By Dave Mast

Every year over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, great girls high school basketball abounds at the Perry Reese Community Center in Berlin. For three days, the middle of winter in this quaint Amish community springs to life, and thousands of people flock to Hiland High School to witness the best Ohio girls basketball has to offer.

In the words of Anthony Brown, athletic director at Columbus Eastmoor Academy, “The Classic in the Country provides the most warm and congenial atmosphere that you could have at a multi-cultural event. It is the welcome center for parents, student athletes, administrators, fans and college coaches. You come away with a great feeling about our society. You come away with a feeling of oneness as a people. It is truly what scholastic athletics should be, and what scholastic athletics should represent.”

The event, now in its eighth year, began within the mind of Tom Jenkins, executive director of Ohio Girls Basketball Report, and two area coaches, Hiland’s Dave Schlabach and North Canton Hoover’s Paul Wackerly, who ground out the details in Wackerly’s basement.

In it’s run, it has made a habit of showcasing some fantastic basketball. But it has done so much more than that.

BRIDGING THE GAP OF RACE

When the Classic in the Country first began, Jenkins was adamant that honoring both Martin Luther King Jr. and Perry Reese Jr. be a big part of the weekend. That concept has never faltered.

The impact it has made on those in attendance has been touching and monumental. Whether black or white, rich or poor, Jenkins believes that by creating an atmosphere of unity and acceptance to honor two men who made such a big difference in the lives of many, whether nationally or right here in Holmes County.

King was a man who is synonymous with building bridges between races, and Reese, who broke down racial barriers nearly three decades ago in Holmes County by proving that skin color can’t overcome the color of love. Honoring their memory has become a critical part of the Classic, and that has not gone unnoticed.

“A lot of these kids don’t even know who Dr. King was,” said Jodi Culbertson, coach at the University of Massachusetts. “They don’t know what he has done for our country. They don’t know many of them have the opportunities today because of Dr. King.

“This (Classic in the Country) helps promote unity,” agreed Jim Sexton, coach at the University of Evansville. “People here are what Martin Luther King Jr. believed in.”

Reese persevered in Holmes County despite being a black coach in a lily white Amish and Mennonite community. He won people’s hearts over one at a time, not with wins, but with actions proving that color had no bearing on how anyone should treat people. His untimely passing in 2000 only solidified his image as a man who showed others how to love and how to live through their actions.

“You thank God for people like King and Reese, whose example impacted the world for the better,” said Joe Scalzo of The Vindicator. “For all of the attention on the games at the Classic in the Country, the memory of those two men comes first.”

There may be no better testimony as to the importance of what takes place with this issue more so than that of Cleveland attorney Greg Groves and his wife, Judge Emmanuella Groves.

The two were concerned about attending Classic in the Country on Martin Luther King Day to watch their daughter, not because of any fear, but because of their respect for what that day means to them.

“We felt like we were betraying our commitment to this day of remembrance,” said Greg Groves, who takes great pride in keeping Martin Luther King Day as a time to focus on what King did for a nation. Neither he nor his wife were thrilled with the idea of focusing on playing basketball. “As soon as we walked through the gates (at Hiland) that feeling disappeared. We knew we were somewhere special on this special weekend. The focus at Classic in the Country was on remembrance… the basketball was just a vehicle.”

A CHANCE FOR STUDENT ATHLETES TO LEARN LIFE LESSONS OFF THE FLOOR

Sycamore and Scenic Pointe Nursing and Rehabilitation Centers in Millersburg grasped the concept of community, commitment and remembrance. They threw their financial support into the Classic, and in turn, Jenkins began lining up teams to go visit residents at both places.

The connection between players, coaches and residents that stemmed from that has been one which has been a true learning experience for the players that goes well beyond playing basketball.

“When Tom Jenkins approached me about going to the nursing home between our two games, I figured we would go for an hour and then get ready for our next game,” said Ray Neill, head coach at Sandusky Perkins High School. “Four hours later, we realized that we had just experienced more than any win or State championship could provide.”

Much like the race relations, there is a gap between youth and seniors, one which can create some uncomfortable moments.

But just as is the case between races, when you take time to get to know someone, age doesn’t really seem all that important either. Nor does the mental capacity of those residents who are mentally and physically challenged.

It comes down to people accepting others for who they are, and understanding that, like themselves, everyone has hopes and dreams; joys and sorrows.

“With all of the focus on basketball during the Classic in the Country, it would be easy for everyone to forego any alternate plans,” said Kathy Edwards. “We appreciate Tom setting up what has become a very special day for our residents. It is also safe to say that the residents truly look forward to their annual chance to enjoy the companionship.”

COMMUNITY SUPPORT EQUALS FINANCIAL WINDFALL

For Jenkins, Schlabach and the short list of cast members who help run the evemt, Martin Luther King weekend is a blinding, fast-forward culmination of 11 months of work, crushed together into a three-day extravaganza.

For everyone else in the community, it is an investment into their own community. From day one, volunteers have swarmed to Classic in the Country, fully aware that what they offer doesn’t necessarily show up on the bottom line, but is crucial to the success of what takes place. Naomi Troyer, who organizes the concession stand, where they sell, literally, tons of food, doesn’t make a cent from her endeavor, which can be extremely hectic as the weekend draws near.

“I feel like this is my gift, my strength, and I love organizing,” said Troyer. “But most of all, this is something that I can give back to the school and to the community, and it is important for each of us to take an active role in our community.” Troyer’s story is not an oddity, with volunteers stepping up at every turn to ensure a successful weekend.

“Any success we have comes directly from the people who help us by volunteering and supporting us,” said Schlabach. “The day they stop doing what they are doing is the day we stop having the Classic, because no matter what we do, it wouldn’t be enough without them.

“This has definitely become a community event,” continued Schlabach. “As long as the community continues to support us, we will continue to make this happen. They have done a tremendous job volunteering and becoming a major part of the Classic. This has given us a chance to be able to give something back to the community.”

It takes the efforts of a major sponsor in Benny Mast, who has been there supporting the Classic from the beginning, even when, as the owner of the Holmes County Flea Market eight years ago, understood the concept that this wasn’t about him, or his business, but rather what is best for Holmes County as a whole. January has annually been a tough time for area business because tourism slows down during the winter months. Because of the Classic, Martin Luther King Weekend has become a tourism haven.

Alan Zinck, who now owns the flea market, as well as a line of fabric outlets and two hotels, said that the money that he invests in the weekend isn’t for his personal gain. Yes, he does fill rooms during that time, but he said he is more than willing to break even if it helps the county prosper.

“It’s never been about what is in it for us,” said Zinck. “This weekend is about our community coming together to support something that benefits us over the long run. There are people who are willing to ride the coat tails of the Classic, and reap benefits during that weekend without putting a dime into it. But it goes beyond that. This is about helping to put Holmes County in a great light, where people can come in and see what is here. We may not see the benefits immediately, but we do when those people want to come back.”

Like many supporters, Zinck backs the Classic because he understands the concept of growing beyond an individual business, to create a drawing power that is much larger. By supporting something as alluring as the Classic, visitors can see everything that Berlin and Holmes County has to offer, and they will come back, often times bringing friends and family with them.

That has led to a financial windfall of what Shasta Mast, executive director of Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism estimates to be close to $8 to $9 million over the past seven winters.

“There is no doubt that Classic in the Country has made an enormous impact during what had been the slowest time of the year,” said Mast, who in 2006 took statewide tourism numbers and estimated that year alone brought in nearly $1.4 million.

“That’s not even factoring in all of the tourism which is generated when people who come in for the Classic come back down the road because they enjoyed their experience here,” said Mast. “People who may have never known about Holmes County are coming to the event, and then coming back to see us again.”