Maui Invitational turns 25


POSTED: Sunday, November 23, 2008

NEW YORK » This is the time of year the same lines come from people ranging from basketball fanatics to sun worshippers:

“;Can I carry your computer bag?”;

“;I can keep stats for you.”;

“;Please, please, please.”;

For the 16th time in my 21 years as the national college basketball writer for the Associated Press, I have been assigned to cover the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

The 25th edition of the tournament that has become an early-season standard gets under way tomorrow with its usual standout field - No. 1 North Carolina, No. 7 Texas and No. 9 Notre Dame - and its always perfect weather.

It's hard to mess things up when some of the best teams in the country get together for three days in a gym just 500 yards from the Pacific Ocean. I've had a midcourt seat for 180 games in the Lahaina Civic Center, making it second only to Madison Square Garden as far as venues where I have covered college basketball.

That's 15 round trips from New York to Maui - I can't figure what there have been more of, frequent-flyer miles or little bags of airline pretzels - and a lot of special moments on and off the court.

Every year, the participating coaches hold a news conference the morning before the tournament starts. For television purposes, the dais of coaches has a beach in the background, surfboards leaning nearby and plenty of curious visitors in assorted beachwear just stopping by.

In 1990, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim was one of those coaches waiting for questions and was asked if he was enjoying the difference in the weather from upstate New York even though the nationally ranked Orange faced stiff competition from a field that included two other Top 25 teams.

“;I would rather be in the snow in Syracuse playing three schools you never heard of,”; he said without breaking a smile. “;I'm serious.”;

The teams have a second court available for practice time at Lahainaluna High School, which is nestled on a small campus on the side of a hill with yet another spectacular view of the area.

In 1988, I went up to the school to talk with some coaches and Oklahoma was just wrapping up its practice. Coach Billy Tubbs kept telling the players still shooting around after practice was over not to dunk because he said the rims just didn't look that stable.

As we were talking in the corner, Memphis began its practice and one of the Tigers went up, dunked hard and brought down the rim, turning practice into a halfcourt affair.

“;Man, and I still can't get anybody to agree with me that I'm the smartest coach in the country,”; Tubbs said in his best Jack Nicholson voice.

The Lahaina Civic Center has undergone a transformation because of the Maui Invitational. In the early years, the two-story building was a local gym that had some of college basketball's best players take the place over for three days.

But renovations for the sake of telecasts and the air-conditioned comfort of U.S. Olympians on the way to compete in the Sydney Games have made it a quality building that seats 2,500, has an average temperature of 72 degrees and is still the home of the county's Department of Motor Vehicles.

One year, a local man clutching some paperwork turned the corner at the Civic Center and saw a long line of fans waiting for the doors to open for the day's first game.

“;These people can't be registering cars, can they?”; he asked with a look of horror before being sent to the lone, empty window taking care of such matters.

One of the best things to do with free time on Maui is to take a ride on Route 30 west, past Kapalua and onto the mountainous road that heads toward Keawalua. Along the way the scenery is beyond description and there are a couple of points where you can pull over and watch real surfers go out over and over on waves just as big as you would imagine.

In a break between doubleheaders one day, I headed out Route 30 and stopped at one of the surfing gathering spots.

As I stood well back from the beach watching people do something I would never even think of, a surfer asked me what was with the outfit, gesturing toward my rolled-up long sleeves and long pants.

“;I bet you'd be asked the same thing at the Final Four,”; I replied.

Over the years, no fans have followed their team to the Maui Invitational like Kentucky fans. Suddenly, it seems every white rental car on the island has a blue “;K”; flag flapping out the back window and choreographed cheers break out at any time.

The local Denny's had lava plant rocks - rocks from nearby volcanos with flowers actually growing out of them - on each table.

An older couple wearing their Kentucky warm-weather clothing was looking at one of the rocks when the waitress told them they were for sale in a nearby store if they were interested.

After a long look, the man asked the question only a 'Cats fan could: “;Does it come in blue?”;