For the 30th time some of the best teams in college basketball will make the trip halfway across the Pacific Ocean accompanied by fans who will root them on in between scuba lessons, whale watching, golf and parasailing.
The Maui Invitational turns 30 this week. It hasn't always been the best of the preseason tournaments but it's hard to remember when it wasn't.
There are so many reasons why people love to go to Maui, one of the most beautiful of the Hawaiian islands. There is one reason why basketball teams love to go the Maui Invitational — the fields.
The first two tournaments had only four teams. In 1986, the field was expanded to eight with Chaminade, a Division II school in Honolulu, the one constant as the tournament's host. (Chaminade's victory over then-No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson happened in Honolulu in 1982). Since then the field every year has contained a mix of storied programs, ranked teams and just enough of those dreaded mid-majors to keep the most ardent of fans happy whether they have a lei around their neck or a remote in their hand.
The early tournaments were more than solid but things changed in 1989 when Kemper-Lesnik, a company based in Chicago, took over running the Maui Invitational. There were going to be changes made. Small things like a new court in a spruced-up Lahaina Civic Center, the 2,500-seat home of the tournament. Big things like contracts with ESPN to have all 12 games televised on one of the network's outlets.
"We wanted to be the preseason Final Four and we would do everything we possibly could to make this a major basketball event," Steve Lesnik, the chairman of Kemper-Lesnik, said. "We wanted to be the pre-eminent preseason tournament."
Lesnik's first step to make that happen was to hire the recently retired Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke as the Maui Invitational chairman. He would put the fields together. He would make sure those teams were happy in a competitive situation.
"Wayne had the vision of what the tournament could be and he had the credibility and stature that let people know we were serious," Lesnik said. "One of the first things he did was to bring officials over, many with Final Four experience, because that was one of the things leading coaches were concerned about."
Duke, who was the first full-time employee of the NCAA in 1952 and went on to lead the Big Eight and Big Ten and was the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee when the first big television contract was agreed to, became the man who had the power to get you in the Maui field.
"We wanted to lock up the best teams we could get. I'm not saying we always did but we did our darndest to," Duke said from his home in Barrington, Ill. "We aimed for them and I think we did get them over a period of time. But it wasn't me. It was the great ocean waves. The one thing we had was Maui, Maui, Maui."
During the pre-Thanksgiving days that have become the dates for the Maui Invitational, it's possible to see coaches sitting poolside with an erase board drawing plays; there are teams having walkthroughs on the sand; fans wearing combinations of apparel supporting their team combined with local wear; and there is even the occasional spotting of NBA legends who suddenly become scouts for their former teams when the expense accounts are datelined Maui.
No matter the TV coverage, the venue keeps the tournament with a down home feel.
The Lahaina Civic Center is a good 3-wood and a short iron from the Pacific Ocean. What other building lets you run out to a spectacular view like that during a media timeout?
The building is also home to the Department of Motor Vehicles for the county and it's open during the tournament. Among the ticket-holders anxiously waiting to get into a game is often a person with a registration renewal form or a couple of license plates ready to be turned in.
But its court has seen more future NBA players than the green room on draft night. Some of the MVPs over the years are Dell Curry of Virginia Tech, Glen Rice of Michigan, Bobby Hurley of Duke, Anfernee Hardaway of Memphis, Raymond Felton of North Carolina and Kemba Walker of Connecticut.
There have been games in November worthy of March. Take 2005 for example.
Gonzaga, with Adam Morrison scoring a tournament-record 43 points, beat Michigan State, with Maurice Ager scoring a career-high 36 points, 109-106 in triple overtime. The Bulldogs then faced Connecticut in the title game the next day and the Huskies won 65-63 on Denham Brown's turnaround jumper with 1.1 seconds to play.
Amazingly, that's not the only tournament with a story line like that.
No school has owned Maui the way Duke has. Five appearances, five Wayne Duke championship trophies. No wonder the Lahaina Civic center has been nicknamed "Cameron Indoor Stadium West."
When asked what makes the Maui Invitational the tournament it is, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski answers, "The great fields."
When Duke retired from his chairman duties he was followed by a man with the same type of credentials, Dave Gavitt.
The founder of the Big East and one of the most respected men in college sports, Gavitt, who died in 2011, turned the reins over to the current chairman, former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom.
He faces challenges his predecessors didn't: expanded fields with "mainland" teams that play games in the tournament but don't go to Maui; new tournaments in exotic locales much closer to the mainland such as the Battle 4 Atlantis; and more television and Internet possibilities for games to be televised from tournaments in places like Puerto Rico.
"I think we at Kemper-Lesnik have always looked at this tournament as being very, very special and only see it getting better as we go along," Odom said recently as the final preparations were being made for this year's tournament with a field that includes No. 9 Syracuse, No. 13 Gonzaga and No. 20 Baylor. "All the people involved take the time after the tournament to see how we can make it better next year. No one is sitting back on our 30-year laurels. The interest from teams is still very, very high. There is the commitment from the community. We will build on the success of years gone by."