Growing up, this was always the time of year when high school basketball was special in ways no other time of year in any other sport seemed to match.
Even as a kid when "the purity of the game" didn't mean anything to me, there was something about watching the game in its purest form that was well, it just was.
It was everything. It was time standing still, moments in history. It was the chance to see if Earl Jones out of Washington, D.C., was everything Street and Smith's made him out to be, a chance to see if Detroit native Antoine "The Judge" Joubert's legendary Jheri curl was real, a chance to discover Schea Cotton before the rest of the world.
The holiday season was -- and still remains -- the time of year when high school basketball is the end-all, be-all of sports. Nothing against the final week of the NFL regular season, Christmas Day NBA games or the kickoff of bowl season, but the holiday break (especially the five days between the day after Christmas and New Year's Eve) is the time to fall back in love with basketball at the high school level.
Tournament after tournament. That was the routine for years. Catch as many games as possible . Drive hundreds of miles to see a team that everyone in the neighboring state is talking about; jump on a Greyhound to overnight in another state just to see if that one player that USA Today and Parade have ranked over a favorite local player is legit. Before LeBron, these games weren't on TV. You had to go.
It was a time more enjoyable than anything else because of the sense of freedom that came with the games being played. No state or fake national titles on the line, but pride ruled every game. Before the explosion of invite-only summer camps, AAU tournaments and high school All-American games, players knew that the real, true assessment of where or if they belonged among the game's elite was going to be determined during the tournaments over holiday season.
For ballplayers, those that love to ball and those that love the game, this is our time of year. Usually during the Christmas holidays there are no conference commitments, therefore teams got to test their level of play against either teams (and players) they'll never see again, or non-AAU teams that have the best talent in certain states and/or cities across the country.
And the beauty in this is that over the years nothing's changed. My grandfather would tell me tourney stories, my father and my Uncle Ron took me to games before I was in high school, and now every holiday my nephew and I go to the legendary Proviso West tournament (61 games, 32 teams, six days, two courts, one roof!) in Illinois.
Traditions established. Traditions inherited and followed because it seems wrong to not be a part of the game or to not engage in it this time of year.
Sports -- and our following of it in America -- is cyclical.
Jan. 1, the BCS usually has one week in which nothing else matters. By the middle of the month, the NFL playoffs are in full swing and take over our lives. Immediately after the Super Bowl, college basketball runs and rules us through March. Then, without fail, baseball begins. For the first three weeks in April no one really cares about what's going on in any other sport. The pasttime passes time until the NBA playoffs begin and we're locked in there until June. MLB returns to the top of the national psyche until August when the college football season jumps off, and SEC teams are even being discussed on non-sports shows such as "This Week" and "Meet The Press." In September there's the return of the NFL and pennant races until in October we are almost by nature entrenched in the World Series. Once done, it's back to the beginning of the NBA season and the BCS comes back into play to make our NCAA football lives miserable all over again.
Which leaves us with this one small window of time in sports in America where something as small and personal as high school basketball can have uninterrupted meaning in our lives.
It's why the City of Palms Classic (Fort Myers, Fla.) can have its five-day, 36-game basketball tournament, where this year at least 10 nationally ranked teams came to play against each other the week before Christmas; and the MaxPreps Holiday Classic (Palm Springs, Calif.) can begin its four-day, 96-team basketball extravaganza the day after Christmas.
It's why the Tarkanian Classic had its inaugural tournament in Las Vegas last week, and why the Beach Ball Classic is going on in South Carolina now. It is also what allows South Creek High School in Robersonville, N.C., (population under 2,000) to hold a Christmas tournament, just like the Metro Detroit Basketball Coaches Association is in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Which is why, when former high school basketball coach Bob Cimbollek wrote in his "Off The Rim" blog that "holiday and Christmas tournaments are hard to find," I felt bad for him. A man who loves basketball stuck in Portland, Maine, over the holidays without a high school basketball tournament to enjoy, while everywhere else around the country there seems to be nothing else but that going on.
It's the most wonderfullest time of the year.
Damn, how I'd hate to be him. Only because there are just some things that the holidays are built for, some things that no one should ever have to be without during the holidays: mistletoe, grown folks' eggnog, Ralphie, the Linus and Lucy song, chitlins and high school basketball.
I've tried at certain times in my life living without those first five. But being without that last one at this time of the year? Seriously? I'm not so sure I could survive that.