FOUR DECADES OF HOLIDAY TRADITION
Back in the 1970s, seven Greensboro Sports Council men had a vision: bring Greensboro’s high school basketball teams together for a holiday tournament and donate the proceeds to the schools’ coffers. It sounded like a pretty good idea when the inaugural HAECO Invitational was played back in 1976, and it’s an idea that still sounds pretty good today.
Jim Betts, Lem Cox, Bradley Faircloth, Stanley Frank, Doug Galyon, Fred Joseph and E. Kemp Reece not only envisioned a tournament that would help fund the schools’ athletic programs, they acted on that vision and created it. In 1970, the Greensboro Coliseum hosted the Big 4 Tournament, an annual affair among Duke, NC State, North Carolina and Wake Forest. These seven Sports Council visionaries realized they could make their vision a reality if they created a similar event among Greensboro’s four city high schools, Dudley, Grimsley, Page and Smith, and in 1976, the Little 4 was born.
When Grimsley played Page and Dudley faced Smith in the first tournament games Dec. 28, 1976, organizers knew they had four good men’s basketball teams, and they knew that with strong support from the community, they’d be able to return $5,000 to each of the four schools. As it turned out, the event drew nearly 4,000 high school hoops fans to the Coliseum each night. Not bad for a holiday tournament that was no sure thing. The Greensboro Sports Council started the tournament as a two-day playoff, but it didn't take long to expand the field to eight schools and to add a women’s tournament to the program. Despite changes along the way, the basics and mission of the event remained the same, and the holiday tournament’s popularity and significance remained strong.
Today, the HAECO Invitational is just that: an invitational tournament. The Greensboro Sports Council can invite different schools from year-to-year as long as they are located in Guilford County. The mission remains, and the tournament thrives. While the event was important to the participating schools in 1976, it is even more important in the challenging economic times of the present day. In the last 16 years, the Greensboro Sports Council has contributed more than $1.6 Million back to its participating schools.
In addition to donating funds back to the schools, the Greensboro Sports Council also awards four Bill Lee Scholarships to participating student athletes each year, and the Council makes charitable contributions as well. The outgoing tournament chair chooses the charity each year. Some previous recipients of charitable donations made on behalf of outgoing tournament chairs are Greensboro Urban Ministries, the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer, Friends for an Earlier Breast Cancer Test, Joseph’s House, the Eastern Guilford High School Fund, the Joey Cheek Fund, the North Carolina State Games, the Girls and Boys Club, The First Tee of the Triad and the Bryan Family YMCA.
While the tournament has remained focused on its original purpose, it has also enjoyed some high-level hoops over the years. Last year’s tournament was no exception. On the women’s side, the Northwest Guilford lady Vikings ended a three-year run by Page High School and took top honors. Northwest defeated Ragsdale, Greensboro Day School and Northern Guilford on their way to the title. In the men’s tournament, the top-seeded Greensboro Day School Bengals charged to the men’s championship defeating Ragsdale, Page High School and Northwest Guilford on the way to coach Freddy Johnson’s record 13th men’s title. No coach has won more HAECO Invitational Championships than Freddy Johnson; it was the Bengal’s fourth-consecutive championship.
While the HAECO Invitational has evolved through the years in both title and teams, the original mission remains – support high schools in Guilford County. Deep community roots planted in a different century grow stronger each autumn when the familiar sounds of basketball shoes squeaking on high school hardwoods return - the HAECO Invitational must be on the horizon.
Note: Former Greensboro News & Record writer Jeff Carlton contributed to this tournament history before his death in 2008. The Greensboro Sports Council will always be grateful to Jeff for his many contributions to the HAECO Invitational and Guilford County high school sports.