The Tournament: Two words which conjure up fondness and memories for many basketball aficionados throughout Maine, specifically Eastern Maine. Of course there are tournaments of all varieties for different sporting interests but THE tournament can only refer to one special event, and that is the Eastern Maine basketball tournament.
If are one of those people “from away”, you may not get the whole grandeur of this yearly pilgrimage, who for many of us is an annual rite of passage. Explanations don’t suffice, you have to experience it in order to really understand why this means so much to so many. Why do people come from hither and yon, spending hard earned money, staying a week in a hotel room, eating out at restaurants, and everything else that goes with it to watch some high school kids play ball?
After all, you are not likely to see a future NBA star. Very rare also is the player who will earn a college scholarship that you will see playing on ESPN over the next four years. For most of the players taking the court over the next week, this will be the highlight of their athletic lives. Perhaps, that is the beauty of The Tournament and why we love it so much.
You see, The Tournament is much more than just a basketball event. It is about community. It’s a time when many of us unplug from our hectic lives and celebrate what is good and wholesome. It’s about reacquainting with those you see once a year, some you may have forgotten their names, but you know their face and you know their spirit. While the tournament is important in Augusta and Portland, what makes the Eastern Maine tournament in Bangor above all is the far-flung communities from which it draws and the passion which they bring.
The venue, of course, will change this year as The Tournament moves into its new digs at the Cross Insurance Center. People this year will be parking upon territory where Mike Thurston hit his memorable half court heave to lead Caribou to the 1969 state championship, where Zak Ray and Joe Campbell connected on an improbable last second play to knock off Goliath, and where Jason Leighton knocked down a half court prayer to win a double overtime thriller for Brewer.
New memories will be made down the hill but some things will remain the same. Players will enter the hallowed halls for the first time, first checking in to get their tournament ribbon, a keepsake that will be treasured and looked back with fondness for years to come. Fans will still come, decked out in school colors cheering for their favorite school. There will be those that come, who just love the tournament and are there regardless of who is playing, it just gets in your blood.
Of course, if you have been attending tournament games for any length of time, you know words cannot possibly do justice to what the tournament means to so many. You just have to experience it for yourself. I hope for each of you that you will and it becomes such a special part of February for you as it has for me for the past 29 years.