COAST CITIES — In four days, in five venues around the county, 69 teams from around the country will take to the courts for some highly competitive basketball until only one team remains. Starting Dec. 26 the 23rd annual Holiday Classic returns to San Diego.
As a tournament director and coach of one of the competing teams, that means John Olive is wearing multiple hats.
Since the spring, Olive, the longtime head coach of the Torrey Pines High School basketball team, has been working to organize the tournament, sending out invitations to schools and fielding calls from other schools that want to participate.
“This is one of the premiere tournaments in the country,” Olive said, “and definitely one of the premiere tournaments on the West Coast.”
Of the teams that are competing, 50 percent to 60 percent are returning competitors; Olive estimated that about 35 percent to 40 percent of the teams are new to the competition.
In each of those teams there are kids with the potential to succeed at the college, even NBA level.
Current-Los Angeles Clippers forward Lamar Odom, and other NBA stars Stephon Marbury and Jerry Stackhouse all competed in the Holiday Classic. More recent players like Jrue Holiday, now a guard with the Philadelphia 76ers, and guard DeMar DeRozan with the Toronto Raptors have had their high school basketball careers come through the tournament.
“The fans get a chance to see some of the future stars of the NBA,” Olive said.
As for the large crowd turnouts, that’s what makes it really special, he added. “I see lots of tournaments around the country and fans just don’t get a chance to go out or choose not to go out, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of local interest.
“But in our tournament it’s been phenomenal. We usually have packed houses every night, four straight nights at Torrey Pines for the National division and the environment in that gym is electrifying.”
It’s been a decade since any team from San Diego has won the tournament. In 2002 El Camino High School were Classic champions, the year before that Carlsbad High School won out.
Olive, who will be coaching his varsity Falcons in the tournament, said that for the past 16 years he’s been at Torrey Pines, he’s seen the quality of the basketball in San Diego improve each year.
“This year we have probably two of the best centers in the country, just locally,” he said. “A big seven-footer Kameron Rooks from Mission Hills High School and Army Navy (Academy) has a seven-footer (Cheikh N’Diaye), who has already signed with Oregon State…There is much better basketball and it just keeps getting better.”
Olive grew up on the East Coast and played college basketball at Villanova University, after graduating he went pro, being drafted by the 76ers, and playing a couple of seasons with the San Diego Clippers. As a high school senior, Olive said there was only one time that he participated in a tournament anything like the Classic. That was at the Atlantic City Convention Center and that was a competion against regional teams. “That was kind of the early beginnings of these types of tournaments,” Olive said.
For most of the North County teams, they’ve already been preparing for the tournament, having played each other a handful of times already. Olive said the Holiday Classic will be the last tournament prior to the teams getting into league play.
As for the local teams to watch for: “It’s hard to predict,” Olive said. “But I would say St. Augustine and the Army Navy Academy probably have the best chances of progressing in the National bracket.
“Some of the teams from out of the area, Sheldon High School, St. John’s High School…Salesian High School from the Bay Area, those three teams have a shot, I think, at winning it all, as well,” Olive said.
A full schedule, including game locations is available at theholidayclassic.org.