An arena full of fans watching a basketball game
The 38th annual Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions, one of Springfield’s biggest annual sports events, tips off on Thursday at Great Southern Bank Arena. (Photo: Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions)

One of Springfield’s best annual sports weekends is here, with the Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions returning to Great Southern Bank Arena beginning with four games on Thursday.

About 30,000 fans will view the action over three days as many of the nation’s top high school basketball teams and individuals show off their skills. It’s hard to believe that it started 38 years ago next door at Hammons Student Center.

Unfortunately, the man credited with starting the showcase will miss his first Tournament of Champions since it tipped off in 1985. Dr. Edsel Matthews is fighting a blood disease and undergoing chemotherapy, which has compromised his immune system.

Matthews, 82, inquired about sneaking into a luxury suite, but his doctor gave him a quick thumbs down.

“He said, ‘You don’t have an immune system right now.’ So we’ll watch it on TV, on Friday and Saturday nights, for sure,” Matthews said on Tuesday. “But I’ll be back, in person, next year.

​​”No basketball this weekend for me. But the good Lord’s taking care of me. We’ll get through it.”

The meeting that set the wheels in motion

What a legacy Matthews brought to Springfield and the Ozarks in 1985 when, as the Springfield R-12 Athletic Director, he came up with the idea to renew the original Tournament of Champions that took place in Springfield in the 1940s and ’50s.

A 1984 meeting with Carol Robinson, sister of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, set in motion the wheels for the mega basketball event. 

“Carol Robinson called me one day and said, ‘We get nickel and dimed to death by the Springfield schools for fundraisers for high schools.’” Matthews began. “She said ‘We’d like to do something. Have you got any ideas?  

“I said I’d like to start the old Tournament of Champions, which was so popular back in the 1940s and early ’50s. At that time, they invited the 16 best teams in the state of Missouri to come and play the third weekend of January.”

“So Carol and I went to meet with Johnny and, for anyone that knows him, Johnny doesn’t take long to make decisions. He said, ‘Let’s go for it’ and we did.”

The 1985 tournament included four local schools — Glendale, Parkview, Nixa and Logan-Rogersville — along with Kansas City’s Paseo and Lincoln academies and St. Louis Vashon. The eighth and featured team was Christ the King of Middle Village, N.Y., ranked second in the USA Today high school top 20.

‘We didn’t have a tournament, we had a happening’

Few knew what to expect on that cold and snowy mid-January day the tourney began. Would people from the Ozarks show up to watch high school teams in an 8,800-seat gym? For Glendale High School coach Mike Keltner, whose team was scheduled to play in the first tournament game at 5 p.m. on a Thursday, the answer arrived about an hour before tipoff.

Fans, parking in a lot where Great Southern Bank Arena now stands, were lining up to get into Hammons Student Center as Glendale prepared to face Christ the King.

“We played at 5 o’clock. It was about 10 degrees, we had snow and ice on the ground, and we had over 5,000 fans there at tipoff,” Keltner recalled earlier this week.

Two men stand side-by-side, holding a plaque
Dr. Edsel Matthews, presenting the Edsel Matthews Sportsmanship Award at last year’s tournament to Parkview coach Landon Cornish, will miss his first Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions due to illness. Matthews was tournament director from 1985-2003. (Photo: Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions)

“I think that was a harbinger of things to come. It was pretty obvious that the T of C was off to a good start.”

Matthews said he then knew they had to do reserved ticketing the next year. When those went on sale, the first Monday in December of 1986, the line was again long.

“I got over to the box office at about 7:45, and there was a line all the way to Greenwood to buy tickets,” Matthews said. “I walked up to the first person in line and asked what time she got there. She said that she rode the milk truck up from Mountain Grove that left at 2:30 this morning.

“You kind of knew then — we didn’t have a tournament, we had a happening.”

Great players, great performances

Even so, it’s difficult to have imagined just how big the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions would become. Sixty-one tourney alumna have gone on to play in the National Basketball Association, including three from the 1985 event:

Jayson Williams, a forward from Christ the King, played nine seasons in the NBA; Anthony Bonner from St. Louis Vashon had a six-year NBA career; and Anthony Peeler, a 14-year-old freshman for Kansas City Paseo in 1985, went on to have a 13-season NBA career.

Peeler, incidentally, put on perhaps the greatest individual performance in Tournament of Champions history when Paseo returned in 1988. After he was in foul trouble and did not score in the first half of the title game against Memphis Hamilton and Arkansas-signee and co-tourney headliner Todd Day, Peeler scored 28 in the second half as Paseo rallied for the championship.

There have been so many other memorable players (Alonzo Mourning, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball to name a few) and great teams. In recent years, a dunk contest has been added to the final night to provide another aspect that was unthinkable in 1985 when local fans cheered wildly at the sight of a Christ the King player dunking two basketballs simultaneously during warmups. 

The fans make it special

It all began on that cold Thursday, 38 years ago. Christ the King has won the tournament six times and is back for the 2023 event.

“I’ve said all along the three things that make the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions,” Keltner said. “No. 1 is Bass Pro’s involvement. No. 2 is Christ the King making it a legitimate national tournament. And finally, the great basketball fans in southwest Missouri.

“That’s a trifecta that’s hard to beat.”

Matthews, who served as tournament director from 1985-2003 when he retired from SPS to become Drury University’s athletic director, agreed that the fans make the tournament. He noted how Father John Savage, Christ the King’s athletic director for many years, said the famed school traveled the country playing in other big tournaments, in locales such as Myrtle Beach and Hawaii.

“Father John said ‘I can go to those places and play teams that are just as good, but there are 300 people in the stands. There’s nowhere in the world we can go where nobody knows us and play before 10,000 people.’

“The fans. That is what has made this tournament so special.”

38th Bass Pro Shops Tournament of Champions

Jan. 12-14, 2023, at Great Southern Bank Arena

Thursday’s first round

4:30 p.m. — Christ the King vs. Bartlett

6 p.m. — Link Academy vs. St. Rita

7:30 p.m. — Sunrise Christian vs. Kickapoo

9 – Staley vs. Calvary Christian

Friday’s schedule

Consolation semifinals — 4:30 and 6 p.m.

Winners’ semifinals — 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Saturday’s schedule

7th place game — 2:30 p.m.

5th place game — 4 p.m.

Dunk contest — 6 p.m.

3rd place game — 7 p.m.

Championship — 9 p.m.

Ticket info:

Single-game general admission (upper bowl and bleachers) — Adults $13 Thursday and Friday, $14 Saturday; students, $10

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton