The Maui Jim Maui Invitational, set to tip off Monday for the 36th time, wasn’t always the prestigious, high-profile college basketball tournament it is today.
It actually started on the Big Island.
The inaugural four-team field of what was then called the Silversword Invitational was played at the Konawaena High School gymnasium in 1984.
“The original plan was to move the tournament around,” said Kevin Hashiro, sports information director with Chaminade University, the tournament’s original and only host institution.
According to legend, the tournament grew out of the Silverswords’ 1982 shocker over No. 1-ranked Virginia. After that game, Cavaliers coach Terry Holland suggested to then- Chaminade athletic director Mike Vasconcellos that the tiny Honolulu college start its own tournament.
Two years later the idea turned into reality. After playing the initial Silversword Invitational in Kona, the event was moved to Maui’s War Memorial gym in Wailuku in 1985.
Returning to War Memorial for another year, it landed at what would become its permanent home, the Lahaina Civic Center, in 1987 with a new eight-team format, a television contract with ESPN and a new name: the Maui Classic.
With a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, the tiny gym on a hill above Lahaina was apparently too alluring for tournament organizers to abandon.
And it didn’t take long for the event to grow in prestige as Kansas in 1987 and Michigan in 1988 started their march to the top on Maui. All told, seven Maui programs have gone on to win the NCAA championship, with North Carolina the last to do it during the 2016-17 season.
The tournament was renamed again in 1990 to the Maui Invitational, and Chicago-based marketing and events specialist KemperLesnik took over operations with its partner, ESPN.
Today the annual Thanksgiving week event is one of the top early- season college basketball tournaments, drawing elite programs from across the country.
“It’s something our community looks forward to every year,” said Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.
The tournament is now Maui’s biggest money-making annual event, drawing 5,000 visitors during a traditionally slow time of year for tourism and generating $12.15 million in direct visitor expenditures, Duong said.
Mayor Michael Victorino added that the event overall brings $21.99 million in sales statewide, according to published reports, and has contributed more than $250 million to the local economy, including more than $80 million in the last five years.
“The Maui Jim Maui Invitational generates a lot of excitement,” he said as part of a statement. “When I’ve had time to attend games, they’ve delivered top-level basketball action and a peek at NBA stars of the future.”
Duong said the tournament does more than bring worldwide exposure to Maui and attract tourists who generate lots of spending. The organizers actually do a lot for the Maui community, she said. For example, last year it made a $35,000 donation to the Maui Food Bank, an amount equal to 142,000 meals for the island’s needy.
When Duong attends a Maui Invitational game, she sees one side filled with the supporters of the visiting teams, the other filled with residents.
“It’s a very big deal,” she said.
Thanks to the tournament, the 2,500-seat Lahaina Civic Center isn’t the same spartan high school gym it used to be. The facility has undergone more than $1 million in renovations over the years, including a new playing floor, updated and retractable bleachers and new scoreboards and lighting.
Many believe the best upgrade was the installation of air conditioning in 2003.
“There were times when the gym was overbearingly hot,” Hashiro said. “There were times when people were constantly fanning themselves.”
For Chaminade, the Division II school with the reputation of being a college basketball giant killer, the tournament continues to be extremely important — as a recruiting tool and a source of financial support and of pride.
According to athletic director Bill Villa, the Maui Jim Maui Invitational remains the largest source of annual noninstitutional revenue for the university’s athletics department.
“I can’t reveal the figures, but I will say that our university executive leadership are pleased,” he said. “The funds touch many areas of need for our athletics department.”
The funds, he said, are invested back into the athletics department in a variety of areas, including operational expenditures, capital improvement, athletic aid for student-athletes, support for coaches, health and welfare of student-athletes.
But last year the tournament changed for Chaminade. By mutual agreement, the university for 10 years will play on Maui in only odd-numbered years. In even-numbered years, the Silverswords will be paid a guarantee to travel to two games on the mainland against schools in that year’s tournament.
Last year Chaminade did not appear in its own tournament for the first time and instead played at San Diego State and Arizona.
Despite fears that Chaminade and its basketball team would suffer, the new setup has worked out well, officials said.
“I can tell you that our experience thus far was better than we could have imagined,” Villa said. “There are financial incentives for the university with this new format, but there are other great experiences for our student-athletes, coaches and administrators.”
Villa said the players and coaches appreciated the opportunity to experience the amenities of a major Division I program.
“The facilities are amazing, and it was a treat for our group to experience those venues,” he said. “We played in front of good-size crowds — around 10,000 at each site — and that’s a different experience for our players and coaches. We don’t play in front of those many people in our conference or in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.”
The university also held alumni and booster functions on the sites prior to the games, he said.
“Our administrators opted to embrace this new format as an opportunity for new experiences and building relationships,” Villa said. “Yes, most definitely, our initial reaction to this change is that it is a good thing for Chaminade University.”
The 2019 Maui Jim Maui Invitational teams are BYU, Dayton, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA, Virginia Tech and host Chaminade. The host team draws Kansas in the first round.