ST. PETERSBURG — The Keswick Christian gymnasium is tucked away in one corner of the campus, hidden by neighboring houses and trees. On high school basketball game nights, cheers spill through its cracks.
The stands are on one side of the court, and there’s a stage at one end. The locker rooms are tight, and the narrow concourse is congested. It is all decidedly old school.
And the annual basketball tournament is as no-frills as the gymnasium.
There is something different about the Keswick Suncoast Classic. It stands amid a high school basketball landscape in which bigger, newer and brasher is confused with success.
The Suncoast Classic, set for Dec. 27-29, commands attention simply because of its longevity. The boys edition of the tournament has been around 27 years, the longest-running holiday hoops tournament in the bay area. The girls tournament has been held 13 years.
“I think we’ve had some degree of success with it,” said Keswick athletic director and girls basketball coach Karrmayne King, who has been at the school 26 years. “We’ve had a wide variety of teams, and we’ve never been in it to make a ton of money. Those are some of the reasons we’ve stayed around for so long.”
Other tournaments, such as the Hooters Holiday Classic and Tampa Hoops Classic, garnered more attention, due largely to their bigger arenas and corporate sponsors.
Neither stuck around.
The Hooters Holiday Classic, a onetime national event hosted by Boca Ciega, shut down in 2007 when the title sponsor backed out after 14 years.
In March, the Tampa Hoops Classic ended a three-year run after its main title sponsor, McDonald’s, pulled out.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the bay area will not have a holiday tournament featuring top-ranked teams and high-profile players.
But the Keswick Suncoast Classic, a tournament that was built to last despite not having a large fan base, nationally renowned recruits or much attention from the local media, soldiers on.
The staff volunteers its time during the holidays. Heck, there are times when King is sweeping the floor late at night.
And the diversity of the teams makes the tournament truly stand out. It’s an international draw. This year’s boys and girls fields include teams from Canada. In the past, there have been teams from the Caribbean and Europe.
Former Keswick Christian boys basketball coach Mike Wells started the tournament with a four-team boys field in 1984. It grew to six teams, then eight, then 16. He began bringing in teams from other countries by the third year and continued to do so until he left in 1999 to take over at Admiral Farragut. (Wells died in 2007 at age 53.)
“We never thought of suspending the tournament after Mike left,” King said.
Instead, the Suncoast Classic split into an eight-team boys and girls tournament.
Teams from Canada continue to participate, and the tournament has no trouble bringing in local and state teams, due in large part to a low entry fee ($150).
The mix of teams allows for mystery. There is no scouting, and teams usually adapt to opponents well after the first tip-off.
Keswick’s boys and girls teams will try to use the tournament as a springboard for a playoff berth.
“You never really know a lot about the teams and have to do a lot of adjusting on the fly,” King said. “But that’s something you’ll have to do if you get into a deep run in the playoffs.”