Any longtime fan who attended this year’s 38th annual Greater Lawrence Boys Christmas Basketball Tourney realizes it is in need of fixing.
Attendance was way down and it had the feel of just another event, not the tourney which had for decades had been the envy of basketball tourneys across New England.
As someone who used to sneak out the side door during Sunday Mass to attend the games and has had the supreme pleasure of covering it the last 26 years, I hate to see it struggling.
Here are some possible remedies to what ails the venerable tourney:
1. The Central Catholic dilemma
The 800-pound gorilla is Central Catholic. The Raiders have become such a force that realistically a lot of years if you could choose between Central and the other seven teams in the field you’d take Central in a heartbeat.
The numbers don’t lie. The Raiders have won the 8-team tourney 13 times in the last 17 years.
Do they add excitement like a Duke or throw a wet towel over things with their dominance?
I’d go with the former. You boot Central and it loses a lot of luster. And let’s not forget Andover won seven straight times in the tourney’s early years.
But how do you add some spice to a far too predictable tourney?
2. Crown two champions
It’s time to shake up the format.
I’d go with two four-team brackets, the Kelleher Division and the Licare Division, in honor of the tourney founders and former tourney directors.
One would be the top four seeded teams the other the next four teams. The tourney director and a small committee could do the seeding.
3. Add teams, get rid of teams
It’s also time to shake up the field. I’d go hard after St. John’s Prep, which didn’t play in a Christmas Tourney this year. Another option would be Lowell, who reportedly would be very willing to join the fray.
With a top four chosen from among Central, St. John’s, Andover, Lawrence and North Andover you’d have some real quality. And some people think Methuen, with a very talented sophomore class, could be about to turn the corner.
Haverhill, although it hasn’t made the state tourney for seven straight years, might be a good fit in the lower division.
Greater Lawrence has struggled mightily for years, losing in the first round every year from 1987-2003. It’s too much to expect a Division 3 team to play Division 1 powers. It’s best for all parties for the Reggies to move to a tourney which is a better fit.
Technically, Christmas tourneys are just exhibition games for New Hampshire schools like Salem and Pinkerton. Sometimes you wonder, particularly with Pinkerton, if the urgency is the same the Mass. teams have.
Neither has enjoyed much success. Salem has only made the finals four times in 38 years and has lost all four. In its 17 years in the tourney, the Astros have only finished as high as third place once.
Pinkerton, Salem and the tourney director should get together and decide what is best for everyone involved.
4. Right man in charge
Eagle-Tribune sports editor Bill Burt nailed it when he compared the tourney to the Feaster Five Road Race, which draws 10,000 runners to Andover every Thanksgiving. That race took off when it hired nationally acclaimed race director Dave McGillivray.
It’s become too big a job for the ADs to run the Christmas Tourney along with their other duties.
Bill threw out the name of Rick Gorman, who has earned praise for his work running the North Andover Rec. Department, the Donovan’s Fall Ball League and the Bay State Storm AAU program.
Another possibility might be Rich Napolitano, who has been the assigner of officials and tourney scorekeeper the last two years. He has a strong fundraising background and has helped make the late-season IAABO Basketball Tournament one of the best around.
The ADs should interview them, if they are interested, and any other viable candidates in the near future and get a new director in place.
One respected, driven, bright guy should be in charge, not a cumbersome committee. That was the case with John Kelleher for most of the history of the tourney. Then after Kelleher died in June 2001, Bob Licare Sr. kept the tourney humming for a decade before stepping down after the 2008 tourney.
5. Energy, energy, energy
There is almost a palpable lethargy that has crept in since Licare stepped aside. Nothing underscored that more than the lack of team or captain photos in The Eagle-Tribune this year.
We didn’t hear about the banquet until late and then we were scrambling to arrange to take photos. There was an indifference that left us shaking our heads and the pictures weren’t taken.
That indifference cost the tourney a full page of photos. In essence, a free $5,000 ad.
Believe me, Kelleher and Licare would have made it happen.
6. Make it special again
Kelleher was a wide-eyed dreamer who thought big. He wanted the team banquet, he wanted the long sleeve tourney T-shirts, he wanted the scholarships.
He was always plotting how to make it better. Now, there seems to be a lot of settling.
Bring back the banquet. Increase the scholarships. Think big.
You hear the excuse that they can’t do it because of the Greater Lawrence Girls Tourney.
Excuse me? If the girls tourney is a huge hit, more power to them. They have a good product, too.
But they are two different tourneys. They should no more be affiliated with the girls basketball tourney as with a wrestling tourney or a hockey tourney.
7. Special Christmas Tourney videos
Eagle-Tribune sportswriter David Willis is a gifted film-maker as well. I’d make a strong pitch to him to make a 30-minute tourney video. I bet he’d do it for $800. It would be the talk of the town and a keepsake all the players and coaches would treasure. Give them a free copy and perhaps you could make money selling the videos to the public.
8. Contests and atmosphere
How about a 3-point contest and a dunk contest? A cheerleading competition? A band and/or DJ with a nice mix of rap, oldies, pop hits and Christmas classics would enhance the atmosphere. Have discounts for local restaurants or businesses on the ticket stubs.
9. Celebrate the glorious history
Start a Christmas Tourney Hall of Fame, which I believe Kelleher was in the process of doing before he got sick. Do it the day before the tourney starts and induct five people a year.
The first year induct the three founders Kelleher, Licare and Andover’s former Hall of Fame coach Wil Hixon along with two-time tourney MVPs Leo Parent and Scott Hazelton from Central Catholic.
The induction could be run in conjunction with a nice auction: It wouldn’t be that difficult to get some autographed stuff from the Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins. Local AAU teams could donate a free year for a player. There are plenty of generous businesses who might donate, too.
10. Game-day experience
There are tons of stories in the newspaper yet none ever make the walls near the gym. That stuff makes a player and family proud.
Get all the tourney records up there and the day to day coverage. That builds excitement and enhances tradition for current players, past players and perhaps most importantly future players.
Improve the concessions and it will be a big money maker. Why no T-shirts? Have a contest for the best design and give the winner $100. Push it by having the players wear their tourney T-shirts or sweatshirts to the games and let them purchase extras at the banquet. It would be a great Christmas gift.
Get a talented kid to draw a large mural for a school project and include life-size action drawings or paintings of a star from each team.
11. Big-time programs
The programs this year had a lot of statistics in addition to all the rosters. But add team photos and a couple pages of photos of the history of the tourney. Sell ads including to proud parents and relatives.
12. Sponsorship is crucial
Prime Time Sports has been a welcome sponsor. That’s John Vetrano, father of ex-Andover greats Chris, the tourney’s all-time scoring leader, and Greg. There are a lot of successful businessmen like Vetrano who love the tourney.
I can’t believe there still isn’t a sponsor in the tourney name. Don’t cry poverty and not seek out corporate sponsors.
The local hockey tourney is the Tuscan Kitchen Blue Devil Classic in Salem. There are numerous examples of corporate sponsorship for local tournaments.
There is a long history of support for local sports among some of the area’s prominent car dealers and restaurant owners.
Reach out to them and others. Put banners on the walls and ads in the programs. There is money to be made but, like a top tournament, you have to work at it.
Follow Michael Muldoon on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.