Annual Albany Christmas hoops event kicks off today with tough, 14-team field (3-day schedule included)

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Longtime organizer of the annual Albany High School basketball Christmas Classic, Indians boys coach Archie Chatmon, remembers the good ol' days when the Classic was truly a tournament and a winner was crowned under the bright lights of the Albany Civic Center.

He also wishes GHSA rules didn't prevent teams from playing more than 25 games in one season, tournaments included, leaving the event -- at least for the last two years -- to be played in a shootout format that limits teams to three games in three nights with no definable champion at the end.

But at least there's one thing about the event that has never changed -- and never will.

"The quality," Chatmon said Friday on the heels of this year's event -- which begins today at 1 p.m. with AHS vs. Quitman County -- and whose title sponsor for the second year in a row is U-Save-It Pharmacy in Albany. "We always try to get the best teams from all over and the goal every year, at least for a weekend, is to showcase some of the best (high school) basketball in the world right here in Albany, Georgia."

The 2009 version of the tournament that Chatmon, himself, has been running for the last 20 years -- and was even around when he was a prep player coming up through the ranks -- will have 14 teams this time, including local schools Westover, Monroe, Dougherty, Miller County and, of course, Albany High.

Other participants include McIntosh County, Colquitt County, Riverdale, SE Bulloch, Swainsboro and Statesboro. The aforementioned schools, plus the five local teams, make a total of 12 which will all play three games, starting today.

However, two other schools -- Mount Zion and Keith High School out of Alabama, both of which could only commit to two games over the course of two days -- will join the fray on Monday and play through Tuesday.

Of course, Chatmon is the first to point out, it's still a great event, but the change in format and scheduling over the years hasn't been ideal.

"We used to have this thing and start it on a Thursday, then play Thursday, Friday and Saturday because schools used to let out on that Wednesday (for Christmas)," said Chatmon, adding the goal is to always get 16 teams. "But when that changed and everyone started getting out on that Friday -- and because they had exams to take on that Friday -- it hurt (the tournament) real bad. Now we've got situations like we have this year where some teams can't come until Monday to start playing."

Another big change happened several years ago when the GHSA state basketball finals stopped using the Albany Civic Center as a destination for its championship games due to inflated costs to use the facility. At the same time, Chatmon said, the championship games of his annual Christmas Classic also lost its home.

Now, all the games from start to finish are played within the confines of the Albany High School gym.

"When the GHSA stopped coming here because the prices (at the Albany Civic Center) went up -- what was it, something like 200-to-300 percent? -- the state dropped out and we couldn't afford that, so we did to," lamented Chatmon, who pointed out his event has always been not-for-profit and he never charges teams an entry fee to come. "We try to make it as easy as we can for the best teams to want to come to our tournament. That was always one of the big draws: Teams would come play and have a chance to finish up in the championship (game) in the same building and atmosphere (in the Civic Center) they may see down the road in the state playoffs."

The Classic, which has had a number of sponsors in seasons past, including Kentucky Fried Chicken and John Ross Jewelers, also used to feature eight girls teams. But when Chatmon tried to make it into two separate invitationals a number of years back -- with him running the boys event at Christmas time and other area girls coaches handling the girls event, which was held at Thanksgiving -- the girls event eventually lost steam and hasn't been held for "awhile," Chatmon said.

However, Chatmon added that there is hope that between current girls coaches Telly Turner of Albany High, Monroe's Cheryl Cheeks, Dougherty's Charlene Jackson and Westover's Lewis Smith, the girls tournament will return.

"There have been conversations, I know, of getting the girls event together again," Chatmon said. "That would be great."

Yet, even with all the changes through the years, Chatmon reminds there is, in fact, another constant other than the quality of teams that attend: hospitality of the Good Life City.

"For as long as this thing has been going on, the same teams want to come back almost every year -- and they tell me that before they even leave," Chatmon said. "We try to make it a tournament they'll remember -- with great teams -- and (one they'll) want to come back to. And even with all the changes we've had over the years, I think we've been able to accomplish that."