December 28, 2003

Tournament of Tradition

Dec. 28, 2003

By Laurence Miedema
San Jose Mercury News

Cable Car Classic tournament director Art Santo Domingo had no idea what to expect when he and co-founder Harry Jupiter began laying the groundwork for a winter Bay Area college basketball tournament in the late 1960s.

``We were just two guys from New York who used to go to all the Warriors games and got excited about seeing some intersectional college games out here that weren't all local teams,'' Santo Domingo said. ``We thought it might be an attraction.''

It turned into tradition.

This year marks the 37th anniversary of the Cable Car Classic, which will be played Monday and Tuesday at Santa Clara's Leavey Center. This year's field includes two teams that participated in the NCAA tournament last season -- Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which faces Santa Clara in Monday's first game, and Brigham Young, which plays Idaho State.

The Cable Car Classic is the longest-running tournament in the country and has attracted some of the college's best teams, players and coaches since its inception in 1967.

In 1981, the event was won by North Carolina, which later that winter won the NCAA tournament behind James Worthy and Michael Jordan. Stanford won the Cable Car Classic in 1997 and five months later reached the Final Four.

A retro tourney

While other holiday tournaments have come and gone, the Cable Car Classic remains and has a distinct retro feel to it.

Not only hasn't the original four-team, two-round format been altered, but cable car lamps built by inmates at San Quentin prison are still the memento given to every participant.

Santo Domingo said the unique gifts, which are purchased every year from the San Quentin gift shop, tend to leave a lasting impression.

``In our third year, 1969, Bobby Knight was here with Army,'' Santo Domingo said. ``I ran into Bobby when he was still at Indiana, and he told me that when his mother passed away he made sure he got the cable car back.''

The keepsake -- and the tournament name -- were the result of a brain-storming lunch Santo Domingo, a former public relations director with the Giants, and Jupiter, a former sportswriter with the San Francisco Examiner, had in San Francisco.

As the pair left the restaurant, Santo Domingo said, they heard a cable car bell ring.

The tournament had a name and concept, but attracting the teams -- at least initially -- proved to be difficult. Santo Domingo said he called on his sportswriter contacts to put him in touch with coaches. Then it was up to Santo Domingo and Jupiter to sell the benefits of bringing teams to the West Coast in December.

``When you first start something people don't know what to think,'' Santo Domingo said. ``Nobody had every heard of the Cable Car Classic.''

The tournament got its big break -- and first marquee participant -- when 1963 NCAA Champion Loyola (Illinois) agreed to play in the inaugural Cable Car Classic.

Shaky start

The first Cable Car Classic barely attracted 3,000 fans at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, and Santo Domingo said that is the only time he worried the event might not succeed.

The Cable Car Classic has been held at numerous venues through the years, moving from the Civic Auditorium to the Cow Palace to the Oakland Coliseum Arena and even one year at USF. But other than a three-year run at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, it has found a home at SCU since 1977.

Although the Cable Car Classic has solid corporate support and Santo Domingo said the event is strong as ever despite modest attendance, the changing climate in college basketball has affected the event. In recent years, the Cable Car Classic has failed to attract as many prominent programs as during its heyday in the early 1980s, when at least half the field could be expected to be ranked teams.

``It used to be a little easier, but ESPN and big TV games kind of cuts down on the teams we can attract because they want bigger money or to be on TV,'' Santo Domingo said.

The Cable Car Classic also is something of a dinosaur because of its format. Single-game tournaments like the John Wooden Classic and Pete Newell Challenge are preferred by many top programs because they don't want to give up two games on the road. The NCAA limit on the number of games teams can play also has affected the Cable Car Classic's ability to attract top teams.

Santo Domingo said altering the format has been considered, but he isn't wild about the idea.

``We'll see. I still like the tournament atmosphere because it gives them a little something to play for,'' Santo Domingo said. ``We still get good teams every year. We manage to get at least one headliner.''

One constant in the tournament field is Santa Clara. The Broncos have participated in every Cable Car Classic, winning the championship game 13 times, including the past two.

Drawing big names

But the biggest attraction -- and the vision Santo Domingo and Jupiter had when creating the event -- is exposing Bay Area basketball fans to players from around the country.

The visiting alumni of the Cable Car classic is a veritable who's-who of college basketball history. Among the coaches who have participated are Dean Smith (North Carolina), Knight (Army), Mike Krzyzewski (Army) and George Ireland (Loyola, Ill.). Some of the prominent players have included Virginia's Ralph Sampson, Georgia Tech's Stephon Marbury, North Carolina's Jordan and Worthy, Seton Hall's Mark Bryant, and Wake Forest's Muggsy Bogues.

The wealth of talent has traditionally produced evenly matched games. Sixteen of the past 44 Cable Car Classic games have been decided by five points or fewer, and since 1990, only three championship games have been decided by more than nine points.

``I don't know if we've been lucky or if the tournament atmosphere has something to say about that,'' Santo Domingo said. ``The kids want to play for a championship, not the consolation game.''