LAHAINA, Hawaii — About a 400-meter sprint from the Pacific Ocean, Dave Odom sits on the steps outside the Lahaina Civic Center, palm trees in his view, and recalls how one of the worst moments in his coaching career led him to where he is today.
Odom was on the bench as a member of Terry Holland’s Virginia coaching staff when the top-ranked, unbeaten Cavaliers were upset by NAIA program Chaminade on Dec. 23, 1982.
“We had already beaten Duke, Georgetown with Patrick Ewing, Houston with (Hakeem) Olajuwon, (Clyde) Drexler, all those guys,” Odom said. “Then we went to Honolulu.”
That’s where the Silverswords shocked the college basketball world, upending Ralph Sampson, that season’s national player of the year, and the Cavaliers 77-72.
It was a tough blow for mighty Virginia. But the win for the tiny island school produced a basketball boon in the 50th state and led to the development of what we now know as the Maui Invitational.
Odom, the former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach, is now the tournament’s chairman.
The 29th Maui Invitational, the fourth under Odom’s direction, begins Monday with Illinois among the eight teams in the field.
“I hate that we lost the game but for a lot of reasons, it was probably the best thing that could happen for college basketball across the board because it got teams coming out here on a regular basis,” Odom said.
Even with a bevy of early season tournaments popping up each November, the Maui Invitational remains at the top in terms of prestige.
Thanksgiving week doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving week unless big-time college basketball programs are on ESPN playing inside that itty-bitty gym — with the cameras relaying beautiful scenery to frozen Midwesterners.
It wasn’t always that way.
Jim O’Connell covered the first of his 19 Maui Invitationals for The Associated Press in 1988. He was there before ESPN televised all the games and was one of the few media who made the trip.
“It sounds kind of corny, but I kind of feel like it’s my tournament,” said O’Connell, who no longer covers the tournament because a health issue prevents him from taking long flights. “I’m always checking in on what’s happening out there.”
In those 19 years, O’Connell saw a little bit of everything.
One year, before air conditioning was installed in 2003, someone came up with the idea to open the windows at Lahaina Civic Center to get air circulating inside the sweltering 2,400-seat gym. As it turns out, opening the windows during sugar cane season wasn’t a wise idea.
“The brown dirt started coming in and they had kids down on their hands and knees with towels and people trying to clean it up,” O’Connell said. “It got really crazy. That never happened again.”
Another time O’Connell watched as hundreds of blue-clad Kentucky fans invaded the arena, clogging the entrances to watch the Wildcats participate in the tournament.
A local was waiting patiently behind them — to renew his driver’s license.
“Lahaina Civic Center is the local DMV,” O’Connell said. “That’s what makes it so great. It keeps that hometown feel to it while these monster players are out there and it’s really special to see.”
About that gym: It’s small, it gets hot, but it’s what makes the Maui Invitational unique.
Since the tournament started in 1984, Maui County has invested more than $1 million in the arena, updating the playing surface, installing new rollaway bleachers, a scoreboard, improved lighting and thankfully, air conditioning.
Sean Harrington wasn’t so lucky. He played in the event with Illinois in 2000. Bill Self’s first team finished second to Arizona in what would be the first of three matchups that season between the Top 10 powers.
“Guys were cramping up because it was just so hot in there,” Harrington said. “The locker rooms are close to the floor; you always see on TV the cameramen pan to the teams that are playing next, overlooking the game that is going on. You can hear the other coaches in the other locker room because the walls are so thin. That adds to the excitement and the experience and that makes it a really fun event.”
While there are early season games played on aircraft carriers and events at Madison Square Garden, Maui is still able to attract seven major college programs to join annual entrant Chaminade, now a Division II program.
The attraction? That’s easy.
The island is regularly at or near the top of travel lists as the top resort destination in the world.
“We’ve got the location and atmosphere that goes with it,” Odom said, while reminding that temperatures reached the 80s on the island Friday.
“We’ve got the best venue for games like this at this time of the year. If you go to the other places, you can count the number of people in the stands. Here, it’s going to be packed. That raises the atmosphere. And we always have a great field. A lot of people who do the scheduling at these other tournaments, they’ll try to get four or five really good teams and then three or four that are less than that.”
Like the year Harrington and Co. went west, the current group of Illini is operating under a first-year coach in John Groce.
The long trip was a bonding experience for Harrington’s squad, which beat UNLV and No. 6 Maryland at Maui before losing to top-ranked Arizona.
Most of the players’ families didn’t make the trip, so the players spent the week hanging out with one another and getting to know their new coaching staff and their families.
“The competition of it and being together really bonded us,” Harrington said. “There’s always good times, but it was a really good situation for us to get away and get to know each other and kind of grow as a team.”
It could have the same impact on the current Illinois team, particularly if the results on the court are favorable. A couple of wins on the islands can go a long way in building team chemistry while being so far away from home. A rough showing, not so much.
Illinois (3-0) opens against USC at 11 p.m. Monday.
“It’s a really important part of the season for them,” Harrington said. “They can get some good bonding time, have a great experience and its something that can jump start them and get them some confidence.”