An all-classification state basketball tournament, like the one featured in the 1986 movie "Hoosiers", would decide Georgia's ultimate state champion. (Photo: Orion Pictures)

Hoosiers-style tourney possible in Georgia

Imagine McEachern and five-star recruit Sharife Cooper playing against Woodward Academy and five-star Walker Kessler or one of those teams going against Sandy Creek and five-star Jabari Smith. At stake: Georgia’s ultimate girls and boys champions crowned after a “Hoosiers-like” all-classification tournament featuring eight teams in each bracket.

The only question is whether Georgia high school officials could make it happen.

“I think that would be great,” said Douglass girls basketball coach Alana Allen, whose Lady Astros won the 2019 Class AA championship last season.

“I would be in favor,” said McEachern boys Mike Thompson, whose 2019 team won the Class AAAAAAA title with a 32-0 record that included victories against nationally ranked out-of-state opponents. “Much like the college football and the NCAA tournament create excitement for their sports.”

For the all-classification high school basketball tournament to become reality, details would have to be ironed out and approved by the GHSA executive committee, with the proposal coming from a specially appointed subcommittee or possibly the reclassification committee.

The basic premise could be that the eight state champions from each classification — Class A is divided for public and private schools — qualify for the all-classification tournament, which would start shortly after the state tournaments end.

Not everyone likes the idea. Buford boys coach Eddie Martin, whose Wolves won the 2019 Class AAAAA title, cited injury risk, for seniors who will play in college, as a deterrent. He and Calhoun County boys coach Marcus Shaw — his Cougars won Class A-Public last season — both preferred for state champs to end the season on a winning note. St. Francis boys coach Drew Catlett, whose Knights won A-Private last year, pointed out that extended basketball could overlap into spring sports season and prevent dual athletes from participation.

And GHSA executive director Robin Hines said the larger schools would have a deeper talent pool, creating an unfair advantage.

“I don’t believe that I’d necessarily be for (an all-classification tournament),” Hines said. “I see a lot of athletes, and the difference in numbers is just vast in the state of Georgia. … In a game like basketball, it would be very difficult (for the smaller schools).”

Buford girls basketball coach Gene Durden offered the most nuanced opinion.

“I like this idea,” Durden said, “but here is my only drawback. You have 16 teams, boys and girls, that will walk away as state champions. But when it’s through, will having only one winner in the final bracket of (an all-classification) tournament diminish the title you just worked so hard to win? It is always fun to just make up the matchups and argue who would have been the best. With the tournament, it will prove who is the best. I know there are many years that A-Private could have won this tournament. I have had a team or so that could have won it. I just wonder if it would take a little from the teams that work so hard to win it in their classification.

“Again, I have no problem with it and would welcome it.”

Old-school fans may remember that Georgia actually had a boys all-classification tournament in the 1970s, albeit short-lived. In 1973 and 1974, when there were four classifications (A, B, AA and AAA), the four champions from each classification played. Class AAA’s Southwest-Macon won in 1973, and Class AA’s Southwest-Atlanta won the next year, according to Georgia High School Basketball Project.

Jackie Bradford, who served as the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s executive director from 1975-2004, recalls there being a number of reasons the all-class tournament was discontinued.

“It was a trial,” Bradford said. “A number of us were excited about it, but it wasn’t promoted well, and it was in Macon. And sports marketing wasn’t a thing back then, so without partners and sponsors it wasn’t profitable. The GHSA staff was very small and more rule-oriented as opposed to promotional. They were more focused on the upcoming spring sports.”

But Bradford believes an all-classification tournament could thrive today, and from a business perspective, benefit all involved. He conceptualized the GHSA forming partnerships with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shoe companies and apparel-makers and TV stations that could broadcast it. Metro Atlanta has no shortage of premier venues for hosting such an event and no shortage of premier talent to make it attractive for fans.

“If properly done and properly promoted, and with the heavy interest in sports today, I have no doubt it could be hosted at a big venue and played before a full house,” Bradford said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) chief financial officer Davis Whitfield confirmed that all-classification basketball tournaments are played in Delaware and Kentucky, so there are examples for the GHSA to emulate.

Hines speculated that an all-classification tournament proposal would originate from the reclassification committee. Savannah-based Earl Etheridge has served on that committee for 24 years, and although he doesn’t recall the idea of such a tournament being brought up during his tenure, he could see himself voting in favor of a proposal.

“I would support it, and I think it would be a good idea,” Etheridge said. “We need to change things up every once in a while, to make (our sports) more appealing.”

Added Bradford, “All you need are the right people to conceive it, believe in it and sell it.”

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