BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
SPORTS EDITOR EMERITUS
Twenty-five years ago, there was no way to know that a basketball tournament that began at Hal Henard Gymnasium the week after Christmas would still be a major part of the local sports scene two and a half decades later.
But survive it has, and the 2013 edition is the 25th anniversary of the Ladies' Classic, a girls' basketball tournament that has always been held the week between Christmas and New Year's and has become one of the most recognized hoops events in the state as well as sections of the country.
A group of local businessmen and sports enthusiasts, led by Buddy Yonz, came up with the idea of the tournament with the hopes of drawing teams from across the southeast and maybe even the country. Yonz served as the general chairman of the Ladies' Classic, and local restaurant Burger Chef was the first major sponsor.
Burger Chef, for newcomers to town or those of the younger set, was located in 1989 along Tusculum Blvd. at the site where Aunt Bee's Restaurant now stands. It was not only a popular eating establishment, but it was often a gathering spot for teens who wanted to spend some time with their peers. Jim Emory was owner of the restaurant.
Girls' basketball, in 1989, was reaching its peak level of interest locally. South Greene's Lady Rebels were playing their games before a packed house each night and the team, under the late Coach Larry Ricker, had become a recognized name both locally and nationally as they were ranked among the nation's elite by USA Today's newspaper.
But the game of girls' hoops had always been popular among the local sports fans, so it seemed only reasonable that the populace would support a big-time tournament.
Yonz struck a coup in that first year by attracting to Greeneville the nation's top-ranked team, according to USA Today. Morrow High School of Georgia was ranked No. 1, which gave the tourney immediate notice. The strength of the field provided even more evidence that this event was for real because by the time Morrow left Greeneville they had lost twice.
Two more out-of-state teams, Bell County (Ky.) and Myrtle Beach (S.C.), also played in that first tournament. Bell County will return for the 2013 show, their first appearance here since the 1990 event.
The mid-state area has always been a big part of making the Ladies' Classic successful, and the invitation went out that first year to Nashville Overton, Beech High of Hendersonville and defending Class A state champ Pickett County. The middle part of the state has always been a hot-bed of good basketball teams, and it continues so 25 years later as squads from that section of the state always make the Ladies' Classic a better show.
There are some local fans who have marked off that week after Christmas as specifically "Ladies' Classic Week" and have attended each season. Jim Rich, the former Greeneville High School teacher and coach, is the timekeeper and has kept the clock every game for the past 24 years.
Other members of the tournament committee that first year, in addition to Yonz, were Bob Windham (finance), Kathy Knight (program), Sam Miller (ad and sponsorship sales), Dan Walker (ticket sales), Phil Hunter (accommodations), Buddy Hawk (officials), Jim Harris (entertainment), Betty Ruth Alexander (hospitality), Wayne Phillips (publicity), Larry Henderson (concessions), Tommy Burns (operations) and Coaches Larry Ricker and Jack Blair (teams).
Radio Station WSMG broadcasts every game (it has every year), regardless of who is playing, and Eual Shelton and Tim Armstrong have shared scorekeeping duties from the beginning.
South Greene went on to win that first tournament, beating another local team, Chuckey-Doak, in the finals. Both the Rebels and Knights had advanced on semifinal night with thrilling victories; South Greene over Beech, who had handed Morrow their first loss of the season in the tourney quarterfinals, by a 55-50 score, and Chuckey-Doak over local team West Greene in a 54-53 thriller.
Pam Bettis of South Greene was named the most valuable player of that first tourney in 1989. She was joined on all-tourney by teammate Jody Reaves. Other selections were Angie Austin and Tammy Shelton of Chuckey-Doak; Libby Burwell of Beech; Jenny Rippetoe of West Greene; Nikki Caldwell of Oak Ridge (now the head women's coach at LSU); Latrecia Drake of Morrow; Sam Young of Bell County; and Heather Ford of Sullivan South.
Huge crowds showed up for that first tourney, filling up the spacious Hal Henard Gymnasium to near capacity, and the proof was there that Greene County would support an event of this magnitude.
Yonz continued to search out some of the best teams in the nation to come to Greeneville in the following years. Local fans were often astounded at the talent of some of the participants.
In the second year, a lady named Patricia Nash of Neshoba Central in Mississippi scored 51 points in a game, a tourney record that still stands. In 1994, a red-headed girl with the odd name of Katie Smrcka-Duffy, who hailed from James Madison High in Virginia, created a buzz with some of the flashiest moves and incredible shooting that many folks still remember.
Obviously many of the ladies that have played here went on to outstanding collegiate careers, some at major colleges and others at Division II or NAIA schools. A few, such as Sylvia Fowles of Miami (Edison High), went on to professional careers.
A total of 18 states and the District of Columbia, in addition to Tennessee, have been represented at the Ladies' Classic, from Florida to Washington state. In five separate tourneys California has sent a team.
The tournament has crowned 12 schools as champs over the past 24 years. Oak Ridge has the most with five. South Greene won the first four. Mt. Juliet, Wilson Central, Knox Webb, Sevier County and Bradley Central have two titles each.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary, a special day is set aside for each of the local schools where all former players from that particular school during the past 25 years will be admitted free and recognized during the day.
Special t-shirts, while the supply lasts, will be presented to each alumni.
Friday, Dec. 27, will be West Greene Day. Saturday, Dec. 28, will be the day to honor Chuckey-Doak and North Greene. Monday, Dec. 30, former players from Greeneville will be honored, and Tuesday, Dec. 31, will be South Greene Day.
Advance tickets are still on sale for the tournament and they make good stocking stuffers for Christmas. A tournament pass is $28 and is good for all the games of the four-day event. Tickets are available at the Greene County Partnership offices on Academy Street. A few Patron Sponsorships, at $110 each, are still available. These include two passes, reserved seating and two passes to the hospitality room.