By LEAH BROWN
There are tournaments all around the state of Ohio. Let’s face it, we’re a basketball state. But one of the things that makes the Classic so special is the reason why it’s held every year: to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Perry Reese Jr. who both worked hard and endured much to further the cause of equality.
The tournament that honors these two men is different from others held in the area. There are players from all over the state and the country, ranging from Colorado to Cincinnati, from Canton to Berlin and Millersburg. “That’s what makes this tournament special,” said Will McKinney, head coach for Columbus Africentric. “There are players from all walks of life. It’s like a melting pot.”
And that melting pot atmosphere fosters camaraderie between players who may never see each other outside of this tournament. “It’s fitting (that the tournament is here,” McKinney added. “My favorite thing about the area is the camaraderie.”
Mark Mitchell, assistant coach for The Ohio State girls basketball team agrees. “It’s a great event that sends a positive message to positive kids,” he said. “This is a big world outside of Cincinnati. You will meet a lot of different people with a lot of different views, get some information from them that will help you.”
Both coaches agree, this tournament is one of their favorites–not only for the relationships, but for the competition–and they hope to continue coming back. “This is my eighth time here,” said McKinney. “This is the closest thing you are going to get to a state(wide) tournament.”
“This is it for them,” said Mitchell of his twin daughters, who play for Cincinnati Princeton. “They love coming here.”
What happens during the Classic to mold these relationships and cement the tournament as a favorite? Three things, according to Tom Jenkins; “good athletics, good music and good food.” Not to mention the Martin Luther King Jr. quotes played over the loudspeaker before every game. Jenkins says those are the things we all have in common, no matter where we come from or what we look like. So while this tournament celebrates diversity, it also celebrates similarity.
“This event is about making girls basketball feel special,” Jenkins said. He is a good example of this ideal. As teams arrive for the day, he greets them, asks them how they’re doing and makes sure they’re excited to play. One girl from Notre Dame Toledo even gave him a hug.
It’s natural for Jenkins to organize such a tournament every year. “I’ve had activism in my blood since I was a young boy growing up in the Deep South,” he said. “I either was stupid or strong, I still don’t know which.” For him, it never made sense to use someone’s skin color as a cause for dislike. That belief got him into trouble when he was young and cost him his relationship with his father. “Basketball was my escape from everything that was going on inside my own house,” he said.
While Jenkins provides the vehicle to foster equality, Mitchell highlights how the players participate in honoring equality. “Some people have a little bit more acceptance for growth,” he said. “You respect what (the tournament) is and you respect each other. Your job is to accept them for who they are, not change them.”
What you get when you combine Jenkins and his love of basketball, his activist attitude, good music, good basketball, good food and acceptance is Classic in the Country. And for Jenkins, there is only one word that can describe the weekend: “Magical.”