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The Lilly Grade School Basketball Tournament started 60 years ago

Repost: A tremendous community success story: Lilly Grade School Basketball Tournament: Recollections and a little history from my years, 1964-1991, Part 1

… from an 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 previously, 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 even after Tom Kissell took over at PC. Penn Cambria had use of a great baseball facility, and Lilly Youth had use of a great facility for its tournament.

I cannot attest to the Russell Strange years. I left in 1991 after 26 years.

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