By Matt Norlander
"After I retire I want to go to the [Maui] tournament every year. It is the most beautiful place l have ever seen." -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams
"Our entire school has loved going to Maui. It's one of the premier events in the pre-conference season. The volunteers, the people who put it on and the community make you feel at home on the island." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
"It's been a great tournament for us over the years and I still consider it the granddaddy of them all." -- Gonzaga coach Mark Few
The chaos theory-like sequence that created college basketball's greatest regular season event has become something of legend within the sport and certainly mystical on the islands of Hawaii. And yet, most don't know the entire story. To this day, the true origin of when exactly the idea for the tournament came to fruition is not fully known. Ask someone about Chaminade over Virginia in 1982, and they might think it was at the Maui Invitational. But it wasn't. Instead, it was the upset that birthed a bracket, Hawaiian-style, a quaint idea for a tournament that wouldn't come to be until two years later and was still four teams, an island and a huge TV contract away from the charming Thanksgiving-week classic that we know it as now.
This year's Maui event is the 30th in the tournament's history. Fittingly, every team playing in the 2013 field, which begins Monday, is undefeated so far this season, a gleaming 30-0. Impressively, in an era when more and more November and December made-for-TV college basketball tournaments are cropping up, Maui remains preeminent. It remains the model. It failed to fade away, unlike the Great Alaska Shootout, which still exists but inside a shell of a shell of what it once was. Used to be that the Shootout meant more than Maui. Then, in the early '90s, the two tourneys traded strides. By Maui's 20th year in existence, it had moved ahead of Alaska, and in the past 10 years, Maui's lapped Alaska a few times over.
Outside of the visual prettification of the event, the Maui Invitational calls to mind classics like Gonzaga 109, Michigan State 106 in a three-OT affair in 2005, in which Adam Morrison scored a Maui record-setting 43 points. That's considered the best game in the event's history. Those who watched it live remember how late it went. Part of this tournament's charm is its mimicry of the NCAA tournament. You watch it during the day, and over dinner and finish up late at night.
"It's a who's-who in the top programs in college basketball," Few said. "It's college basketball in its true form, without all the garbage. You're in a small gym with your team. You've gotta play, adjust on the fly. You're in the locker room for two minutes afterwards, and you're outta there, because North Carolina, Kentucky or Arizona's gotta get in there."
Jim Boeheim's twice been a winner (1990 and 1998) and is 6-0 at the tournament. The Orange are in this year's field.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to play some quality teams at this time of the year and it will be a real test for us," Boeheim said.
Check the list of winners over the years, and you've essentially got the history of modern college basketball and its all-time royalty. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UConn, Syracuse, Kansas, Indiana, UCLA -- they've all won Maui tournaments.
"You're looking for things at the beginning of the year that are going to help you at the end of the year. Maui does that," Calhoun said. It was his team in 2010 that surprised and won every game in Maui. That was foreshadowing, as the 2010-11 Huskies never lost a game involving bracket play. The legend grew; it started in Maui.
"It became the 'in' tournament for everyone to go to," Calhoun said. "You'd get together, guys are really competitive, but it was also friendly. [There's] a lot of camaraderie, [it's] different than any other event in the sport."
Williams remembers the time in 2001 when he was at Kansas and three of his guys cramped up a few minutes into the game. They were on the floor in the locker room and getting IVs at halftime. Kansas went on to lose to Ball State. Duke won the tournament that year.
There are also great details in the record books. For example, Steph Curry's dad -- you know, Dell, the former NBA player -- has the record for most field goals (16) in a Maui game. Duke's 16-0 in the event's history. North Carolina matches Duke in wins, but has a 16-3 overall record, playing more games in the event than any team -- except of course Chaminade, which has played every year and is 7-78 in the history of the event. You didn't think ol' Chaminade went oh-fer since the 1980s, did you? It beat Texas just last year.
And Loyola Marymount tossed up 162 -- 162! -- against Chaminade in 1990. Those were the days.
Thanksgiving week -- and most of November -- is nearly sports-synonymous with football. But a small tournament in a tiny gym half an ocean away has made sure that college basketball has not only been part of the lead-in to Thanksgiving, but really enhanced the profile of the entire sport in the month of November. You think Maui, a part of you thinks turkey. It's weird but it just happens and you go with it. You think Maui, you think Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery, the latter of whom has sadly has switched networks and will no longer call games while wearing those terrifically tacky Hawaiian shirts.
A new term, "Feast Week," has spurred college hoops -- beyond what Maui provides -- to help make November arguably the greatest sports month on the calendar. The games are everywhere. That wasn't always the case. Without Maui, it's likely the sport wouldn't be what it is today.
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The genesis of how the Maui Invitational came to be is pretty magnificent … and mysterious. We probably owe it to Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon -- and a man named Terry Holland. Holland was Virginia's coach for 16 years, winning a program-best 326 games as Hoos' Poobah.
But it's one loss that helped define his legacy, ironically. Holland liked to schedule tough, and probably only because he did so in 1982-83 was it even possible for Virginia to lose what some consider still to be the greatest upset in college hoops history.
Two days before Christmas in 1982, at the University of Hawaii's Neal Blaisdell Center, No. 1 Virginia walked in looking to complete an afterthought of a game against a tiny school with the perfect name befitting of Hawaiian island charm and history: the Chaminade Silverswords. The game was only played because Holland had made a habit of scheduling his team against Chaminade twice in previous years, and with this game being a perfect layover-type contest after Virginia played in Japan a few days prior, Holland thought it ideal for his players to squeeze in one more before Christmas.
It was a top-ranked Cavs team, 8-0, with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson completing a world tour of sorts. The interesting facet to the Chaminade game in '82: It was booked maybe a month before the upset would occur. And the game was scheduled in part because Chaminade happened to have on its roster a man named Tony Randolph, who grew up playing with Sampson back in Virginia. What a fun little reunion this could be. According to a Sports Illustrated story from 2007, Randolph and Sampson knew each other well enough to this degree: Randolph had previously dated Sampson's sister.
Before all this, however, Virginia scheduled a game against Ewing and Georgetown on Dec. 11, in Washington, D.C. UVa won. The game against Olajuwon and Phi Slamma Jama came less than a week after, in Japan, some 6,800 miles away. Sampson was so sick he couldn't even play. Virginia still managed to beat Houston, then top-20 Utah, while building a worldwide reputation. Then the team hopped on the bird and headed back to the U.S. One more simple stop before Christmas.
Sampson's virus cleared up once the team was in Hawaii. In fact, the players practiced at the University of Hawaii the day before and were so loose and loving the island, they stayed in shape by playing tag football. Current Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was on that Cavaliers team. Sampson would later admit the team essentially treated the trip as a vacation, and could you blame them?
Elsewhere on the Big Island of Hawaii, Chaminade was riding high, coming off a win over the island's eponymous university, the program's first victory against a D-I team. But that was countered by following up the win by dropping a game to an NAIA school, Wayland Baptist, which was sub-.500. The loss was a downer and served as a reality check for anyone crazy enough to think Merv Lopes' Silverswords could possibly keep it close against the Cavs.
The legendary game wasn't the first meeting between UVa and Chaminade. The previous two tilts were decided in Virginia's favor by an average of 20.5 points. They played in a high school gym, according to Holland. But the '82 game was so huge due to Virginia's ranking and Sampson's fame, getting Hawaii's arena was paramount. And when Chaminade won 77-72, in an upset virtually no one heard about for days after (remember, this was an entirely different sports and media world then, and the game came two days before Christmas -- in Hawaii), it became a game so big the school stopped plans from changing its name, according to the aforementioned SI story. Chaminade went from a noun to a synonym for sports upset.
The news made its way around the nation in part because of a young reporter named Michael Wilbon, who was on assignment for the Washington Post -- to cover football. Only by chance did he attend that game, and frantically attempt to file a game story back East in the dead of morning, long after most of the country had turn out the lights.
The gym wasn't even half-packed, according to Dave Odom, who coached for 43 years, was an assistant on that 1982-83 Virginia team and is now the chairman of the Maui Invitational.
"When that happened, and people were so far removed from the mainland and what's really going on, it really helped college basketball," Odom said. "Having a springboard like the Virginia game and the Louisville game, it awakened the island to the fact that college basketball and basketball as a sport was about to become a global entity, a global sport. If you leapfrog to 2013, anybody would say the two most global sports today are basketball and soccer. I would give Maui as much credit for that as anything."
Despite the sparse crowd, the reaction from within, seeing what the victory did for the school, it all inspired Chaminade athletic director Mike Vasconcellos to finally put into action something Holland had suggested to him previously: a tournament Chaminade could participate in and invite bigger schools to. Division I schools. Why couldn't it work? There was already the Rainbow Tournament, hosted by Hawaii. In fact, Holland tried for a few years to get Virginia into that one, but schedules never worked.
"Hawaiian schools had an exemption that allowed mainland teams to play additional games which wouldn't count on your schedule," Holland said. "Getting games became a valuable entity. It gave programs the chance to have live competition while practicing during the Christmas holidays. We continued our series and relationship, later playing Chaminade in a four-team tournament on the Big Island in the mid-80s before coming back to Oahu in the late-80s to play in an eight-team event."
That's how the Maui Invitational, in essence, was born. But what's also forgotten: Chaminade followed up in 1983 by beating Louisville. And then they beat Louisville again in 1984. Both times, the Cardinals were ranked in the top 15. It's undeniable those Chaminade teams from the early '80s did more than earn a few surprising upsets. The wins themselves proved a tiny D-II school was capable of hosting the big boys. You could make the case the wins over U of L served as much important as the much more famed toppling of Virginia. Funny what history chooses to forget.
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It's not always been held at the same place or in the same city, you know. This has been a grassroots effort, truly, and what would become the EA Sports Maui Invitational only originally started in Kona in its early years, in the most humble of venues: Konawaena High School. After two years, when the field expanded to eight teams, it moved to Wailuku, Hawaii, before ultimately moving to Maui upon the updating of the Lahaina Civic Center in the mid 1990s, a building that's basically as old as the tournament, even though it hasn't hosted every year.
"The coaches really liked the proximity of the gym to the hotels and the fans liked it too because of the gym's proximity to not only the hotels, but also the shopping and of course the beach," says current Chaminade sports information director Kevin Hashiro.
Lahaina is an old Hawaiian town that was the capital of Maui in the 1800s, when whaling was at its peak and Lahaina was to that industry what Chicago became to the United States and its transportation. The city is listed under the National Register of Historic Places, and those who visit can understand why the Maui Invitational has been so successful. It's not just the basketball. But what began as a four-team event in 1984 and expanded to eight in '86 has now hosted 85 schools from 38 states over three decades.
Chaminade, which this year had an undergraduate enrollment of 1,258, isn't even on the same island as where the Maui tournament's held. Its campus is in Honolulu, and every year the team takes the 20-minute plane ride over. The ride from the airport to the quaint Civic Center is twice as long as the flight to get there. And despite its success and famous name, Chaminade remains a mid-level program at the D-II level.
The venue sells itself. The Lahaina Civic Center is perched just a few hundred yards away from the beach. It sits up on a hill, and getting there means driving along cliffs and beaches, and turning into the lot, you'll notice it seems smaller than local high school gyms. Air conditioning was installed just over a decade ago. There's a beer garden where fans congregate at halftime or between games and watch the parasailers swoop in the air over the Pacific Ocean. And the best detail is this: Games occur while the DMV, which is housed on the lower level of the Civic Center, is in operation. (Best. DMV. Ever?)
The building has been kept up to date by fundraising, more than $1 million since it was built, according to the event's official website. The place now seats 2,400, but Odom said a few extra hundred bodies will undoubtedly squeeze in there this week, like they always do.
Is it just what we see on TV that sets this tournament apart? The coaches say the atmosphere and competitive nature do the trick. Really good teams, a really good test and always good times. It's quality basketball without the stress, essentially. And the frenzy and quality of opponents is an appetizer for conference schedules and postseason play.
KemperLesnik, the parent corporate sponsor with the tournament for 23 years, has an agreement with Chaminade "well into the next decade," according to its CEO, Steve Skinner. A long-term agreement with ESPN is also in ink.
"There are plans to celebrate 50 years, and 60 years," Skinner said.
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What is undeniable is how competitive it has become to recruit programs to different November events each year. NCAA rules stipulate a team can't play in the same exempt tournament more than once every four years, which has always worked so well for Maui because it essentially cycles in really good programs year in and year out and never has an underwhelming field.
Odom's job is to choose the programs each season. He is his own selection committee and conducts a personal Selection Sunday-type affair to handpick the teams by looking at prior fields and how they've unfolded. In the past it was one team per major conference, when there were six "major" leagues, then a wild card/at-large bid of sorts, a smaller school on the come. And Chaminade makes team No. 8. That process has changed a bit due to conference realignment, but the target teams remain the same, in essence.
"Like somebody dropped a golden egg out of the air and into my hand," Odom says of having this gig. Odom said these days, most tournaments are satisfied with getting two top 50-level teams in their tournaments.
"That's not the way Maui works," he said. "With the advent of new tournaments almost every year, it's going to be more challenging. Each tournament offers something they feel is unique to them. That's not arguable. But from the Maui tournament standpoint, we welcome that challenge. It keeps us new, it keeps us fresh, it keeps us challenged."
From Butler to Wichita State to Gonzaga to VCU, which Odom said is playing in a future field, the tournament prides itself on promoting "mid-major" talent, kind of in the same way agents pride themselves on discovering underground bands.
The location out west makes it more challenging, and there's no doubt a lot of the early November tournaments have aped what made Maui so great. It's why so many coaches still consider it supreme. And everything about it is set up to stay as is, from location to Chaminade's involvement as host to how it will continually try to stay ahead of the rest of everyone else in organizing tournaments.
"There is no talk about moving this tournament anywhere," Odom said. "We feel like we've got the perfect location, the perfect island. The charm of the [venue] is that virtually every game is at capacity."
Fans filter in and out with every game, allowing each one to have as many supporters for the teams playing as possible. Tournament organizers pride themselves on never seeing open seats, a visual abrasion that's polluted the viewing experience of so many other November college basketball tournaments. Games start at 10 a.m. local time and end well after 1 a.m. on the East Coast, when college basketball diehards are still watching. When a player falls out of bounds, it means they're going right into the laps of fans.
"Maui is special because it's still the best early season event in all of college basketball. Other than the NCAA tournament, it has become the most recognizable event over the past 20 years," Williams said.
That it has, and 30 years removed from its first game and 32 gone from the one that made all of this possible, it's hard to believe but easy to see why the Maui Invitational has become so special and so important to making college basketball relevant, and important, smack dib in the middle of football season's crescendo.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.