The rapid rise and unfortunate demise of the Roundball Classic

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Aaron Nesmith celebrates with Josiah James and Denham Wojcik during the championship game of the 2017 annual Roundball Classic in North Charleston. 

Aaron Nesmith and his dad, Bernie, used to like to sit close to the court, somewhere down low behind the team benches so that they could feel the energy of it all.

Nothing compared to the spirit of the Roundball Classic back then. Elite talent from out of state would collide with Charleston’s best. Countless future college players on display, tons of pros — these were high school basketball players but they felt like heroes to kids like Aaron.

Nesmith was just a fifth-grader when Wando won the annual holiday tournament in 2010. He told his dad that night one day that was going to be him out there. Not just playing either. He told Bernie that he was going to win a Roundball championship.

It’s the stories that have made the Roundball Classic so special the past three decades. Stories turn to legends as years pass. Now they’re all that’s left.

The Roundball Classic, after 27 consecutive years of hosting some of the nation’s top high school basketball talent in Charleston, will not be played this winter.

The annual event attracted more than 500 future college basketball players and more than 100 college football players throughout its storied history.

“It breaks your heart,” event organizer Danny Kassis said. Kassis has contributed to the Roundball Classic in various roles for the past 22 years. “Once you lose momentum, it’s just so tough.”

Rosser Thrash, for decades, was connected to nearly every high school athletic department in town as owner of the local sporting goods shop T&T Sports.

He was a community sports visionary. He created the Sertoma Football Classic in 1971 to raise money for local nonprofits. The jamboree became one of the largest preseason high school football events in the state over the next five decades.

He created the Roundball Classic in 1993 to facilitate similar non-profit efforts. It became the hosting North Charleston Rotary Club’s largest fundraiser, collecting nearly $500,000 in scholarship money and donating thousands more to the American Red Cross and other local charities.

“We created a model of high service that really catered to the teams and the community,” Kassis said. “When we started this thing, AAU wasn’t what it is today. Kids were getting scholarship offers here after games. Every year more teams from all over the country wanted to be a part of it.”

The Roundball Classic, at its height, rivaled some of the nation’s top basketball showcases. Huge crowds filled The Citadel’s McAlister Field House. Plenty more tuned into nationally televised championship games.

Dematha (Md.) won the 1997 championship with a backcourt of Keith Bogans and Joe Forte. Both played in the NBA. That team, ranked third in the nation that year, was loaded with 10 players who went on to play college basketball, and at the likes of Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State and Kentucky. An 11th played football for Notre Dame.

Westchester (Calif.) brought eight future college players to the 2000 tournament. Four would play in the NBA, including Trevor Ariza, a 2009 NBA champion who just finished his 16th year in the league this season. Still, Westchester was outdone that year by Bishop O’Connell (Va.) who itself brought seven future college basketball players.

“When I think of it, I think of great competition,” Wando coach Chris Warzynski said in 2016. Warzynski was an assistant on the Warriors’ 2010 championship team. “All of the great talent that’s come through here, all the history, the NBA guys, the NFL guys, obviously all of the college players, the nationally ranked high school teams.”

Courtney Brown was an all-state forward for Macedonia in the 1994 Roundball Classic. He’d eventually become the No. 1 overall pick of the 2000 NFL Draft. Macedonia had three Division I football players on that team, including Joe Hamilton who too played in the NFL. Macedonia still couldn’t contend that year with Wando, who won the tournament behind Quintas Summers averaging 24 points per game, and the rebounding of future Clemson quarterback Jason Flanders.

Before Jadaveon Clowney was the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, he was a forward for South Pointe in the 2007 Roundball on a team that included future Super Bowl champion Stephon Gilmore. South Pointe lost that year to Porter-Gaud, who was led by future two-time NBA all-star Khris Middleton.

“This is my 23rd year coaching and of all the tournaments, the Roundball Classic is one of the better organized and well run,” said Kevin Diverio, coach of 2015 champion Don Bosco (N.J.), in 2017. “The competition is great. It’s a great opportunity to face high-caliber competition from other states. We jump at the opportunity to play in it.”

Thrasher passed away in 2017. He was 84 years old. T&T Sports closed the public retail side of the store in 2018. The Sertoma Football Classic ended in 2019 after a 47-year run. It was the Roundball Classic’s turn this year.

Dwindling resources and declining Rotary Club membership, along with failed adjustments to the Roundball format and the rise of competing tournaments within the state have hampered the event for years. The field expanded from eight teams to 12 in 2003. It moved to West Ashley High School in 2007 in effort to save money but still expanded again, now to 16 teams. Two years later it moved to North Charleston High School, where it remained until last year when it moved to the North Charleston Athletic Center.

There were hopes the new venue would provide a fresh start for the tournament. The Rotary Club simply didn’t have the manpower to sustain it any longer. Efforts to transition the event into the hands of new management sputtered. Attendance rose and fell but never matched the old crowds at The Citadel.

“We’ve been battling this kind of decline for years,” Kassis said. “We worked in earnest to make it work. At the end of the day, there were too many challenges in the way."

There’s hope that the Roundball Classic, with proper organization and resources, might one day return. Coaches, both local and otherwise, have already voiced their commitment to coming back if the tournament should.

It's possible, Kassis said, but will require some tweaking of the model and better organizational support from funding to operations. Some potential investors have shown mild interest in exploring possibilities. 

For now, though, the stories of the Roundball will have to sustain its legend.

Two years ago, a Charleston team became the first local to win the tournament in half a decade. Its best player scored 29 points in the championship game and earned Most Outstanding honors.

It was Nesmith, who last month declared for the NBA draft. Bernie was down low by the floor that night as his son accepted the tournament's championship trophy, just as he said he one day would. 

“The atmosphere is great and the energy is top notch," Nesmith said then. "The tradition, I believe, will never end.”

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