Over 30 years ago Mike Kelleher, I and a few other Gonzaga dads began working to create a Gonzaga basketball tournament which we would later name the “Gonzaga D.C. Classic Basketball Tournament.” Father Bernard Dooley, Gonzaga President, approved the idea but cautioned that the Tournament would have to be sponsored and operated by the Gonzaga Fathers Club (GFC).
We planned to open the Tournament in December 1989 with four teams. Further, we decided that the Tournament would be played over 2 days with two games each day resulting in a championship game on the second day. Four teams were selected, DeMatha, Dunbar (Baltimore), Coolidge (D.C.) and Gonzaga and all four agreed to participate. We negotiated a contract with American University for the venue on the selected dates of December 21st and 22nd. A printed Program was to be made listing the roster of each team, Committee members, and advertisers with a greeting letter from Father Dooley. The Tournament sponsor would be the GFC and always remain so. The Gonzaga Athletic Department was quite helpful in making arrangements for referees, locker rooms and other necessary items. Tournament planning continued through the summer and fall of 1989. The Tournament came to fruition on December 21, 1989 and was an immediate success. DeMatha and Gonzaga met in the championship with DeMatha beating Gonzaga in a close game. The game was televised by Home Team Sports (HTS) and so was televised for many years by HTS and later by Comcast with professional television announcers such as Larry Michaels and Glen Consor.
The GFC has been the sole sponsor of the Tournament from the inception with program advertisers being supporters of the Tournament. The Tournament has always been operated by fathers from the GFC with commercial entities only being advertisers and donors.
Initially all funds derived from the Tournament were to be used to assist in helping to pay the tuition for boys whose families could not afford the cost of Gonzaga. Father Dooley later asked that we choose another purpose for the funds. We decided that Tournament funds should be used to support Gonzaga service projects in which Gonzaga students participated. A few years later the Tournament elected to choose a name for such a purpose. “Great Basketball Supporting Good Works” was chosen and that name/theme has been our purpose since then. Since 1989 hundreds of Gonzaga dads have volunteered in operating the Tournament. That has included fathers of current students as well as past students. Each year, the tournament provides a specially designed tee-shirt for all players as well as various items of Tournament apparel designed by members of the Tournament Committee.
The Tournament also arranges for free hotel rooms for visiting teams in some of Washington’s finest hotels and for meals for each team after its games provided free from well-known commercial establishments. The Tournament Committee seeks to make the Tournament a satisfying experience for each team with the result that many teams regularly contact us seeking to be invited to the Tournament again. It is the only nationally known High School Tournament that has always been operated by an all-volunteer force of Gonzaga men. The D.C. Classic combines excellent high school basketball with service to those in need.
While teams from Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore have traditionally comprised the Tournament’s nucleus, the Classic has drawn squads from every region of the US, and often features teams from the national ranked Top Twenty. Hundreds of future college players, several NBA players (Juan Dixon and Chris Paul among them) and legendary coaches such as Morgan Wooten, Dick Myers and Jack Curran have participated in the Tournament. As coaches and players have learned, basketball, while the explicit focus, is not the heart of the D.C. Classic. Tours of Capitol Hill and the White House arranged by the Tournament make the experience an educational one for the players, as does a Coaches-Players breakfast with an inspirational speaker.
Moreover, the second half of the Tournament’s theme, “Supporting Good Works”, expresses the true higher purpose of the Tournament. Proceeds of over $1,000,000 received since 1989 support Gonzaga’s multiple service projects, which involve not only students but also faculty and parents as chaperons. These projects give needed relief to D.C.’s homeless, hungry, and AIDS-afflicted, and make a real difference to the poor in places as far ranging as Camden, NJ, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Dominican Republic, New Orleans, Apopka, Florida, Mexico and South America.
The Tournament has provided some truly memorable games for Gonzaga and has showcased some of Gonzaga’s greatest teams. Gonzaga’s first Tournament Championship came in 1993 against a powerful St. Raymond’s team (NY) when with five (5) seconds left and the game tied, Gonzaga went the length of the court with Kenny McFarland scoring as time ran out. In 1998 in perhaps the best championship game of all the Tournaments, Gonzaga in a battle royale beat the number one nationally ranked DeMatha in overtime. Hall of Fame DeMatha Coach Morgan Wooten is reported to have said prior to the Tournament that his 1998 DeMatha team was the best he had ever coached.
Additionally, the Tournament has drawn to the game such basketball notables as Hall of Fame Celtics coach Red Auerbach, Coach K, long time and revered high school basketball guru and scout Tom Konchalski (who has attended every Tournament), and our renowned and professional game announcer Tom Slater among many others.
The underlying context of service to those in need has given the Tournament its true vitality and spirit from the beginning. Indeed, the larger purpose of service has motivated many fathers to continue working with the tournament long after their sons have graduated from Gonzaga. The Jesuit motto of being “Men For Others” motivates fathers to carry on, year after year now in our 30th year. Moreover, many lasting friendships have been created among Committee members.
While participating in several of these service projects as a chaperon, I have witnessed poverty in its rawest forms such as people living without: proper medical care, adequate housing, electricity, clean water, and full and nutritious meals. But I have also experienced a richness of spirituality and culture from those we came to serve that was quite moving. Despite the deprivations our hosts experience, they survive through them with inspiring smiles and uplifting spirits that energized us. With each day of work, play, prayer, and living with the impoverished, students and chaperones begin to see things in a different light. We discover that we have it all backwards. While many of us are well-off materially, our hosts are clearly not, but our hosts are often clearly far richer than we are spiritually. By the close of our service project, each of us in service has been transformed in some measurable way(s) which we did not anticipate. We had come to serve, but we were instead served. We arrived as individuals but returned committed to solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need. As the Jesuits would say, we became “Ruined for Life.”
The Tournament Committee members have learned over the years that there is real transformation in tangible forms which our tournament hopes to continue to inspire - giving those (us) in service a deeper understanding of the meaning of being true “Men For Others”.
We have come to see that there is no condescending concept of server and served but only a firmly held belief and concept of “we” as “others” both serving and receiving. We see that the hand that gives is also the hand that receives. We have come to know and understand that we are all related, all equally servants of the Creator.
As we conclude preparations for the 30th anniversary of the Gonzaga D.C. Classic I know in my heart that the games, while good in and of themselves, serve a much Higher Purpose – SERVICE TO THOSE IN NEED. This has been our most important purpose – serving many in important and enduring ways but receiving enriching gifts from many in important and lasting ways not only here at Gonzaga but in other locations nationally and internationally.
Thus, the Tournament has gone forward each year for 30 years with dads in concert as brothers in action and spirit. I have indeed been fortunate and proud to have been a member of the Gonzaga D.C. Classic Basketball Committee for 30 years.