For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.
The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament: The PIT Is Where It's At for Talent Evaluation
What once was a virtual unknown collection of college and service players who gathered in Portsmouth, Va. to indulge in the cage game will celebrate its 54th anniversary this April with four exciting days of basketball that has brought the international fame to this beautiful city. Standing along the picturesque Elizabeth River, Portsmouth is just a stone’s throw across from Norfolk, the state’s kingpin city.
The tourney started as the brainchild of James “Booty” Baker who wanted to get some post-season play for his city league team.
The first tourney was held at the City Armory in 1951, which certainly was not Madison Square Garden or even a high school venue.
They say the Armory was a tight fit, which might be an understatement.
The event made its expenses by accepting donations from fans attending the event. It is said they dropped their money through a basketball hoop and net at the door.
Two years later, the city’s Recreation Director, Gwynn Fletcher, allowed the teams to invite military players and college cagers to join their squads.
The first big names were Charles (Lefty) Driesell and Dick Savage. The left-hander played at Duke and later went on to become a famed college coach at Davidson, Maryland, and other stops.
Savage became a Hall of Famer at William and Mary.
Now called the Portsmouth Invitational Tourney, it moved to Wilson High School (the Ernie Wild gym) and then to the New Wilson High School further away.
It is now played at Churchland High School, a beautiful edifice that seats more than 4,000.
Larry Brown, Lee Shaffer and Doug Moe (who all came over from North Carolina), Art Whisnant (a star at South Carolina) and Chris Smith of Virginia Tech were the stars that year.
I think Brown and Moe played the PIT twice – maybe they didn’t get it right the first time.
Moe played in three PIT events and won the MVP trophy on two occasions. He once hurt his right wrist and wound up shooting every shot, including free throws, left-handed.
In the mid 1960s, future NBA stars Rick Barry, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Jimmy Walker (the Providence College All-American) and Dave Cowens participated.
Barry scored 107 points in three games and won the Most Valuable Player trophy.
But it was the visit of Bob Ferry, then the General Manager of the Washington Bullets, and myself, in 1972, that brought international acclaim to this event.
Not that we want any credit. The tourney just needed a little push. We had come to the PIT hopeful of getting a look at Kevin Porter, a little guard out of St. Francis College (Pennsylvania).
By the tourney’s end, we both felt we hit the mother load.
The talent level was terrific and the exciting, well-matched teams usually meant that every game was closely contested.
In the early days of the event, team sponsors and their coaches would sign up their own players and the games sometimes got out of hand.
Yale Dolsey, who still is one of the guardians of this classic, would stock up his own team with area players and usually either made the finals or won it outright.
Eventually, Yale and Booty were allowed to select 64 players by position and divide them equally into eight teams. They have added some members to this committee but basically it is Baker, Dolsey, Mike Morris, now Director of the Portsmouth Recreation Department and a former college player, and two or three others who may rotate in and out.
Now in its heyday, the tourney has become legend throughout the world as the place to be. Starting each year two days after the NCAA Final Four, the tourney starts Wednesday, April 5 and runs through Saturday night, April 9.
The event’s schedule is set in stone.
Wednesday night’s opening shows two games, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The losers play at 3:15 p.m. the next day (Thursday) with the final two games of the initial round starting at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. that night.
Friday’s games start with the annual PIT luncheon which, for the past several years, has been held at the new Renaissance Hotel by the waterfront.
This conclave, which starts at 11:30 a.m. to accommodate the always sold-out crowd, has featured some of the greatest legends in college and pro basketball history as featured speakers. They include Driesell, Red Auerbach, Jerry West, Kevin McHale, Wayne Embry, Rod Thorn, Jerry Colangelo, Frank Layden and Bob Lanier.
This tourney has been the salvation of many former and currently active NBA stars who used their play here to jumpstart their careers.
Remember that John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Dan Majerle, Tim Hardaway, Truck Robinson, Tom Boerwinkle, Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb and Avery Johnson were among the more than 3,400 players who have performed here. Johnson was a veritable unknown from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. He played 17 years in the NBA and now, in his first full season as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, is one of the leading candidates for the NBA Coach of the Year award.
The best college referees in the country work the games and charge a greatly reduced fee than they usually get during the regular NCAA seasons.
Final Four officials like Larry Rose, Duke Edsel, Donnie Gray, and Frank Scagliotti return each year, calling their appearance at the PIT “a labor of love.” Other great officials who are now retired but used to work the tourney included Dan Woolridge, Paul Housman, John Russell, and Jim Burch among others.
Every year you can find Hall of Famers in attendance – people like Auerbach, West, Colangelo, every team director of scouting, and nearly 300 other scouts and personnel people in attendance.
Virtually every sports publication in the world has covered the PIT at one time or another and scribes who have their own web pages make it a point to attend each year.
Scouts from virtually every country in the world, including China and Korea, now attend. Walt Szczerbiak, a former PIT player who won fame and fortune in Spain playing under the moniker of Walter, will be the guest speaker at the annual luncheon. He now represents the Division I major professional league in Spain, the ACB, and he attends every year.
I have only missed one year since 1972.
There are hundreds of die-hard volunteers who work year round to stage this tourney. Some who staff the PIT headquarters’ rooms may never see a single one of the 11 games played during the week – except for the final on Saturday night.
Incidentally, Friday’s schedule includes the semifinal consolation game at 3:15 p.m. and the two semifinal events at the usual 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. time.
Saturday brings a full three-game slate, starting at 3:15 p.m. with the consolation final, the third place game at 5:30 p.m. and the title game at 7:30 p.m.
The PIT committee works year round raising money to stage the event, selling program ads, sponsorships, group sales, etc.
Mahlon Parker, who was on the first PIT All-Tourney team has been the tourney chairmen since 1993 and it is obvious that the event’s expanded success is due in part to his leadership and the continued help of Baxter, Dolsey, Morris and former chairmen like Jimmy Williams, Cary Warren and Rudolph Freeman.
Nearly 3,500 players have played here with more than 2,000 of them having gone on to careers in the NBA and every pro league throughout the United States and the world.
More than 100 former PIT players are currently on NBA rosters and several ex-PITers are assistant and head coaches in the show.
The NBA helps in numerous ways and each year, first Rod Thorn and now Stu Jackson, the current Senior Vice President of Operations of the League, would lead a group of front office personnel. This group includes Matt Winick, a Senior Vice President who chairs several important meetings in Portsmouth relating to the league’s June draft camp which, this year, has been shifted to Disney World in Orlando.
More than four million dollars have been contributed to various non-profit organizations in the Tidewater, Virginia area and nearly 100 scholarships have been awarded to deserving high school student-athletes by the PIT, which is now run through the PIT Foundation Inc., also a non-profit charitable organization.
Scholarships and contributions will total more than $20,000 this year.
Where else can you see 11 exciting games over a four-day period with some of the biggest names in college basketball for just a few pennies more than two dollars-a-game?
Additionally, NBA TV regularly films the final days’ events and shows it numerous times throughout the world to its millions of subscribers.
That’s why most every college senior who has NBA or overseas ambitions longs for one of the 64 invitations that eventually could change their lives.
Is there a Larry Brown, John Stockton, or Scottie Pippen, in this year’s tourney? You betcha and maybe more than one.
Why not drop by?