By ZACH BOLINGER
Daily Record Sports Writer
BERLIN — The Classic in the Country, a three-day basketball bonanza in Berlin, promotes itself as a place “Where Champions Compete and Hospitality is King.”
It delivers a more profound message, though.
Intentionally scheduled each year over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the event — now in its fifth year and considered one of the top three high school extravaganzas in the country — reminds of past efforts in the Civil Rights movement.
Namely those of Dr. King on the national level and legendary Hiland coach Perry Reese on the local scene. Reese was the head boys basketball coach at Hiland in the 1990s — a black, unmarried, Catholic man who transcended a predominantly Amish and Mennonite community.
“One of my most memorable and favorite moments of the Classic is before each game is played, every one of us — black, white, mixed, male, female, young and old — stand and honor Dr. King,” said Tom Jenkins, Classic in the Country promoter and former Civil Rights lawyer. “That is what this weekend is about. The Classic was designed as a vehicle to honor Dr. King in a weekend of remembrance and to perpetuate the legacy of coach Perry Reese.”
Today, as the rest of the country observes a national holiday, the Classic in the Country will do the same — for a third straight day. And many throughout the Perry Reese Community Center will have stories to share.
Like Darren Brunson. The 44-year-old black man is an assistant girls basketball coach at the University of Texas El Paso. UTEP was once Texas Western, which on March 19, 1966 started a revolution of sorts. The Miners became the first college team with five black starters, winning the NCAA men’s basketball championship with a victory over Kentucky.
No. 1 Kentucky. All-white Kentucky.
“Every day I’m where the whole basketball thing actually started for us,” said Brunson, who is on a recruiting trip at the Classic. “I know they do some things to honor (the 1966 team today), but I’ve been here in recent years and missed it. Our staff fights over who is going to come to (the Classic), and I’ve been lucky enough the last couple years to be the one.”
“One of things you always hear is that the team was a family. They went through so much together,” Brunson added. “A lot of them live there, and others come back often, and they all express how much they were just trying to achieve a goal. We try to pass that on to the kids. We want to give them a sense of ‘Look what was done before you got here.'”
Brunson grew up in Arkansas, where his father picked cotton and had parents who conveyed stories of injustices and the importance of the Civil Rights movement.
For 63-year-old Edith Spivey, a first-year assistant girls basketball coach at Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown, the movement was during one of the most impressionable times of her life.
“I graduated high school in 1962, so I was in the midst of a lot of marches in Tuskegee University (Florida). My mother didn’t want me to, but I was away in college and it was something I believed in,” Spivey said. “Just to know there was someone willing to put their life on the line for all generations is special. I wanted to be part of the cause.”
Spivey taught at Shaw High School in East Cleveland for 30 years. She was the head basketball coach for 27 seasons, but has been enticed back to the game at Hathaway Brown after retirement. Spivey was as bright-eyed as team members Sunday, enjoying the action and some homemade, Amish-style noodles.
She was free to do as she pleased.
“I appreciate the fact Dr. King believed in the cause of equal rights, equal education, equal opportunity,” Spivey said. “What they’re doing here this weekend is bringing kids together of all races. They’re saying, ‘We don’t care what group you belong to, we’re just here to bond together and establish friendships.'”
A relationship is what Carlton Gray, an assistant coach for West Chester Lakota West, is proud about.
Gray, a former UCLA football star whose daughter, Amber, will play basketball at Tennessee next year, is the grandson of Civil Rights campaigner Dr. Benjamin Hooks.
Hooks worked closely alongside Dr. King and served as the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977-92. The attorney and Baptist minister is still going strong at the age of 82.
“To me, he’s just my granddad,” Gray said. “At a very young age I do remember him working on a lot of important stuff. He tried to make sure people recognized the liberties we all deserve.”