THE SPORTS WIRE
By Steve Freker
How about these names, which clearly come from the “Blast from the Past” file: Jay Sweeney, Nick Papas, Dennis McHugh, John DiBiaso … Well, maybe not the last guy, He’s still around, just not coaching basketball anymore.
Those were the coaches of the four teams that participated in the first-ever Golden Tornadoes Christmas Basketball Tournament, which was held in December 1985 at Malden High School. At the time, such an idea – a four-team, set-aside basketball tournament – was a novelty. Can’t say for sure if this was the first of its kind, but it is safe to say this was one of the first, for sure.
The idea for this one was the brainchild of former Malden High head boys’ basketball coach Jay Sweeney (1982-1989), who drew up the idea that four teams which were basically landlocked together geographically could have a nice little tournament. Throw in the holiday setting and voilà, the tourney was born.
The other three teams were Malden Catholic (headed up by McHugh), Melrose High (Papas) and Everett (DiBiaso). At the time, the mid-1980s, all four teams were formidable both in their own leagues and in the region, Malden and Everett in the then 12-team Greater Boston League (GBL); Malden Catholic in the Catholic Conference; and Melrose in the Middlesex League, eight teams at the time.
Additionally, in those years, all four teams were in Division 1 North for MIAA consideration in the postseason. All four were also perennial contenders for that D1 North trophy as well. It was good, competitive basketball and these four became even fiercer rivals than they had been before this “Fab Four” concept began.
Sweeney’s intention had been for this to be a Malden tournament, played at Malden’s gym each year. But this was before anyone knew how this tourney would be received and what the interest would evolve into. It was a smash hit: big crowds, closely-fought games and more ammunition into the rivalry-building machine.
At some point thereafter it was decided that the tournament would be revolving its site. This was greeted with open arms in Malden, but acceded to in the interest of keeping a good event going. The next year it was held at Malden Catholic, then in Melrose. By then, around 1988, the intra-tourney rivalries among the four teams were percolating.
Maybe that was one of the reasons the tourney did not survive much longer – a victim of the intensity meter that got turned up way high in those years in this immediate area. “Creative differences” perhaps?
Indeed, in 1989 it was Melrose playmaker John Overlan’s dagger jumper with just seconds remaining that ended Coach Sweeney and the Golden Tornadoes’ season in the North Final before an overflow crowd at Salem High’s basketball valley. Sweeney abruptly announced his “retirement” shortly after the game.
In 1991, Malden had a seven-point lead with just under a minute left, but saw Everett snatch a one-point win at UMass Boston in that year’s North Final.
For many years since, high school basketball tournaments and the winter break holidays have gone hand-in-hand. These types of tournaments, usually four teams with a semifinal and then finals rounds, have continued to flourish in the succeeding decades to the point where it was hard to find teams not participating in a holiday basketball tournament.
Malden High School basketball hosted many holiday tournaments through the years, but the gym has been idle over the past couple of December vacation breaks. Present Malden High head boys’ basketball coach Don Nally decided this year to bring back the holiday tourney in Malden this year.
“It will be a good weekend of basketball for all four teams,” said Coach Nally, who has organized and coordinated a holiday tournament with as many as 12 teams in the past at Malden High, including boys and girls divisions. “We wanted to bring it back this year with some competitive teams, and we have a good mix. The schedules have not worked out the past couple of years with us playing in other tournaments and at the Garden, but this year is workable.”
For Nally, it will be another opportunity for his Tornadoes to compete against a member of his own “coaching tree” as third-year Revere head coach Dave Leary is a former longtime varsity assistant who worked alongside Nally for many years before taking the Revere reins for the 2016-17 season. “Dave’s (Leary) doing an excellent job at Revere. It will be good to match up with them over the holidays,” Coach Nally said.
Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to all the communities in this region these days, if not our country in general. So that is why we are fraught with the P.C. (politically correct) distancing of ourselves when it comes to using the word “Christmas” to describe the holiday celebrated by about 80 percent of the U.S. population on December 25.
Perhaps we can get a Presidential decree to sever the cultural icon of Santa Claus from the religious part of the Christmas celebration so we can universally call December 25 what it is: Christmas. Let everyone revel in the Santa Claus/gift giving portion of the holiday if they wish.
On the religious side, let folks decide for themselves. If you did celebrate Christmas the other day, hope you had a merry one! As for next week’s “End of the Holidays” extravaganza, have a Happy (Generic, no Religious or Socio-Economic Ties) New Year, everyone!