Say the phrase “Beach Ball” to a tourist and the bouncy, colorful inflatable spheres of summer come to mind. But say the same to a longtime local and they will know what you're talking about – the nation's finest holiday high school basketball tournament.
Celebrating its 34th anniversary this season, the Beach Ball Classic is a holiday tradition on the Grand Strand. Local hoops fans mark their calendars for the day after Christmas through the day before New Year's as the week to flock to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center's Lambo Arena to see some of the top teams and talent in the country.
The tournament was the brain child of current Marshall University head coach Dan D'Antoni, current Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes and a handful of local business leaders and basketball fans who wanted to highlight players and attract tourism during the offseason. The modest beginnings have blossomed into a nationally famous event.
Since 1980, some of the best players and future stars of the NBA and college basketball have competed in the Beach Ball Classic. The list of alumni reads like a who's who of professional hoops – L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green, former NBA MVP Kevin Garnett and ex-NBA All-Star guard Jason Kidd, just to name a few.
Before they gained fame and became big names in the NBA, they were humble but hungry kids trying to impress the scouts that sit courtside at the Beach Ball Classic. You are also likely to spot some of the top college coaches in the country, include past guests Roy Williams of North Carolina, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.
Held Dec. 26-31 of each year, the Beach Ball Classic features nationally ranked teams facing off both day and night before deciding the championship on the final game on New Year's Eve. In order to avoid teams from violating some state laws that ban games on Sundays, the popular Slam Dunk and 3-point Shooting contests are held that night, drawing loud crowds and dazzling displays of athleticism.
This year's field features two past champions – 2006 winner St. Edward (OH) and 2009 champ Bishop Gorman (NV), which is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today. The team led by 6-foot-11 forward and Duke commitment Chase Jeter and his even taller and more highly recruited teammate, 7-footer Stephen Zimmerman. The twin towers may be favored to lead their teams to another Beach Ball Classic crown, but they have plenty of competition.
This year’s field also features nationally ranked St. Francis (GA), the defending Georgia Class A champs, as well as other nationally ranked and defending state champions, Other participating schools are East Carteret (NC), Franklin HS (OH), Hough (NC), Knott County (KY), Mullins HS (SC), Myrtle Beach (SC), Northland (OH), North Little Rock (AR), Sagemont (FL), Scott County (KY), Shadow Mountain (AZ), Socastee (SC), Spring Valley (SC) and St. Francis (GA).
The tournament gets under way Friday, Dec. 26, with a 1:45 p.m. exhibition game between defending private-school state champion Christian Academy of Myrtle Beach and local public-school Class A power Carvers Bay, followed by two full days of first-round action. Christian Academy also will play an exhibition game against Cape Fear Academy (NC) at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 28, followed by the Slam Dunk and 3-Point contests at 7 p.m. Monday features the quarterfinals, Tuesday has the semifinals, and the bracket championships run all day Wednesday, capped by the championship game at 7:30 p.m.
For a full schedule or to purchase advanced tickets, visit www.beachballclassic.com.
(Photo Courtesy: myrtlebeach.com)