By Tom Kendra
Local Sports Journal
Throughout my 20-plus year tenure at The Muskegon Chronicle, I covered plenty of classic football games from the press box at Hackley Stadium – with huge, passionate crowds and incredible atmosphere.
I also covered just as many duds in the winter time at Muskegon’s Redmond-Potter Gymnasium, with paltry crowds that were more interested in socializing and checking their phones than the mediocre product plodding through another humdrum game out on the court.
That all changed on Saturday, when one of my long-time dreams came true. Redmond-Potter was packed and rocking and “the place to be,” thanks to the star-studded Muskegon Basketball Showcase.
“It was a fantastic atmosphere,” said Showcase tournament director Larry VanHaitsma, who headed up the committee which brought in three teams from the greater Chicago area and two from Detroit, along with the host Big Reds.
“Instead of Muskegon being a strictly football school, we want it to get going and become known for basketball, as well.”
The six-team, three-game event, with games at 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and a full-day price tag of $10, delivered both on and off the court.
The talent level was obvious right from the opening tip when, for the first time anyone can remember, Detroit Country Day stepped onto the court with inferior talent. La Lumiere School of La Porte, Ind., featuring four players 6-foot-9 or taller, downed Country Day 51-46 in the opener.
Romulus was the lone Michigan school to prevail, topping Seton Academy of South Holland, Ill., 64-57, in the day’s middle game.
That set the stage for the host Big Reds, whose “notable alumni” in the tournament program were, not surprisingly, known as football players – Earl Morrall, Bennie Oosterbaan and Ronald Johnson.
Muskegon, backed by a raucous home crowd, went toe-to-toe with Chicago Curie until late in the third quarter, when the Condors and one of the top juniors in the country – 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander, who attracted Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife to town – took control in a 68-55 win.
“I thought we might have a few hundred people there for the first game, but we had a good crowd right from the start of the day,“ said VanHaitsma, a Muskegon resident and basketball fanatic who became involved with the event last year at Muskegon Heights.
“Then it slowly filled all the way up for the Muskegon game.”
VanHaitsma said that strong turnout throughout the day will ensure that the event will return next year, scheduled again for the first Saturday after New Year’s Day.
For me, even more impressive than the plethora of Division I talent on the court – and reporters from as far away as the Chicago Tribune on press row – was the environment in Redmond-Potter’s old-school wooden bleachers.
The Showcase concept began a few years ago at Muskegon Heights and, along with head coach Keith Guy and many of the Tigers’ top athletes, moved a few blocks down the street as the Heights public school district was dissolved over the summer and replaced by the Muskegon Heights Public Academy.
It appears that much of Heights’ well-known passion for basketball made the move as well.
The crowd on Saturday was a mix of Big Red and Tiger, old and young, black and white, city and suburban, who cheered together as the dunks added up throughout the day, ending with about 14 (give or take a few).
What makes this event so special and so meaningful to this community is that normally Muskegon folks are asked to drive hundreds of miles – whether it’s to the Breslin Center in East Lansing or The Palace of Auburn Hills or Ford Field in Detroit – to see high-level talent. For many, the cost of that type of trip (not too mention the ticket price once they arrive) is just too much.
The Muskegon Basketball Showcase brought that type of event, that type of talent, right into their own neighborhood for a reasonable price.
Everyone knows about Hackley Stadium and the Big Reds’ tradition as the winningest high school football program in state history.
For once, the excitement and buzz of football Friday nights at Hackley did not hibernate for the winter. That atmosphere and Muskegon pride simply moved indoors to the Redmond-Potter Gymnasium.
Tom Kendra is the former Sports Editor of The Muskegon Chronicle and a Financial Professional at Prudential Financial. Contact him at [email protected]