave, however. Bill Heimann, a Proviso graduate, attended the first tournament and still buys a season ticket. He sits next to Tom Clancy, who one-time resident of Wood River near St. Louis, who has been attending the event since 1970.
Timer Steve Busa, a Proviso West graduate of 1976, is in his 29th year at the scoring table. And public address announcer Dick Clish, a Morton graduate and former Proviso West principal, has been working since 1985.
"Our mission is to promote high school basketball," Spagnolo said. "We say: 'Proviso West is where basketball is best.' We want everyone to enjoy what we have, paying customers or referees or participants. We think it is a special event and more people want to get involved in it."
It is a big undertaking, like a little city for four days. More than 100 workers are employed. It is the only tournament that has officials who work only one game. Spagnolo handpicks 84 different officials, the biggest corps of officials for any tournament in the nation. Peter King started in 1983 and has worked the most consecutive years. Jim Bernardi started in 1978 and still is working. John Dacey, who started in 1984, has worked more games than anyone else.
"We have had 88 different officials who worked our tournament and also worked the state finals," Spagnolo said. "Rich Weiler worked the 1962 Proviso West final and the NCAA final in 1980."
But Proviso West no longer is the only game in town. It spawned competition. Attendance is down across the board. Proviso West has had only one sellout since 2007. And the capacity of the main gym has been reduced to 2,990 with the construction of new seats in 2007.
"There are a lot more things for people to do, more tournaments to see," Spagnolo said. "Years ago, you had to go to a game to see it. Now you can see it on TV or the Internet or Twitter or e-mail. There are so many ways to get information."
For example, this year's Proviso West tournament can be seen on the Internet on Proviso West's website, pwhoops.com. CN100, Comcast Sports Net Chicago's suburban outlet, will tape delay the third place and championship games for re-telecast on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
The 51st tournament will be Dec. 27-30. Opening-round pairings will pit Morgan Park vs. Hinsdale Central, Glenbrook North vs. St. Patrick, New Trier vs. Fenwick, Homewood-Flossmoor vs. Von Steuben in the upper bracket and Hillcrest vs. Morton, Rockford Auburn vs. Proviso West, Proviso East vs. Brooks and St. Joseph vs. Benet in the lower bracket.
Proviso West's all-time tournament team? Spagnolo admits it is hard to argue with a starting five of Isiah Thomas, Kevin Garnett, Mark Aguirre, Glenn "Doc" Rivers and Jon Scheyer.
"I agree with the first four. I always had Isiah, Rivers and Aguirre on my top team. And Garnett is a no-brainer. The fifth was up for debate. Before Scheyer, I voted for Jim Brewer and Marcus Liberty. But after what Scheyer did, there is no doubt that he gets the fifth spot. Now he is part of folklore."
Just like the tournament itself.