Peach Basket Classic sticks with tradition

The Peach Basket Classic has welcomed 3-on-3 basketball teams to the streets of downtown Walla Walla since 1994, and volunteers are intent on keeping it a fixture in the Valley.

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The annual Peach Basket Classic once again takes to the streets of downtown Walla Walla this weekend.

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Girls division teams compete at the Peach Basket Classic last summer.

WALLA WALLA - When YMCA Physical Director Tom Kelleher - with an OK from Executive Director Ned Schafer - began formulating plans for a 3-on-3 street basketball tournament in Walla Walla back in 1994, he had a couple of objectives in mind.

"For one thing," Kelleher said earlier this week in a telephone interview from his home in Yakima, "I wanted to put on some kind of tournament that would tie in with the history of basketball and the YMCA, being that's where it was invented in the first place ... all the Naismith stuff.

"But the biggest thing I wanted was a family event that was completely clean and that anyone could participate in, from little kids to adults to older adults, men and women. I wanted it to be very enjoyable, one that was competitive but still more about building up kids so they kept on playing and didn't quit."

If Pat McConn, the person who has inherited most - if not all - of Kelleher's responsibilities as tournament director, is held up as Exhibit A, Kelleher's Peach Basket Classic is a roaring success.

McConn, 29, played in the very first Peach Basket as a 12-year-old in 1994. He played in every subsequent summer tournament through his high school years, graduating from Wa-Hi in 2000 after a successful prep basketball career.

McConn went on to play basketball at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., where he graduated in 2004 with a degree in finance. He then returned to Walla Walla and is employed as a commercial loan officer for Baker Boyer Bank.

"I think I've played in 13 or 14 of them," McConn said of the Peach Basket Classic, which will be played for the 18th consecutive year this weekend on the streets of downtown Walla Walla. "And the others, I've helped out with."

It was those volunteer efforts that caught the attention of Schafer and YMCA board of directors president Mike Monahan. And in January of 2010, they approached McConn about taking over as tournament director.

"They needed somebody to help out," McConn recalled. "I had been a part of that for a couple of years and felt like I had gotten enough from the tournament in the past that I would like to help out."

So McConn said yes, and last summer's Peach Basket Classic, which attracted a record 269 teams from throughout the region, was his first in charge. This weekend's tournament, which has bulged to 312 teams, will be his second, although McConn is quick to point out that he no longer holds the tournament director title.

"There is no longer a tournament director," McConn explained. "Instead, we have a committee, which I am the head of."

But most of the responsibilities remain the same, he said.

Other committee members are Terry Schafer, the former executive director's daughter, Scott Adams, Eddie Unck, Casey Waddell, Peter Allen and several YMCA staff members. The committee meets monthly beginning in January, McConn said.

"Early on we establish a budget and a timeline, project the number of teams and the number of baskets we will need, plus additional supplies," McConn said. "The tournament is self sufficient and all of the proceeds go to the YMCA's youth programs."

The week prior to the tournament is actually more demanding than the tournament itself, McConn said.

"Those two days aren't so bad," McConn said of Saturday and Sunday, when basketballs will by flying around town. "This week is the grind. We did the bracketing last weekend and now we're putting together the court monitor bags and getting the player bags together. There are long hours between now and Friday."

Downtown Walla Walla streets - Main Street from Second Avenue to South Spokane Street; First Avenue from Main to East Alder Street; and South Colville from East Rose Street to East Alder - will be closed as of 5 p.m. Friday as YMCA officials, with the help of Washington State Penitentiary inmates, begin to set up baskets and draw up courts.

And this year, powder coated metal frames with fiberglass backboards will replace the wooden backboards that have been a tournament staple for the past 17 years. The 31 new backboards were built by inmates at WSP and purchased by the YMCA for $14,000.

"No more wood," McConn said. "We've invested in all new baskets, and we were able to get them at a reduced rate because they were built at the state penitentiary."

Also new at this year's Peach Basket Classic will be the presence of Walla Walla Sweets Roller Derby Girls, who will assist downtown businesses who are concerned about customer traffic flow. Earlier this year, several merchants in the downtown pushed for the tournament to be moved several blocks east or out of the downtown area altogether.

"They are going to be there to make sure the merchants are happy," McConn said of the roller derby girls, an independent organization that uses the YMCA for practices and bouts. "They will be an extra presence, and I think it's going to be fun to have them down there."

McConn is grateful that the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation reversed course and has allowed the tournament to remain in the hub of the city.

"We want to do what is best for everyone," McConn said. "If it was determined we needed to move, we would have moved and not made any waves.

"There was talk of moving east a couple of blocks, and I think we could have made that work. But the other option of moving out to the community college, that would have eventually ruined the tournament. It would lose its ambiance. The downtown is what brings people to this tournament."

Kelleher, who left Walla Walla 10 years ago but continued to help out up until a couple of years ago, is more adamant about keeping the tournament right where it is.

"When we first started it, I remember half the stores downtown were empty," Kelleher said. "I remember blowing off the streets and sidewalks because it was like a dust bowl. And the trees were only about eight feet high.

"Having those trees now is a beautiful situation. All of the stores are filled and it's a great looking tournament. And moving it down a couple of blocks wouldn't have solved any problems because the biggest problem is parking.

"I think the Peach Basket is a great thing for Walla Walla, and I don't want to see it die," Kelleher said. "There have been a ton of volunteers who have put in hours and hours to make it what it is, and I don't want to see it die because of a stupid mistake."

What Kelleher takes the greatest pride in is the family atmosphere that permeates the weekend.

"You see kids and parents and grandparents," he said. "It's kind of been built like a family reunion. It's a true family event, and that is pretty special."

Games begin Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9. Sunday's championship games in each age division will be played between noon and 3:30 p.m., with trophies going to the winners of the men's and women's open divisions plus the corporate division.

Gold sponsors for the tournament are Banner Bank, Charter Communications/Charter Media and Coca-Cola.

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