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Organizers always looking to improve holiday event

The Beach Ball Classic isn't broken.

Far from it. In fact, entering its 30th anniversary in 2010, some say the high school holiday hoops tournament is running better than ever.

But that isn't stopping the Beach Ball Classic tournament committee from fixing it, or from making changes to keep up with the fast-paced sport.

"A lot of us have been involved with the Beach Ball from the beginning in 1981 and that continuity has helped us get where we are today," said tournament director and Myrtle Beach mayor John Rhodes. "We believe we have it down to a science as far as the best way to run a high school basketball tournament.

"But just like in any business, you're always looking ahead. One of the reasons I go to so many other tournaments is not just to look at the teams and the players but also to look at how they do things differently than we do. You always have to be willing to adjust if you want to stay on top."

There's no shame in stealing a good idea, and the Beach Ball has been on the giving and receiving end in the past. And while Beach Ball organizers are overall pleased with the way things are run now - from recruiting teams to the tournament-week hospitality - there's always room for improvement.

A New Ballgame

When former tournament director Dan D'Antoni and a small group of friends first put their heads together to start the Beach Ball Classic, there weren't a lot of national tournaments from which to model the upstart event. There was one in Raleigh, N.C., one in South Florida and another in Las Vegas.

In fact, many state high school athletic associations were just starting to allow their teams to travel outside state borders to play against national competition. Being among the first to form has paid big dividends for the Beach Ball over the years in terms of national name recognition and tradition.

But it's a whole new ballgame three decades later. National tournaments have sprung up like crazy over that span, including top events in the same region. Charleston and Columbia in S.C. and Charlotte and Greensboro in N.C. are just a few of the cities in the region who now hold national events.

"The competition has grown way beyond what anyone would have expected," Rhodes said. "We used to identify the top teams and players in the country and go out and get them. Now you've got all these tournaments going after the same teams and players and they're in high demand."

It's no surprise that the explosion in events coincided with the explosion of information, said City of Palms Classic tournament director Donnie Wilkie.

"I remember waiting by the mailbox for my HoopScoop newsletter so I could go through it and find out the best teams and players to invite," said Wilkie, who has been with the South Florida tournament for 25 of its 37 years. "Now you can go online to hundreds of sites and see game film on everybody. It's a lot easier for someone to start a tournament now and to go after the best teams and players. It's a whole new ballgame."

The LeBron Factor

Perhaps no player made a bigger impact on the high school game than LeBron James. He changed the way the tournament game was played too.

As a freshman at St. Mary's (Akron, Ohio), word was already out about basketball's golden child and tourneys were lining up to welcome him and his team. The school saw an opportunity to profit from his presence, requiring what amounted to a $200,000 appearance fee to land James in a tourney.

In the school's defense, the fee came about because of an Ohio state rule limiting the number of games a team could play out of state and an offer from ESPN to televise many of James' games. If the school was going to maximize revenue and exposure, there had to be process for bidding.

"We actually had an agreement to get [St. Vincent-St. Mary's] but there was such a demand that the school started charging to get them to participate," Rhodes recalled. "We decided then that we weren't going to do that. We already put them up in hotels, feed them and give them a great venue to play in."

In fact, the Beach Ball is considering cutting out all travel expenses that are allocated to participating schools. The tourney currently offsets the cost of getting to and from Myrtle Beach, depending upon the distance, but Rhodes said he is going to request the committee to slice it from the budget.

The LeBron leasing program created a great divide in the holiday basketball tournament environment - those who would pay and those who wouldn't. Those who did and do have found it easier to land the blue-chip prospects while those who didn't and don't have had to rely on their reputations.

What's In A Name?

The Beach Ball Classic may not have the national television exposure or the big-name players, like Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter, it did in the past.

But fortunately for the future of the tournament, it does have a strong national reputation for quality basketball and a history of first-rate hospitality.

"I go to a lot of different tournmaments, but I've never seen one quite like the Beach Ball," Wilkie said. "They do everything top notch, like having ambassadors stay at the hotels with their teams. Nobody else does that. Little things like that are what set you apart and the Beach Ball has definitely made a name for itself on the tournament circuit. Ask anybody who's been here before they tell you what a great experience they had."

The Beach Ball is hoping to use its name recognition to continue to get big-name teams and players in the future. It's one of the few non-monetary resources, especially in the current economic environment, a tournament can use as leverage to not only stay alive but thrive in a competitive arena.

"We're the Beach Ball Classic. We've been around for 30 years and we're going to be around for 30 more," Rhodes said. "It's not easy. The competition is up and sponsorships are down, but we've established ourselves in the basketball world and in the local community that we provide a great basketball experience and great family entertainment. We're not going to rest on our name alone, but we are going to use it."

New blood

The Beach Ball committee also is going through some internal changes. Many of the founding members are beginning to retire, such as Mark Kelley, but they are being replaced by the next generation, such as founding father's son Matt D'Antoni, who also played in the tournament at Socastee.

"We've got a lot of young, bright, energetic people coming in and those are the ones who are going to lead us into the future," Rhodes said. "A lot of old-timers aren't going to be around forever."

. From venue changes from Socastee High to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center to streamlining games over the Internet, the Beach Ball has kept up with the times and intends to continue to do so.

"Are we happy with where we're at? Absolutely," Rhodes said. "But are we content to stay where we're at? Absolutely not. We're always looking for ways we can improve and keep this tournament heading in the right direction, and we've got a lot of good people working hard to make sure we do just that."