If you sense a void in the local holiday sports scene, you are correct.
After a 35-year run that brought dozens of eventual NBA players to Kissimmee for Christmas, the Great Florida Shootout high school basketball tournament has come to an end.
Long hosted by the Kissimmee Rotary Club, the tournament crowned two mythical high school national champions during its reign.
But, more importantly, the tournament’s players received exposure to the nation’s top college coaches, and proceeds from the event permitted the Rotary Club, even today, to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to local students.
The tournament, started in 1981 by former Osceola High Coach Ed Kershner and former Rotary Club member Roger Jones, rocketed in popularity during the 1980s, drawing overflow crowds to the old OHS gym for a week-long holiday basketball feast.
Eventual NBA stars Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (who played under the name Chris Jackson at the Shootout), Rasheed Wallace, Keyon Dooling, Jason Kidd, Elton Brand, JR Smith and Bobby Hurley are only a sampling of the amazing talent that played at the Shootout during its heyday.
“We had the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country here (in 1988) in St. Anthony’s (N.J.) and Bronx Tolentine, and we (Osceola High) played them back-to-back,” Ed Kershner recalled last week. “We had coaches from all over in the hospitality room. The top player-rating publications were here. It was something that was great not only for Osceola High and for our community, but it was great for the state of Florida.”
But, over the past decade, the tournament’s popularity declined. Jones, the backbone of the tournament for 25 years, the man most responsible for recruiting teams to the Shootout, stepped down in the early 2000s. Also, many of the Rotary Club members, who for decades sacrificed their time and dedicated their holidays to the tournament, have retired.
“It’s hard to describe the amount of work that goes into putting on a tournament like the Shootout,” Jones, who retired from his sporting goods business last year, said. “it was a year-around job for me, but it was a labor of love. But, there came a point where there were other things I had to take care of. We turned the tournament over to the outstanding people at Rotary, and they did a fine job with it for a long time.”
The Shootout moved from Osceola High to the newly-constructed Kissimmee Civic Center in 1994 where it stayed for more than a decade before shifting to Poinciana High for the tournament’s 25th anniversary in 2005. It moved again to Heritage Park in 2009 for two years before going back to the Civic Center and then, in 2013, to the new OHS gym.
But, for the last few years, Rotary member Pete Edwards did most of the organizational work along with OHS Coach Nate Alexander.
“A lot of the Rotary people who worked at the Shootout for all those years just couldn’t do it any more. I guess you could say a lot of them just got tired,” Edwards said. “It was a tremendous amount of work to make the tournament work, and without the help, it was hard to keep it going.”
Alexander said that the tournament became a money-losing proposition for his program.
“It was a lack of funding, and with us going in the hole a little every year and all the time and work involved, it just wasn’t working,” he said.
Kershner, the Oviedo High coach for the past 20 years and one of the most prominent prep basketball coaches in the country, started the tournament shortly after arriving at OHS from Indiana with the goal of giving his players the opportunity to play against outstanding competition.
Jones, then a Rotary Club member, became a big fan after attending the OHS games. He and other local leaders like Edwards, Lee Koepke and Dick Hord were enthused by Kershner’s ability to elevate the Kowboys program.
Jones liked the idea of bringing top-flight basketball teams to Kissimmee and the Rotary Club leadership agreed. Eventually, the people running the Shootout read like a Who’s Who of Kissimmee’s community leaders.
“People like Jim Salisbury, who I turned most of the operations over to, Don Rhodes, Andy Pisciotto and of course David Apfelbaum (who chaired the tournament for many years) and so many others, they did a phenomenal job in making it a success,” Jones said. “Hundreds of people worked for us tirelessly – and they weren’t getting paid – to make the tournament the best in in the country. People don’t understand how hard it is to keep something like that going. There probably weren’t two or three tournaments in the country equal to what we were doing in the 80s and 90s.”
There were eight teams in the inaugural Shootout, all from Central Florida. Kershner’s Kowboys won the first championship over Haines City. Osceola won again in 1982, when the tournament expanded to 12 teams. Those 1982-83 Kowboys went on to win the Class 3A state championship and finish 37-0 behind All-Americans Frank Ford and Jimmy McCrimon. They were the first of dozens of Shootout teams to win a state championship.
Osceola won again in 2013, becoming the only school to win three Shootout crowns. Kershner’s Oviedo Lions are one of several teams to win twice.
The Shootout expanded to 16 teams for the first time in 1983, beginning a period of increasing national exposure under Jones’ supervision that crested in 1988 when St. Anthony’s, with Bobby Hurley, defeated Miami High at the OHS gym for the mythical national championship.
“We had it in mind all along to keep expanding, to look for the good teams and bring them here,” said Kershner. “Not only for competition for our team, but for everyone in Central Florida to have a chance to see some great basketball teams. I think that worked out pretty well.”
Jones said it became easier to attract the nation’s best teams as word of the Shootout’s reputation for hospitality, good weather and great attractions spread.
“I guess the idea of being right down the road from Disney, and having the chance to play against the very best teams in the country, was appealing to a lot of people,” Jones said. “Before you know it we had Stanley Roberts and Chris Jackson in here, and some of the top coaches like (George Tech’s) Bobby Cremins and the guys from North Carolina and Auburn looking for rides.”
Twice in a three-year span the Shootout hosted the mythical national champion: St. Anthony’s in 1988 and Philadelphia Simon-Gratz with Wallace (Detroit Pistons) in 1990.
Prominent guest speakers, like former Auburn football Coach Terry Bowden and former coach and current ESPN commentator Seth Greenberg, addressed the players at the Shootout’s annual Sunday breakfast.
For several years, an eight-team girls Shootout tournament was held.
Kershner is the only coach with four Shootout championships. He won his third and fourth with Oviedo (2000 and 2006).
But, it is a couple of losses that stick in Kershner’s mind, he said during an interview for the tournament’s 25th anniversary.
“I remember we (the Kowboys) led St. Anthony’s after three and a half quarters (in 1988),” he said. “I ran into (Coach) Bob Hurley (Sr.) later that year and he told me that we gave him the toughest game of anyone, and that was pretty satisfying to hear. And then, we were leading Tolentine in the third-place game, but it was pretty tough to go against teams like that back to back and we kind of wore down.”
The tournament committee, recognizing the growing local Hispanic population, brought several teams from Puerto Rico to the tournament starting in the early 2000s.
The first time that happened, in 2003 at the Civic Center under Chairwoman Dorothy Buse, the Shootout drew record attendance and more than 2,500 flag-waving fans for the final when the island nation’s Colegio Bautista de Cauguas played St. Benedict’s, N.J., for the championship. St. Benedict’s, with JR Smith winning the MVP award, won its second Shootout title in a row.
After that, the tournament’s popularity slowly began to wane, especially during the Great Recession. A variety of changes were introduced. The tournament dropped back to eight teams in 2011 to reduce costs. In 2012 it became a 16-team event again but crowned two champions in eight-team brackets.
The 35th and final Shootout champion, Riviera Beach Suncoast, beat Puerto Rico’s Academia Santa Maria in the finals last December.
But, the game was played before a sparse crowd at the OHS gym, a sign that the tournament’s best days had perhaps come and gone.
Jones and Kershner both remain involved in community service by spearheading other outstanding prep tournaments.
Jones has partnered with OHS softball coach George Coffey for the past 20 years to produce the springtime Kissimmee Klassic, considered one of the best high school softball tournaments in the nation.
Kershner, nearing 900 career victories, recently held his 11th Hoops For A Heart tournament at Oviedo which raises funds for charity.
Neither man is upset or disappointed to see the Shootout end.
“Not at all. It just makes you appreciate the fact that we had something very special here for a long, long time. It makes you realize the amount of effort and organization that it takes to make something like that happen, and all of the credit in the world goes to those great people at Rotary and in that community who made that happen for all of those years,” Kershner said. “The best part of it was that it did a lot of good for a lot of people, and that’s what it’s about, to help people, isn’t it?”
Jones agreed. “I would say that it has been my pleasure to be associated with an event that raised I don’t know how much money for scholarships, and that brought the folks here the very best basketball in the country to enjoy. It was a lot of hard work, but it was a lot of fun. I’d say that we all had a great time with it.”