Former players, new teams in prestigious tourney |

Former players, new teams in prestigious tourney

A lot has changed in town since Rick Campbell played eighth-grade basketball here in 1982.

The South Lake Tahoe he recalls then was just a small ski town. Now it’s much larger, with traffic bustling from one side to the other.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the level of competition in the Lake Tahoe Optimist Club’s 38th Annual Winter Classic Basketball Tournament.

“Of the five tournaments we enter every year, it’s probably the most competitive. And that’s (compared with) Bay Area tournaments,” Campbell said.

Campbell, 33, head coach for Cunha Intermediate School near Santa Cruz, Calif., will guide a team to the Winter Classic at South Tahoe Middle School for the sixth time.

He expects to see some old friends, even some old coaches who travel to the tournament every year as a kind of kind of pilgramage back to the meadowland.

When he played for South Tahoe in 1982, the tournament included teams from “the big city.” Even then it was known to attract some of the top teams in the region. That hasn’t changed.

“In competition we were ranked second and third as far as quality and popularity of the tournament,” said tournament co-chair Don Radford. Radford and Doug Forte, a retired Meyers Elementary School principal, have organized the tournament since 1984.

When the two Optimist Club members took over, they had to work hard to book 15 teams. Now there’s a waiting list. Those that will play signed up early, and many have encouraged other programs to do so next year.

The tournament is a single-elimination with a consolation bracket. The outcome of the first game determines who plays in each bracket.

South Tahoe won the consolation bracket last year.

“We won’t know much until we get in the tournament,” STMS coach Larry Reilly said about where South Tahoe stands. But one thing he knows is that it will be difficult to beat Carson Valley, a team that dominated the local league with a 6-foot-5 center that controlled the level of play.

“We’re going to have to play extremely good defense … I have great kids, but they have very little experience playing the game of basketball,” Reilly said.

Cunha is competititive in its own right, taking home trophies three out of the five times it’s been here, including the overall championship four years ago and the consolation trophy the following year.

Campbell said the competition is always good, and that the demand for the tournament is always high as a result. The tournament has also developed prestige over the years, as South Tahoe has come to be known as a prep basketball hotbed.

Perennially seeded teams include Carson City, Cunha, Marina Village, from El Dorado Hills and Camerado Springs, from Cameron Park.

The Camarado Springs Wildcats won the last two years in row. No team has ever won three years in a row.

But with a losing record that assistant coach George Oberstadt said is “5-20-something” don’t expect to be the team to do it again this year.

“We have a new group coming through. We’ve got a group of seventh- graders that are really strong … So next year Camerado could be really strong again,” Oberstadt said.

Note: Ben Kunibe, 85, will be honored by Winter Basketball Classic Tournament officials on Saturday at 2 p.m. for 40 years of service to the youth of the community.

Kunibe is an original charter member of the Optimist Club when it began in 1965. Today he is still its most active member.

When he was younger, Kunibe and his family began coming to South Lake Tahoe in 1953 to run the produce section at Lampson’s Store. After working several summers here, he brought his family to stay year-round. He stayed in business at Lampson and at Inks Bijou until 1980, when he retired from business.

The Optimist Club Christmas Tree Lot owes it continued success to Kunibe, as well as its many functions in the area.

A free throw contest will follow the ceremony.

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