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A Classic Holiday : Bouncing Around the Orange Basketball Tournament

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And how did you spend your winter vacation?

If you were on one of the 16 high school boys’ basketball teams invited to the Orange Holiday Classic, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, you were hanging out in Chapman University’s Hutton Sports Center last week.

You came from as far away as Washington state, which sent two teams, or as close as Orange High, which is three blocks away. If you were lucky, you stayed in a hotel; if you were Santa Clara, you took the bus from Oxnard to the gym every day--a nice two-hour excursion (if you’re really lucky) one way. Better hope the showers were available after each game.

You played in front of parents, video cameras and plenty of empty wooden bleacher seats. Normally the Orange tournament is packed with fans, college coaches and scouts; UCLA’s John Wooden and Jim Harrick, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Dean Smith are among the celebs who have eaten hot dogs and pizza in Orange while evaluating the prep talent.

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“They’ve talked about our tournament at the (NCAA) Final Four,” said Dave Zirkle, the Orange High boys’ athletic director who has organized the event the last 14 years. “That’s one way we’re able to get out-of-state schools.”

But while the quality of play remains consistent, Zirkle and staff found the 1994 version a tougher sell to the public. Sure-fire drawing card Mater Dei, which alternates its appearances with Santa Margarita because the parochial schools don’t like to bump into each other that often, was playing in Del Mar at the Reebok/Above the Rim tournament.

(There might be a change next year. Santa Margarita is slated for a Christmas tournament in Nebraska, but that state’s legislature is considering eliminating tournaments during the winter break. If that happens, the Eagles will have a spot in Orange, in the bracket opposite Mater Dei.)

None of the other teams--including Santa Margarita, which came in undefeated but was upset in the second round by Fountain Valley--has a glamour senior. Thus, the attendance was sitting-room only--and plenty of it.

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One of the trade-offs, however, was that you could hear everything that went on. So pity the poor players, caught in the cross-fire of coachspeak: Step up! Stack three wide! Box out! Box-and-one! Tuck in your shirt! What are we running out there? What hold? He only had one hand on him!

And parentspeak: You gave him what for Christmas? Stop thinkin’ and play ball! Ref, what game you watchin’? Why doesn’t Coach Jones play my kid after all that money I spent on a summer camp?

Kent-Meridian--one of the two teams from Washington state--became the first non-California team to win the tournament, beating Fountain Valley, 49-46, in the championship game Friday night--the 32nd game played during the four-day event. But there is so much to the Orange Classic beyond basketball, as one visitor found out.

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8:45 a.m., Tuesday--Fountain Valley and Aliso Niguel have the unenviable task of playing the opening game at 9. Coaches Gordon Billingsley and Frank Goldstone reflect on getting kids ready at that hour and what the tournament means now.

“We practiced Friday, Saturday and Monday, coming in at 8 a.m., just to get them used to getting up in the morning and playing,” Fountain Valley’s Billingsley said. “I know they’re also on vacation, so hopefully this will get them out of bed and doing things. Hopefully it works.

“Our big thing every year is to win league. Right now, we’re a little behind where I thought we’d be. We have a couple of new players and we’re working to blend. Last year, we had a real good team, so everybody expected us to do better. But we haven’t meshed real well.”

Goldstone, whose basketball program is in its second year at Aliso Niguel, has enough to do just teaching his team how he wants it to play, let alone any special preparations.

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“We practiced Monday. We gave them Saturday and Sunday off,” he said. “So hopefully they will be ready to go. Fountain Valley had to get up, too. I don’t think there’s a varsity team around that’s used to playing at 9 o’clock. But we both have to play.”

Aliso Niguel looks every inch a new program. Fountain Valley works the high-post offense to perfection, with solid back picks providing wide-open lanes for guards and forwards to drive through for easy layups. The Barons use a 22-2 run in the second quarter to go up, 40-11, at halftime and are ahead, 54-23, after three quarters. Billingsley lets the reserves finish a 57-33 victory in Game 1. Thirty-one more to go.

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They have no home games. And they certainly have no fans, at least for the 90-or-so minutes they are working.

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Being a referee is not for the squeamish. You can face nearly 100 decisions during the course of a 32-minute high school game, and each call you make (or don’t) is guaranteed to upset half the people watching.

But Speed Castillo, the officials’ supervisor who determines who will work the tournament games, is never lacking for volunteers. He will rotate 36 referees. Their experience includes games at the high school, community college, college and university level. They are doctors, lawyers, principals, businessmen.

They are here because they love what they do. They have to, at $43 a game.

“You look for your best officials to put into tournaments,” said Castillo, who has worn a striped shirt for more than 40 years. “And this is one of the most prestigious tournaments in Orange County.

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“I select the officials I’ve known for years. They’re not all from Orange County. Some come from Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Bernardino, Glendale. But they are among the best. The first thing we do in the locker rooms is a pregame conference on how to cover the games. We don’t want us to be the cause of the game being won or lost.”

To be on Castillo’s crew, you must pass an open-book exam of 200 questions on the rules of the game with a score of 80% or better. That is followed by a closed-book exam. Then you are put through game situations on the floor to see how you act and react.

“You might see some poorly qualified officials working because there are so many games around the area,” Castillo said. “We pick up 50-60 rookies every year; out of those who want to become referees, we’ll lose 60% of them.”

And is there a payoff for the boos and abuse they receive?

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“At all the ballgames you have someone evaluating the officials,” Castillo said. “There are five NBA officials now--guys like Greg Willard and Bill Spooner--who came out of our ranks.”

The NBA may seem like a longer shot than a half-court heave, but veteran official Charles Hill agrees the tournaments are a way for referees to be discovered.

“I’m on the downside,” said Hill, who has been an official 30 years. “But you can be seen by a lot of coaches and scouts. Some of the coaches here move on to junior college and universities, and they remember good officials. But you also have to promote yourself, be willing to be seen at the referee camps.

“The main thing I try to portray on the floor is being the lead official. That’s very important. Whether I’m right or wrong, I’m willing to take the responsibility to make the decision. Some guys will never be lead officials. But we try to instill that in the younger officials. Be assertive; stand by your own words and your own whistle.”

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Even with four days of basketball, Zirkle is lucky if he sees the equivalent of one game.

The tournament administrator is constantly on the move, ensuring that small emergencies don’t become major crises. He makes sure tournament T-shirts arrive on time and finds out where the Kent-Meridian team can pump up its basketballs. “The airline made them deflate the balls,” Zirkle said. “There was a danger that, being pressurized, they could explode.”

The tournament is Zirkle’s special joy. He played for Orange High in the first tournament and, with teammate Dave Scott, had his picture on the cover of the first eight programs. “He was shooting, I was rebounding,” Zirkle said.

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When Mater Dei became really good and started dominating the tournament in the early ‘80s, other teams started dropping out. In fact, Estancia left to establish its own tournament. But organizers came to Zirkle to find out how to do it.

“It’s a year-round job,” he said, looking through the 300-plus page loose-leaf notebook that outlines everything needed to run the tournament.

“We’re already negotiating with teams for next year. Some that are here now we’ll invite back. We already have commitments from Mater Dei, (Moreno Valley) Canyon Springs and Tustin. We’re talking with teams in Washington, Florida, Philadelphia and Canada. We’ve tried to get an Indiana school. We nearly had the (New Jersey school) where (Sacramento King) Bobby Hurley’s father coaches, but haven’t been successful. But we also try to keep it 75% local teams.”

Zirkle had hoped to put together an anniversary program to celebrate the 30 years. Last year, he inserted a questionnaire asking former players and coaches about their memories and what they are doing today. Only one responded: Van Bey, who had 43 points, 31 rebounds and 10 blocks for Savanna in its championship game victory over San Francisco Lowell in 1966.

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But not much else has failed for Zirkle since he took over organizing the tournament from the Orange Optimist Club. In fact, Zirkle said the tournament turns a profit every year, sometimes grossing as much as $20,000.

Of course, some things you can’t plan on.

“In 1991 six of the top eight seeds lost on opening day,” Zirkle said. “That year, the grosses went way down.”

And, judging by the first two days, they won’t be high this year, either.

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Still, after 30 years, the Classic has become a self-perpetuating machine. The expenses are controlled; $160 per game to referees, announcers, etc; payments to the Orange Basketball Boosters for selling tickets and working security. The school’s Letterman’s Club works the concession stand and is rewarded with a day at Magic Mountain and some leftover profit, which it gives to the school. And $1,000 is earmarked each year for a local charity.

Things usually go so well that the tournament begins clearing a profit by the middle of the second day.

“Previous athletic directors didn’t want the headache of running the tournament,” said Zirkle, who will put in 18-hour days from Tuesday through Friday. “But now this is the major fund-raiser for our boys’ athletic program. Before, we would have 54 different fund-raisers for the nine sports.

“It’s a great social event for the city of Orange. Basketball aficionados know it’s a quality tournament and they will have a good experience.”

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12:12 p.m, Tuesday--Foothill is the first local team to face a team from outside the county--the Santa Clara Saints. It’s a well-contested game; Foothill only scored two points in the second quarter, and Santa Clara only two in the third. But ultimately the difference came down to the fact that the Knights could make the three-pointer--at least Vince DiSaia could, making four of them--and Santa Clara couldn’t, making only one.

Foothill takes a 37-27 lead with 3:33 to play, withstands a 9-0 Santa Clara run, watches two Saints’ three-point attempts rim out of the basket, and escapes with a 41-36 victory.

A tough day for Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich, who has won more State titles--11 in football, basketball and baseball--than any active coach in California.

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This is the 17th year Cvijanovich has brought a team to the tournament. No matter how many games the Saints play here, they always bus down from Oxnard the day of the game and return afterward as a way to save money.

“It’s a first-class tournament, No. 1,” he said. “It gives the kids a chance to get away from home. The people always treat you well. And you always play real good competition, which is the key to the whole thing.”

But as he continues to talk, Cvijanovich sounds as if some of the fun of coaching is fading, although he insists he is far from retirement.

“Kids today are much different,” he said. “They’re much more talented, but they’ve also had too much ego-building by whomever--parents, grammar school coaches--and sometimes they believe they are better than what they should be. When you think you’re better than someone else. . . . There’s no such thing unless you’re Michael Jordan. Those are the problems high school coaches have today; work commitments, things like that.”

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Winning three of four games and a fifth-place finish might be considered a good tournament for some. But when you are top-seeded, as Santa Margarita was, it can be deflating, especially when the loss happens early.

Coach Jerry DeBusk knows, too, that the Eagles probably got a valuable lesson to take back with them to league play.

“They realized we have a certain way we have to play,” DeBusk said. “And if they don’t play that way, we can get beat. I’m not taking anything away from Fountain Valley, but we didn’t feel we played particularly well. We let the other team dictate the tempo and do some things to us.

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“When you deal with high school kids, you know that with 16- and 17-year-olds you sometimes have to refocus them. Ending up 3-1 is not what we’d hoped to do when we came into the tournament. But we’re 13-1 right now. So hopefully this was a springboard into Sea View League play.”

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All Christine Salyer can do is watch.

Salyer, a physical therapist from Orange, has two boys playing for Orange Lutheran in the tournament. One is not technically hers--he’s an exchange student from Denmark, senior Sonny Madsen, who was playing on a club team in his homeland but wanted to come to the United States to attend school and play basketball. Lancers Coach Craig Swanson thought Madsen and Kyle, Salyer’s son, would get along fine and they have.

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And it gives Christine another player to cheer for and fret about during Orange Lutheran’s week at Chapman.

“I get terribly involved in the games,” she said. “If they have a night game, sometimes I can’t sleep afterward. And it’s harder since they’re not having a good season.”

Orange Lutheran is not coming off a good season, either, going 2-20 last year. The team had won only two of eight before the tournament began and was swamped, 72-38, by Santa Margarita in its Classic opener. Kyle twisted his left ankle during the game, and, after being examined by his mother, was told he could not play Wednesday against Aliso Niguel, a game the Lancers won, 67-57.

At least Salyer was not dragged into being a sports mom by virtue of having the neighborhood minivan. Although raised in a family of sisters, she was the one her father often took to games. “I can still remember going with him to see the Lakers play in the (Los Angeles) Sports Arena,” Salyer said, laughing.

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Kyle is not the family’s only athlete. Younger brother Patrick plays on two basketball teams, and during one recent week Salyer and her husband, Jack, a general contractor, had to find a way to watch seven games.

Still, Salyer said she wouldn’t change a thing. “It’s been a great experience,” she said.

Even if all she can do is watch.

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They are the invisible people. The maintenance workers who continually scrub and sweep and shine to keep the gym looking good for the paying customers.

Oscar Moran is one of the Chapman custodial supervisors. His day begins around 7 a.m., getting the gym ready for the first game, and ends after his crews have finished tidying up after the evening’s final game. How hard or long he and his crews work depends on the number of people who come, and how neat they are.

“Sometimes it doesn’t take many people to get the job done,” Moran said. “At night it can take four people about five hours to get the gym ready for the next day.”

In that time they will mop the gym floor, sweep under the stands, clean the bathrooms and vacuum the lobby and offices.

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You’d think chewing gum would be the biggest pain for the cleaning crews because it sticks anywhere. Not so. Moran said there is a freezing solution they put on gum to harden it and break it up. What they hate are sodas and popcorn which, naturally, are sold in abundance.

“Soda is a really big problem; if it’s on the carpet or on concrete it’s a hard stain to remove,” Moran said. “We have to either use a brush or a pressure wash. And popcorn just gets dropped everywhere.”

Many things found by the cleanup crews are not edible--and we’re not referring to day-old hot dogs. Purses, wallets, coats, books, sunglasses and watches are recovered. Even shoes are often found. “I had some woman tell me she left a $125 pair of shoes one time,” Moran said. “I didn’t find those, but I did find some that were (worth) around $90.” Whatever is found is turned into the offices at the gym.

But perhaps the hardest thing about being a maintenance worker is having to watch people purposefully make a mess and not be able to do anything about it. Except clean it up.

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11:38 a.m., Wednesday--It’s already been a difficult outing for Orange High. The host team was knocked into the consolation round after losing to Auburn (Wash.), 55-47, the day before.

But there is little that Coach Mark Holman--in his first season after taking over for Richard Bossenmeyer, who took an assistant’s job with the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers in the Continental Basketball Assn.--can complain about at halftime, as the Panthers have built a 28-13 lead against Valencia. Orange is shooting and defending well; the Tigers have made only four field goals in the first half.

But Holman still finds something on which to hang his halftime words.

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“You know how they have scored four field goals on you?” Holman tells the assembled squad of sweaty players. “Dribble penetration. That’s the only way they have scored.”

Holman goes on to instruct the Panthers how to defang the Tigers’ 2-3 zone defense--"I know we’re subbing some guys not used to being in certain spots. Be smart. Don’t let me have to keep telling where to put people"--and to continue their patient passing game.

“You’ve exerted the effort for 16 minutes. It’s been very good,” Holman said. “Now give me 16 more.”

Orange does just that, going on to a 41-32 victory.

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Not everything comes to a halt for the tournament. Valencia Coach Dean Yoshimura had to miss his team’s opening game against Esperanza to be with his wife, Melanie, who gave birth to the couple’s first child, Danica Linn. She measured 19 1/4 inches and weighed 7 lbs. 4 ozs.

Yoshimura picked a good one to miss, however, because Valencia was blown out, 72-25.

“When the assistant coaches called to tell me the score,” Yoshimura said, “Melanie turned to me and said, ‘I think your team needs you more than I do.’ ”

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