‘They just like great basketball.’ Pontiac provides fans with the best in holiday basketball

As a kid growing up in Pontiac, there was always one day during the holidays that Kevin Dix dreaded.

It was not the day after Christmas. It came a few days later.

“The most depressing day of the year for me was the day after the (Pontiac) holiday tournament,” Dix said. “I would force my dad (Bert), who was my eighth-grade basketball coach and had a key to the gym, to take me to the gym.”

There, Dix would mimic the moves he had just seen in the previous three days from players like Waukegan’s Corky Calhoun or Lockport’s Ellis Files or Bloom’s Audie Matthews at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

For a basketball junkie like Dix, who graduated from Pontiac in 1977 and went on to a career as a high school teacher and basketball coach, the holiday tournament was the ultimate high.

“You just couldn’t get enough of it,” said Dix, who still has a stack of Pontiac Holiday Tournament programs in his South Elgin home. “The place is packed, 3,500 people, my whole town was in on it. It was the greatest three days of the year for me.”

Dix was hardly alone.

The entire town embraced what is known as the state’s preeminent holiday basketball event. Several of the 16 teams each year make deep runs in the IHSA State Tournament and the list of past participants is scattered with players who eventually made it to the NBA.

For the first time since 1946, near the end of World War II, the Pontiac Holiday Tournament will not be played. The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped the winter sports season to this point.

The first Pontiac Holiday Tournament was in 1926, won by Normal U-High. It was played through 1940, then took a six-year respite during World War II. It had been played every year since 1947.

“It’s going to be quiet, that’s for sure,” Pontiac athletic director Gary Brunner said days before the tournament would have gotten underway. “We’ve talked about it a lot, the thing that most people don’t take into account is the amount of economic impact it has on our community and the restaurants and the hotels. They lose out of on more of it than we do.

“We kind of look at the tournament as a community event, it’s not about the high school. The tournament itself is an afterthought to every thing else that is going on. That almost has us more concerned than anything else.”

Simeon has the most Pontiac championships with 14, three in the last seven years. Curie won the other four titles over the last seven years. NBA players like Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, all from Simeon, along with Oak Park-River Forest’s Iman Shumpert all have played at Pontiac in the last 15 years.

“To me, I don’t think there’s a better tournament in the state,” Simeon coach Robert Smith said. “That’s why we’ve never left. A lot of people thought we were going to leave and do some other stuff. We still arrange our schedule around Pontiac. We feel like it’s home for us. I’m pretty sure a lot of the other coaches feel the same way.

“It gets you prepared for the rest of your season. That’s kind of how we put the rest of our season in perspective is after we leave Pontiac, on what type of team we’re going to have.”

Peoria Manual has the next most titles with 10. Manual (1985-89) and Quincy (1978-82) each have the longest string of consecutive titles with five.

In 2007, the IHSA released its “100 Legends of IHSA Basketball” book. Twenty-four of those legends played, coached or officiated at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. West Aurora’s Kenny Battle, Providence-St. Mel’s Lowell Hamilton, Springfield’s Dave Robisch, Quincy’s Bruce Douglas and Providence’s Walter Downing are players among the 100 legends who played at Pontiac.

Also among the 100 legends were coaches Gene Pingatore (Westchester St. Joseph), Arthur Trout (Centralia) and Gordy Kerkman (West Aurora), ranked Nos. 1, 6 and 7 on the IHSA career coaching wins list. They all had teams at Pontiac.

Those in Pontiac believe community involvement is what puts the tournament over the top in attracting the state’s best teams. Participants feel the same way.

“It’s the community, just the tradition, how much their community loves basketball,” Joliet West coach Jeremy Kreiger said. “When you go there, they make you feel welcome. They are going in there with an open mind, other than they know Simeon is really good, they give you a chance to win them over.”

Kreiger’s team certainly did that last season, taking third place in the loaded field, being ousted in the semifinals by eventual champion Curie. Kreiger also played at Pontiac in 2002 and 2003 with Joliet Township.

“It’s been a staple of the Joliet program,” he said. “As Joliet Township, we’ve won it before. I’ll always respect that as the No. 1 Christmas tournament in the state. I’m biased because I’ve played and coached in it. But just the community, the tournament hosts, the job that they do, it it second to none.”

Lockport coach Brett Hespell is another individual who both played in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and now has coached in it. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else the week after Christmas.

“I’ve been to Pontiac a lot,” Hespell said. “But I’ve also been to other tournaments, and they are just not the same, until you go down (to Pontiac) and experience it. It is just different. The people there and in that community totally support that tournament.

“We see the same people every year and they greet us, and know us by first name and are excited to see us and they just do a wonderful job of putting that tournament on. It’s a first-class operation.”

Dix, who was head boys basketball coach at Marian Central for six seasons and at St. Edward for 11, remembers businesses in town battling to get their advertisement in the most favorable spots in the program, the back page or inside the back page.

“Every business supported the tournament,” Dix said. “Every business wanted to be a part of it. Everybody wanted to show they were involved in this great endeavor that our town put on every year.”

Brunner quickly learned about the Pontiac lore when he came to the high school.

“It is a little bit like the owners of the (Green Bay) Packers,” Brunner said. “They all buy in for their own little piece and that’s kind of how our people see it. I think we go out of our way to make everyone feel at home, feel welcome.”

Simeon stays in Pontiac for the duration of the tournament. Smith says the gym feels like home, even though the Wolverines are 94 miles from their own facility.

“It’s just the atmosphere. You get a downstate feel,” Smith said. “When you’re playing against other teams in that gym, it’s just basketball. They just like great basketball.”

Steve Soucie

Steve Soucie has been the Sports Editor at the Joliet Herald News since August of 2018. Prior to that, Soucie worked at the Kankakee Daily Journal and for Pro Football Weekly.

Joe Stevenson

I have worked at the Northwest Herald since January of 1989, covering everything from high school to professional sports. I mainly cover high school sports now.