For the almost 200 teens who descended on Port Townsend last weekend, the Crush in the Slush tournament was much more than just another basketball game.
The annual tourney brings together 14 teams for two days of intense head-on-head competition against teams outside their leagues and players they might never before have played and might never play again.
“It’s playing your rival high school versus going to another town,” said Port Townsend Basketball Club vice-president Josh Colvin at the Dec. 27-28 tourney. “There’s a different level of intensity than your regular yearly rivalry. This is more of a showcase, a little bigger stage.”
“We don’t have as good competition in our league,” said junior Courtney Swan, who plays for the Red Devils. “There’s some good competition in this tournament.”
Kalama point guard Jackson Esrey and junior Tommy Brandenburg said they like to see how they compare to other teams from bigger schools, the techniques they use and how some could be implemented into their own game. For example, Colvin said: tiny Neah Bay, a 1B team that fields a team from a school population of about 80 students. This year, their first game was against Burlington-Edison, a 2A team with a school size of 840 teens.
“They’re a crazy basketball town,” Colvin said of the Neah Bay Red Devils. “There are eighth-graders on the varsity team, it’s that small a region. But when they show up, they’re really good.”
Last year, out of almost 400 high schools of all sizes, Neah Bay took third in its league— and 32nd in state regardless of school classification.
“They went to the state playoffs, and they did it all with sophomores,” Colvin said. “Last year, it was a David and Goliath thing, and Neah Bay beat them.”
This year, however, the heavily favored Neah Bay Red Devils girls were soundly beaten.
The tournament would be one heck of a lesson.
And the crowd that gathers — including coaches, staff, parents and friends — never knows what might happen.
In 2008, a Canadian team was pitted to play against Port Townsend — and they had a 7-foot-tall player who was taller by a good 8 inches than the local team’s tallest player.
“The place was packed,” Colvin said. “It was a last second shot, we had a kid that was 6-foot-4 hitting all these shots all over his head; it was crazy. We beat them in double-overtime and the crowd went crazy.”
That Canadian, Kelly Olynyk, now plays power forward and center for the Miami Heat.
“Yup, he went on to be an NBA star,” Colvin said. “In a little town like Port Townsend, to get the chance to see someone play who goes on to play in the NBA is something else.”
Most agreed it’s the atmosphere that makes tourney play different than seasonal competition.
“It’s not a typical competitive, play your rival and leave,” Colvin said. “There’s multiple games, it’s a friendly environment, it’s upbeat, a great crowd. It sort of has a playoff intensity to it, too.”
Tyee players, who played Port Townsend Saturday, were particularly excited about the two-day competition, Colvin said.
“They don’t do a lot of tournaments,” he said. “I was talking with their athletic director, and a lot of these kids have never even been on the ferry. Then they show up, and there’s 13 other teams, people they’ve never played; it gets everyone enthusiastic about what a big deal it is.”
The basketball club that hosts the event was founded in the early 1990s to encourage more kids to enter the sport and build more facilities and amenities around town. The tournament grew out of that to introduce players in the off-season to other teams throughout the state — and sometimes, the world.
Colvin said the competition is best described as a two-day basketball event.
“They play two games, period,” he said. “It’s not round-robin; there’s no brackets. Tournament implies, ‘This team beat that team, so now they’ll play that team.’ It usually requires additional days and always additional gymnasiums. The logistics would be pretty challenging.”
The event is also a fundraiser to pay for basketball programs, hoops and fund travel.
Port Townsend has played host to teams from Canada — and once even Australia.
“It’s a bit of matchmaking — and bringing in the right teams in reasonable matchups,” Colvin said of how teams are pitted against each other. “It’s 14 games in two days and of the 14 games, 10 will be teams that have never played each other because they’re in different regions. The kids enjoy it because they get to mix it up a little bit.”
Coaches are also on the lookout.
“College coaches; I’m certain it’s happening,” Colvin said. “With this particular tournament, I know it’s happening.”
The event brought about 500 people to town last week, including the 12 players from each of the 14 teams, three or four coaches, staff to take care of stats and scores, parents, friends and fans.
“Basketball is the focus of it, but it ties into other benefits,” Colvin said. “People have traveled and met back up with the families or kids. Bonds are made, especially on the international teams.”
First-year Port Townsend coach Chris Harris said he wants to host camps to get younger kids started in the sport.
“I’m originally from Texas, and there’s a winning atmosphere,” he said. “Here, the kids don’t know the game. You get beat by 40 points, that’s not a game. It’s up to us to build the program, make a better program. We shouldn’t be teaching high schoolers how to dribble left.”
He’s excited to stick with the team until they win a championship.
“This is all a good learning experience,” said Redhawks boys coach Tom Webster, “but we want to win. We’re a little inexperienced, but we’re getting there. We just gotta play hard, play together, and we’ll do fine.”
Neah Bay might have lost its first game, but Red Devils coach Justina Brown said they learned a lot — another benefit of playing against teams they’d never played before.
“It was a really good learning game; it helps us later on,” she said. “I’m not disappointed with the girls; they fought to the end. We’ve got our butts kicked a few times, but you got to get your butt kicked to know where you stand.”
“Good teams know we’ll give them a good fight,” said assistant coach Cherish Moss. “We get good competition so we see what we need to work on. We’re learning. We need to clean some stuff up. But we have a good squad. They’re young, but we start them young and we’ll have them for awhile.”
Jazz Aguirre, the father of Neah Bay’s sophomore Oceana Aguirre said the team’s loss humbles them a little.
“We’ve got eighth-graders out there handling the ball,” he said. “We’re young; we’ll get there.”
Chandra Baker, the aunt of Josh Heath of Sedro-Wooley, was in the stands with her sister, Trish.
“My kids all played,” she said. “They’re all grown, so I’m here for moral support — and a vacation.”
“Port Townsend has a reputation of being a basketball school,” Colvin said. “For our town to have a reputation for anything sports-related is kind of a big deal.”