BRISTOL — It takes bright lights and an electric atmosphere to put a charge in Greater Atlanta Christian basketball coach Eddie Martin.
The 30-year veteran has won state championships, and his Norcross (Ga.) teams played Oak Hill Academy twice, including once on ESPN in a Nos. 1-2 matchup at Georgia Tech in December of 2006.
His teams have played in tournaments in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Springfield, Mo., and he’s coached such players such as New Orleans Hornet Al-Farouq Aminu and Malcolm Brogdon, who’s starting as a freshman at Virginia.
But the 2009 Arby’s Classic ranks up there with any experience he’s had.
Mentor, Ohio coach Bob Krizancic has taken teams to tournaments in San Diego, Phoenix and Utah, but last year’s third-place run in the Arby’s Classic was as gratifying as any.
Indeed, Arby’s, which began in 1983 and has been drawing annual crowds of approximately 30,000 since the late 1980s, is still going strong.
Some wondered if local power Science Hill’s absence this year — the Hilltoppers bypassed Arby’s for the first time since the mid-1980s for a trip to Hawaii — would decrease attendance. Many turn out to cheer for Science Hill, and many show up to root against it.
But opening-day turnout Tuesday looked the same as usual. In fact, the afternoon crowd might’ve been bigger than some in recent years.
Attendance is the primary draw for teams, which have come from Italy, the Bahamas, Germany, Puerto Rico, Lithuania, Canada, Alaska and Hawaii.
Large crowds attract great players — and vice-versa. At least 15 NBA players, including Ray Allen, and 11 NFL players performed at Arby’s.
Martin’s Greater Atlanta Christian includes 6-foot-3 junior wing Delano Spencer, who has caught the eye of Ole Miss and Tennessee, among others. Martin was impressed with the afternoon attendance during the Arby’s opening day Tuesday, which included a number of college coaches..
“We were watching the game before us,” Martin said, “and the crowd that was here for a 2:30 game on a Tuesday afternoon (Greeneville vs. Tabernacle Baptist, Bahamas). I mean, that’s one of the things you really like about this tournament — so many people come out to watch it. It’s a great atmosphere for the kids to play in. … And once you get in the winner’s bracket and play a little bit later in the day you get unbelievable crowds — packed to the gills.”
Martin’s GAC finished runner-up after a hard-fought loss to Memphis Melrose two years ago. The time of the championship was moved up due to Tennessee and Virginia Tech playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl that year, and attendance from the semis to the final actually dropped a bit.
“But the whole tournament was good, which is why we came back,” Martin said. “We played good teams the entire time. One of the best teams we played — I don’t know if they had any Division I players — was a team out of Arkansas. They got up on us big and we made a great comeback on them just to get a chance to play in the championship.
“Melrose’s whole team was good, but they had two kids — the point guard, Chris Jones … and Adonis Thomas, who’s playing at Memphis right now, who were very good. And that’s just two of them. That team was loaded. So for us to stay in that ballgame like that was very (impressive), and in my opinion, it turned our whole season around. We went on and won the state championship in Georgia. It let our kids know that we could play with anybody — to play with that team and take them down to the wire in a great atmosphere.”
Krizancic’s up-tempo Mentor team quickly became a crowd favorite while making a tournament-record 42 3-pointers en route to last year’s third-place finish. Mentor, in the Cleveland area, was so excited to be back this year that it made a single-game record 18 treys in a 102-29 first-round win against Hurley (Va.).
“We’ve been in San Diego in the Cactus Jam and the Surf and Slam in Phoenix and been to Utah, but the (Arby’s) crowds, by far, are the best,” Krizancic said. “It’s not near the energy, the excitement (at those other tournaments). We were surprised we got invited back, so we just jumped at it. … This is the closest you can get to (state) tournament atmosphere.”
Mentor’s precision display of shooting, passing and pressure defense amplify the environment, too. Mentor, which plays Martin’s Greater Atlanta Christian today at 5 p.m. in what should be quarterfinals track meet, is averaging 104 points per game during a 5-0 start.
Krizancic has favored a fast-paced style since he was a player on a Youngstown State team that ran into the run-and-gun San Francisco Dons.
“I think I have ADD — never diagnosed,” Krizancic said. “I’m sure that’s part of the personality; I just like to go.”
He then looks at one of his players and continues, “We go one way — right, Jay?”
The question gets a hearty amen from Justin Fritts, who made five 3-pointers while scoring 25 points against Hurley.
“He’ll yell at you if you don’t shoot the ball. … It’s run and gun,” Fritts said. “He’s so energetic. It’s fun to play for a guy like that.”
You would’ve had a hard time convincing Hurley players, but Fritts said the large crowd gave some teammates butterflies on Tuesday.
“A couple of them were a little bit shocked when they first got here,” Fritts said.
The energy in Viking Hall during last year’s overtime loss to eventual champion Columbia (Decatur, Ga.) in the semifinals is something Fritts will take to his grave, which isn’t entirely positive.
“The crowd in that game was unbelievable,” Fritts said. “There was like 5,500 here. … I don’t remember what happened in overtime. I’ve tried to clear my mind.”
Martin and Krizancic both mentioned the special treatment given by tournament director Richard Ensor and his staff. In fact, seemingly on cue while Martin was being interviewed in the hospitality room, a man walked up to tell him that a massive spread of spaghetti was ready for his players.
“They take such good care of you as far as feeding you,” Martin said. “They do game tapes for you. You don’t have to worry about bringing cameras. They do the stats for you. Richard has done a good job of making this tournament for coaches — all you’ve got to do is come and coach.
“I want a tournament that’s going to take care of you like that and give you good competition for your kids. This tournament does that.”
The warmth made an impression on Krizancic, too.
“I’m telling you, the Southern hospitality was amazing,” said Krizancic, who recalled being down nine points at the half against Dobyns-Bennett in the opener. “The crowd, the atmosphere was phenomenal. Great teams and great hospitality — I don’t think you could find a better tournament anywhere.”
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at email@example.com.