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Vintage tournament

Future NBA and college stars always put on a show at the ‘Iolani Classic

By Jason Kaneshiro

LAST UPDATED: 10:30 a.m. HST, Dec 18, 2012

The ‘Iolani Classic might have reached its current status even if Stu Vetter hadn't picked up the phone that afternoon in 1984.

But Glenn Young is convinced his conversation with the then-Flint Hill Prep basketball coach marked the coming of age of his fledgling tournament.

"I normally wouldn't have answered that phone," Vetter recalled. "I was walking through the office building of the school and the phone was ringing and I picked it up."

Young was on the other end offering an invitation to play in the ‘Iolani Classic. Vetter agreed to bring the storied program from Virginia to Oahu, providing the tournament with the cachet to eventually attract other premier programs to the islands.

"He thought I was joking," Young said. "It was just a stroke of luck that I was able to get him to come."

A near constant stream of the nation's elite teams — bringing a parade of eventual major college and NBA stars with them — have followed, with another powerful field lined up for the 29th edition, which begins today at ‘Iolani.

Findlay Prep (Nev.) makes its tournament debut against Moanalua on Wednesday as the No. 1 team in the USA Today Super 25. Oak Hill (Va.), last year's national champion, was second in the poll before slipping to No. 6 last week. Vetter also returns with reigning ‘Iolani Classic champion and 12th-ranked Montrose Christian (Md.).

La Lumiere (the event's first entrant from Indiana), Yates (Texas), John Carroll (Md.), Coolidge (Washington D.C.) and Tsinghua (China) also join eight Hawaii teams in the field.

"This is one of the strongest fields ever," said Vetter, a tournament regular who has made the trip with four schools (Flint Hill, Harker Prep, St. John's Prospect Hall and Montrose Christian).

"Year in, year out, this is the best high school tournament in America."

While Vetter's decision to join the 1985 field helped elevate the tournament, "it's all Glenn's vision," he said. "I'm glad we can be a small part of it."

That vision arose out of Young's desire to help local basketball out of "the dark ages."

The former ‘Iolani head coach came to that assessment seeing his team — which went on to win a state championship — overwhelmed in a tournament in Las Vegas in 1983.

"I said in order for our kids in Hawaii to upgrade the level of their play, they've gotta see this kind of basketball," Young said. "They have to be exposed to good players and good coaching to raise their level of play."

The tournament was given a further boost when Nike signed on as a sponsor, and while it has thrived on bringing in high-level teams from the mainland, providing opportunities for local players remains at its core.

Kalaheo head coach Alika Smith's first exposure to the Classic predated his high school career, sitting on the bench as his father, Pete Smith, coached the Mustangs. He went on to play in four ‘Iolani Classics and credited the experience for aiding in his transition to college ball at the University of Hawaii.

"It's just a great opportunity for these kids from Hawaii to play future NBA guys and to be on the same court as them," said Smith, who leads the Mustangs against Yates today at 5 p.m. "But there's a mind-frame, when I played, that we're going to go out the same way we've been doing all year and we're going to get after it.

"It helped me because … once you play against better competition you're only going to get better."

Both Smith and current ‘Iolani head coach Dean Shimamoto played in the 1993 tournament that included future college and NBA players Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis (Oak Hill), Jacque Vaughn (John Muir) and Felipe Lopez (Rice).

"We played against St. John's Prospect Hall, and they had (eventual UCLA guard) Cameron Dollar and Curtis Staples (Virginia)," Shimamoto said. "We were on fire. The first half we hit five or six 3s. We were down two at the half. And I just remember being completely tired and we got blown out."

The scores between the local and mainland teams have tended to be lopsided, but there's still something to be gained for the Hawaii players.

"It's like these are real guys and you can do things against them. And once (the players) realize that, they start playing," Shimamoto said. "They stop playing scared and later it turns out to be a good reference point to look back and say ‘You were able to do this against that guy,' and that helps us."

The list of "that guys" who've passed through ‘Iolani's gym includes an array of players who went on to decorated careers in college and in the NBA.

West Philadelphia's Howard Evans was the MVP of the inaugural tournament and Flint Hill's Dennis Scott won the award twice on his way to a career as one of the game's top 3-point shooters at Georgia Tech and with the Orlando Magic.

The 1987 tournament remains a landmark, when Bobby Hurley led St. Anthony's (N.J.) past Malik Sealy's Tolentine (N.Y.) team in overtime in a championship-game matchup of the nation's top two teams.

That tournament also featured Dunbar's Sam Cassell (Florida State/Houston Rockets) and Fairfax's Chris Mills (Arizona/Golden State Warriors). But the tournament's scoring title belonged to Molokai's Jarinn Akana, who averaged 30.3 points that week.

In looking back nearly three decades, Young regards the 2003 Oak Hill team — led by Rajon Rondo (Kentucky, Boston Celtics) and Josh Smith (Atlanta Hawks) — as one of the best to play in the Classic.

Kevin Durant played in the 2005 tournament with Montrose before winning NCAA Player of the Year honors at Texas the following season and claiming the NBA scoring title with the Oklahoma City Thunder each of the last three years. Kemba Walker followed in 2007 and went on to star at Connecticut.

Young rates the 2008 double-overtime final, when Oak Hill's Lamont "Momo" Jones poured in 40 points against Montrose Christian, as perhaps the top game in tournament history.

"Believe me, every team on the mainland would love to come to the ‘Iolani Prep Classic," Vetter said.

Some Iolani Classic players through the years who went on to star in the NBA:
Sam Cassell Baltimore Dunbar (Md.) Houston Rockets
Tyson Chandler Dominguez (Calif.) New York Knicks
Kevin Durant Montrose Christian (Md.) Oklahoma City Thunder
Bobby Hurley St. Anthony (N.J.) Sacramento Kings
Rajon Rondo Oak Hill (Va.) Boston Celtics
Brandon Roy Garfield (Wash.) Minnesota Timberwolves
Dennis Scott Flint Hill Prep (Va.) Orlando Magic
Malik Sealy Tolentine (N.Y.) Minnesota Timberwolves
Josh Smith Oak Hill (Va.) Atlanta Hawks
Jerry Stackhouse Oak Hill (Va.) Brooklyn Nets
* - current team for active NBA players; most notable team for players no longer in the NBA

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