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Taking it to the next level

Story by Phyllis Speidell
Photos by John H. Sheally II

When April arrives in the Western Branch, so does the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. The annual event brings 200 pro scouts, coaches, officials and 64 of the country’s best college players to a basketball fan’s paradise at the Churchland High School gym.

After 68 years, the PIT ranks as the granddaddy of amateur national basketball tournaments, the oldest in the country. For four days, the invitees — all college seniors — compete on eight teams in the 12-game tournament.
National Basketball Association representatives, as well as international league scouts, study the games, seeking that yet-to-be acclaimed recruit, the one whose skills and drive come to light during the tournament. Last year’s tournament helped propel five players to the NBA as second-round draft picks, and almost all of the 64 players were invited to one or more NBA tryout camps.

PIT alumni include some of the sport’s best known — Bobby Cremins, Charles (Lefty) Driesell, Rick Barry, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Dave Cowens, John Lucas, John Stockton, Dennis Rodman, Tim Hardaway, Scottie Pippen, Spud Webb, Jimmy Butler and Muggsy Bogues, among others.

Fans from across Hampton Roads crowd the 4,000-seat gym to enjoy some great basketball with an up-close look at players they’ve followed in person or on TV. Others hope to glimpse — and maybe snag an autograph from — the dozens of visiting basketball celebrities. With free admission to all of the afternoon games, bringing the youngsters to the games is a tradition, an affordable outing for many local families.

How the PIT started is a story with many versions, according to Mahlon Parker, the chairman of the PIT Foundation Board of Directors — and a veteran of the very first tournament in 1953. Generally agreed, however, is that the tournament grew from an adult basketball league sponsored by the city of Portsmouth. The teams played in an old armory on Elm Avenue in midtown Portsmouth. The league drew local players to a less-than-ideal basketball venue.

The makeshift gym was lit only by a few 100 watt bulbs and was so small that an under-the-basket foul could send players crashing into a soda machine or a brick wall. The armory floor was so worn and uneven that balls bounced erratically, if at all.

“But all we cared about was that we weren’t playing in the rain,” Parker said.

When a few weeks of free floor time opened in 1953, the league decided to launch a tournament. Eight local businesses agreed to each sponsor a team, recruit the best college players they could find and fill out their rosters with local players. Any certified amateur could play. Admission was free for whoever wandered in to watch. Two years later, the city’s recreation director, Gwynn Fletcher, ruled that the teams could recruit military as well as college players.

Parker remembers playing in that first tournament. His team defeated a team led by Norfolk native and Duke University center Lefty Driesell but later lost the championship game.

James “Booty” Baker, regarded as the PIT founder, was a key tournament organizer, and soon Yale Dolsey joined him in organizing and promoting the event. The two Portsmouth businessmen, along with Parker, remained an integral part of the PIT leadership.

Word of the tournament spread, crowds grew and, in a few years, fans were dropping admission donations into a basketball hoop fastened to a bucket in the lobby. From that, the charitable side of the tournament was born and has grown with the PIT.

In the early 1970s, Bob Ferry, then general manager of the Baltimore Bullets, and Marty Blake, then general manager of the ABA’s Pittsburgh Condors and later the NBA’s longtime director of scouting, dropped in on the PIT. Dazzled by the pool of talent they saw, the pair began bringing NBA general managers and scouts to the tournaments.

Blake’s son, Ryan Blake, NBA consultant and president of Marty Blake & Associates Inc., said, “Pops loved the PIT. It’s like a community of family, like going back to a family reunion. Larry Bird told me it was one of his favorite events because of that.”

Dick Esleeck played in the 1969 PIT when he was a senior at Furman University. Two players on his PIT team, Mike Davis and Bobby Dandridge, went on to professional basketball careers. The next year, Esleeck was teaching and coaching at Churchland High when he learned that the tournament was short one team. He rallied college players to join him in competing as the eighth team in that 1970 PIT. His last-minute team made it to the championship game but lost to a team that included now legendary coach Bobby Cremins and NBA great Dave Cowens.

“I am so proud of Yale Dolsey, Booty Baker, Jimmy Williams and Mahlon Parker,” Esleeck said. “It’s amazing what they have done to create the PIT and keep it going. A lot of people know about Portsmouth and where it is because of the PIT.”

Cremins, a Bronx, N.Y., native, was only a senior at Frederick Military Academy in Portsmouth when local basketball coach and supporter, Hook Hillman, first slipped him onto a PIT team in 1966.

“I don’t remember if I ever played that year, but he wanted me sitting on the bench, there and learning,” Cremins said. “When I came back in 1970 as a legitimate player, a senior at the University of South Carolina, it felt good to come back ‘home.’”

The PIT evolved, in 1977, into an all-college-senior competition with an executive committee selecting and inviting players. Local former players volunteered as coaches or on committees that still work year-round, organizing the event details and raising money through program ads, sponsorships and ticket sales.

In 1978, Cremins suggested and sponsored the PIT’s annual Hook Hillman Memorial Award that continues to recognize outstanding service to youth basketball in the area.

As the PIT has grown, so have its contributions to the community. In 2002, the state corporation commission chartered the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament Foundation Inc. as an all-volunteer, nonprofit foundation. With some continued support from the city of Portsmouth, the PIT Foundation controls its own finances while growing its charitable impact on the community.

Each year, the PIT gives seven $4,000 scholarships to outstanding student-athletes in Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Profits from the tournament also benefit a variety of community charities, including the HER Shelter, Oasis, Edmarc Hospice for Children and the YMCA, among others.

The PIT continues to rise to the next level, thanks to technology as well as its volunteers and community support. For the last seven years, each of the tournament players has undergone analytical testing to confirm their stats, an important tool for coaches and scouts. The tournament games are now live-streamed nationwide and into 62 foreign countries. And the popular new NBA 2K20 video game features Scottie Pippen narrating an animated PIT overview set in the Churchland High gym with its distinctively painted floor.