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Repost: A tremendous community success story: The Lilly Grade School Basketball Tournament


Art Martynuska, chair of the tournament for the first ten years

Photo: Courtesy son Art


... Recollections and a little history from my years, 1964-1991, Part 1



… from a simple idea to an iconic experience


From the genesis of a rather simplistic concept in 1964, the Lilly Grade School Basketball Tournament emerged as a leading event for teams from Altoona and Johnstown and Cambria County as a whole, one that lasted for more than 30 years. This event featured basketball competition for boys teams from grades 5 through 8, along with cheerleading competition and a queen contest.


The eleven teams in 1964 increased to 17 the following year, and eventually, to a high of 32 teams in the early 1980s. We were averaging 28 to 32 teams in the 70s and 80s, and it emerged because of a few ideas and some hard work by a plethora of people.


The event became a source of pride for so many in Lilly who can recall their participation in it as athletes — basketball players or cheerleaders — or even as queen contestants. It also resulted in tens of thousands of dollars being raised for the youth activities that were part of the Lilly Youth Athletic Association.


I am writing this from memory since my extensive files from the years in which I was involved, 16 as chair and eight as assistant or co-chair — somehow evaporated over the years.


In any event, here is what I can recall about the formation of the tournament and what emerged into what we used to think was a top grade school tournament in Western Pa.

The idea sounded interesting

I remember the idea first being broached by Jack Inman at a meeting in 1964 when I was a high school junior at Lilly-Washington High School. Jack was then coaching the Lilly Raiders grade school basketball team. He said that he had been approached by some of the parochial league grade school coaches in Altoona to see if Lilly, which was located about 20 miles between Altoona and Johnstown, would be willing to host a tournament.


The geography was perfect.


The logistics were challenging.


Jack said that it may be “far-fetched,” but with the school then being Lilly-Washington, prior to the Penn Cambria jointure, maybe the varsity club, called the “L Club,” would be interested in working on it and earning some money for varsity jackets.

Jack had asked Art Martynuska, who was a teacher at LWHS and a football coach, to sit in on the meeting. Together, they served as co-chairs for a year, and Art for nine more, and the members of the L Club, of which I was a member at the time, provided the workers for the tournament — along with some of the high school girls also contributing to it.


Art wanted to do it “the right way,” to have PIAA officials and make it a first-class event. He wanted to see if we could have businesses sponsor the trophies and support the tournament. We went to John Servinsky, the founder of Servinsky Jewelers in Cresson. He had handled the trophies for the St. Francis Varsity F Club Tournament, which ran from 1927 to 1966, if memory serves.


John said, “Don’t worry if you cannot pay for the trophies.” We never had to worry about making money. Though we had just 11 teams, we made about $1,700 from what I recall, and the second year we made well over $2,000. That money went for varsity jackets for two years, and then the Penn Cambria jointure occurred, which threw a wrench into things.

The idea evolved into a real moneymaker for kids


Jack Inman stayed as chair for only one year, and Art served as chair the second year and the following eight. I became Art’s co-chair in the third year when I started college.


However, as the jointure started, we had to negotiate, and some board members stood in our way.


I had written about this in a previous post, but will shorten it. Instead of having the money go to a varsity club, we wanted to keep it in Lilly. We approached what was known as the Lilly Youth Organization, which supported youth football, basketball, and cheerleading teams. The youth organization agreed to help provide workers for jobs that the L Club had done in the first two years, and in return, the money raised would all be given to the youth activities.


The money that the L Club had left after paying for the jackets was ultimately given to the youth football and basketball teams and cheerleading squad.


Negotiating for use of the school


The Lilly-Washington School District charged us nothing since students benefitted from the event. However, with Penn Cambria, some negotiating skills would be necessary. One of the board members from Lilly and another from Cresson tried to have the money go to Penn Cambria, but our group resisted. We negotiated with John Dillon, who was the superintendent at PC.

The short version is that instead of being charged for use of the facility, the Lilly-Washington War Memorial, whose president was my father, agreed to exchange the use of its baseball field for the use of the school. PC would receive use of the War Memorial Field for nothing, we would receive use of the former LWHS building for nothing. The former LWHS building would house all seventh and eighth graders in the district in it starting in 1967.


The district then would pay the janitors instead of the tournament. It was a shaky association at times, but overall worked great. Penn Cambria had use of a great baseball facility, and Lilly Youth had use of a great facility for its tournament.


Part Two: Rules were rules


Lilly Tournament, Part Two: Our founders stressed that rules were rules, and the success indicates that the teams liked our rules and respected that we enforced them.


June 07, 2020

Doug West with the Timberwolves, but he was relegated to the bench in Lilly, Pa.

Photo: Minnesota Timberwolves


... success comes with a price

Throwing a future Villanova University and future NBA player out of the Lilly Grade School Basketball Tournament?

That sounds ridiculous, but the reason for that was the primary one that the tournament succeeded at such a high level and for so long.

Rules were rules, and the genesis of an idea for a basketball tournament that came from Jack Inman in 1965 was one that resulted in some definite ideas of how a tournament that would feature area “teams” should successfully operate. And "team" was the operative word.

When Jack and Art Martynuska and some others sat down with the high school athletes who were planning that tournament, we did not know where to start.

Here is how that played out as best I can recall, and enforcing the rules for that tournament was a key to its success.

The rules favored teams

The truth is that the rules favored the teams in the Altoona and Johnstown Catholic parochial leagues, even though the Lilly Raiders, our hometown team, was a community squad with players from both parochial and public schools. Many of those parochial coaches had talked with Jack, and they routinely criticized the operation of the diocesan championship for slack enforcement of their rules.


They liked their own leagues, but not the championship.


At that time, the Cambria County parochial league had not yet started, but it was under consideration. My brother, Father Jim Conrad, was the one pushing and was the major factor in convincing the principal of Bishop Carroll High School, to allow the use of the school’s gymnasium for the league’s games.


From 1964-65, my brother was an assistant pastor in State College, but in the summer of ’65, he came to Holy Name in Ebensburg and Bishop Carroll, where he started working on that league.


No all-star teams


The other two leagues were very successful and well-established, so when the question arose about having all-star teams in the tournament, both Jack and Art emphatically said, “No.” This would be a tournament for teams that had played together all year, and that could include public schools, too.


However, we had to determine how to prevent players who competed on ninth-grade teams but were still in seventh or eighth grade from playing so that the competitive balance would not be lost.


Hence the rule: Players who had any “junior high school game experience” would not be permitted to play in the tournament.


Ironically, since the Lilly Raiders were a community team because the priest would not allow a St. Brigid’s school squad, we sometimes lost some of our best players since they also played with the Penn Cambria junior high team.

The rules caused some problems, though few, but the success with as many as 32 teams demonstrated great foresight by the founders.


Enter Doug West


The tournament eventually had a committee of adults who worked on it. They did everything from raising money for the program and trophies to selecting the all-tournament teams. The tournament chair would work with the committee to enforce the rules.

In 1979, one of the Altoona junior high teams, Keith, called and asked about entering the tournament. I told them that they could as long as they had played eight games together during the season, as long as they were not an all-star team, and as long as none of them had played in a 9th-grade game.

I made clear that the kids could not have any game experience on the 9th grade level.


They agreed, and they then sent in a roster that we evaluated at the pairings. The Altoona parochial coaches had warned me about a player by the name of Doug West, whom some were calling a Div. I college prospect though he was just in the seventh grade. I looked at the roster and allowed those coaches at the pairings to see it.


No Doug West, but there was “Jeffery West.” The coaches were puzzled. Who in the world was Jeffery West? They had no idea, and I said that I could not do anything if the player had been part of the team for the entire year.

The short version of this is that the player was indeed Doug West, and until I started writing this story, I did not realize that his bio on Wikipedia indicates that “Jeffery” was indeed his first name,

Jeffery Douglas West (born May 27, 1967)


“Doug West,” Wikipedia, 2020


So, they were not lying, just cheating.


“Jeffery” had indeed played with the ninth grade team in junior high, but the name in the book no doubt said “Doug.” He was so smooth and so far above the skills of any other player in that tournament that this could not have been hidden by anyone.


Immediately after that game, I told the coaches that they had knowingly used an ineligible player and would have to forfeit the game. That was indeed sleazy since everyone in Altoona knew who this kid was and how good he was.


The “no junior high game experience” was a good rule for the competitive balance of the tournament. The committee was well aware of what was taking place, so it was not my decision. It was, however, an easy one.

West did indeed become an outstanding player.

West’s career


A brief summary of West accomplished starts with his being named a Parade Magazine High School All-American in his senior year, as well as winning all-state honors. He was given a scholarship in 1985 by Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino, whose team had just won a national championship, and became a member of the Wildcats team. He scored 2,037 points and was fifth in career scoring at Villanova.

West was then selected in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1989 draft. They were in their first year in the NBA, and he played with them for nine seasons, 12 professionally. He ended his career in 2001.

Best ever, but ineligible

So, West was undoubtedly the best player to ever compete in the Lilly Tournament, but our rules were designed to keep a competitive balance so that teams would return and have a chance to win. He was an example of why that rule existed.

[Ironically, I interviewed Doug West for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat in 1989 when Villanova gave him a coming-home party by playing the St. Francis College Red Flash at the Maurice Stokes Center in Loretto. I never mentioned the Lilly Tournament.]

West is now the head boys basketball coach at Altoona Area High School and coached with Jay Wright at Villanova for five seasons.

A different case, being called a “dictator” because of the rules

The second instance in which the rules demonstrated that they were essential was not as interesting as the one with “Jeffie West,” but it was certainly strange.

The short part of this is that a young boy who was a very good player in the Altoona Parochial League was booted out of school in February. I will not use the names of the schools, but he enrolled in another school and was permitted to play for the remaining games of the season by the Altoona league.


However, our rules stated specifically that every player had to compete for the team the entire year, and must play a game with that team before Jan. 15 as part of the eight games that were required. Again, this was to prevent all-star teams from entering the tournament. He had not played eight games with the team, nor had he played any before Jan. 15.

So, I told the team that he was playing on at the end of the season that he was ineligible. The coach appealed to the tournament committee, which unanimously agreed that he was not eligible.


In the process of these discussions, I talked with two people, and each conversation was interesting.


The principal


The coach who was lobbying for this boy was adamant that the player had been wronged by the principal. Somehow, the principal called me and asked if I wanted to know the story. I did, even if it was irrelevant.


In short, this boy and a young girl were caught in the cloakroom “making out,” in her words, and the nun said that his behavior was entirely inappropriate and a terrible example for their school and expelled him. [Remember, this was more than 35 years ago.]


Regardless of the reason, I told her that I was a teacher and appreciated good discipline and left it go at that.


Superintendent


Subsequently, I received a call from the diocesan superintendent of schools, a man whom I disliked because he had been my teacher a couple decades before that — and was not a very good one.

This call was somewhat contentious. The part that I distinctly remember was that he said that I, along with the committee, was acting like a “dictator,” and he asserted that this boy had been wronged by a “poor decision” by the principal.


First, I was appalled that he lambasted one of his principals. A good superintendent would not do so to someone outside his area of concern. By not supporting his principal, I was convinced that this guy was about as unprofessional as any educator that I had ever encountered. Even if he disagreed with the decision of the principal, and even if he had told her so, for him to tell an outsider that it was a terrible decision was beneath a person of that level. He also admitted that he did not know the young boy.

I asked him if he justified a boy “making out with another student in the cloakroom,” as the teacher discovered, but he muttered and said that was not what happened. Again, that was interesting, but it did not affect our situation.


He was still ineligible.


About that dictator comment — and my response


When he said that we were dictators, the superintendent also said that rules were just “guidelines.”


My response was, “Oh, sort of like ‘failing to go to mass every Sunday is a sin’ ” is just a guideline, and ‘the Ten Commandments’ are just guidelines” and disobeying them is not a sin?


He raised his voice, muttered, and slammed down the phone.


And I loved it.


Conclusion


The truth is that we had leaders at the outset who set us in the right direction, and we then enforced the rules and adjusted them over the years, if necessary.


We had some great people on the committee over the years who made things work, but that is another story for another time.


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