Eight teams will contest milestone event in St. John.

ST. JOHN, Kan. — For 50 years, the St. John Lions Club Mid-Winter Classic Basketball Tournament has brought eight teams to town for some exciting basketball action.

On its 50th anniversary, the tournament will again feature eight teams battling it out plus some displays of previous tournament memorabilia and some great food, said tournament director and president of the St. John Lions Club Rick Hunley.

The tournament started back in 1967 just after the current grade school and gym were built. George Highfill, district superintendent and Lions Club Member, came up with the idea for a tournament as a way to promote the school and city.

Originally, there were four schools, St. John, Pratt, Greensburg and Larned, in a round-robin competition. Greensburg dropped out of the tournament and in 1968 it expanded to eight teams.

This year’s tournament will feature St. John-Hudson, Larned, Ness City, Macksville, Central Plains, Nickerson, Kansas City Christian (2A) and Wichita Defenders (homeschool team). This is the first year Kansas City Christian and Wichita Defenders have participated in the tournament.

Lions Club member Gerald Goodman was tournament director for 27 years, and he was responsible for getting the tournament program put together. Hunley said he learned a lot from watching Goodman and helped him get things done. Hunley ran the concessions stand and was a team sponsor, so he had learned a lot when he became tournament director in 2006.

“I knew every aspect of the tournament,” Hunley said.

Every year, an adult community member volunteers to be a team sponsor along with a high school student, and they help each team with whatever it needs. There is also a sponsor for the referees.

Hunley has gathered memorabilia that will be on display, including several of the previous tournament books. The tournament books provide an especially interesting look at how the tournament has progressed — through the uniform evolutions, for example.

Jerry Maddox has been in charge of putting the program together for the last 15 years. Since this is the 50th anniversary, he had the idea to create a color version this year.

Hunley will present the tournament history and recognize the previous members that helped start and maintain the tournament for years.

The Lions Club used to run the tournament by itself, but now the community has taken over, with about 100 volunteers to help things work.

“It takes a lot of people to put this thing on,” Hunley said. “It works well because the community works well.”

Tournament games are played Jan. 16, 18, 19 and 20 at the high school gym, and each team gets to play three games.

The goal of the tournament hasn’t changed over the past 50 years. What started as a chance for students to compete against each other in a friendly atmosphere continues today.

“We want to give each student athlete a positive experience. We want students to say ‘Oh, yeah. I played in the Lions Club tournament,’” Hunley said.

Gale Rose is a reporter for The Pratt (Kan.) Tribune.