Around 2:15 p.m. on the day after Christmas in 1987, the Sullivan Central High School Cougars sprinted on to the court at Bristol’s Viking Hall and began preparing for their first-round game in the Arby’s Classic.
As freshman Jared Harrison made his way through the layup line, he happened to look down at the other end of the court and catch a glimpse of Central’s opponent that day – the Patrick Henry Patriots from Roanoke, Virginia.
“I could see we were physically outmatched,” Harrison said. “They had what looked like a college team on the floor. It looked their guys had thick legs for arms.”
The Patriots would flex their muscles in rolling to an 82-60 victory over a team that would eventually finish tied for first place in the Big 10 Conference with the Dobyns-Bennett Indians.
Patrick Henry won all four of its games by double digits in claiming the Arby’s Classic championship, but more importantly the team from Roanoke played a pivotal role in taking the annual basketball tournament to a whole new level.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 Arby’s Classic and left many folks with a major void in their post-Christmas plans.
Perhaps they will take a moment to reflect on tournament’s past and a seminal moment occurred 33 years ago in what is regarded as the best Arby’s Classic field of all time.
All four semifinalists won state championships a few months later.
Each of those semifinalists was led by a future NBA player.
The fifth installment of the tourney was the first to not feature a local team in the semifinals.
It didn’t matter as fans still packed out Viking Hall to see the out-of-towners as the Arby’s Classic officially transformed from a marquee holiday tournament to a must-see happening.
“That was the year that we knew that we were on the way,” said longtime tournament director and co-founder Dale Burns. “I remember seeing [Athletic Director] Bill Bingham in the hallway and he was carrying two big black garbage bags. I was like, ‘Coach, what do you got in those bags?’ and he leaned over and whispered ‘Money.’ We had great crowds with big-time players. It was something special.”
Longtime high school hoops and recruiting guru Bob Gibbons wrote that the Arby’s Classic had become “one of the top five tournaments in the country,” shortly after the conclusion of the 1987 event.
The unquestioned top team in this top tournament was Patrick Henry, which entered the game ranked 19th in the nation by USA Today.
The linchpin for the Patriots was 6-foot-7 junior forward George Lynch, who earned tournament MVP honors after averaging 22.3 points and 13.4 rebounds per contest in Bristol. He later starred for the 1993 NCAA title team at the University of North Carolina and played 12 seasons in the NBA.
Lynch was far from the only playmaker for the team, however.
Curtis Blair eventually became a Colonial Athletic Association player of the year at the University of Richmond and after playing professionally overseas reached the NBA as a referee.
Point guard Percy Covington would start at Virginia Military Institute, Russell Turner scored more than 2,000 career points at NCAA Division III Hampden-Sydney and is now the head coach at the University of California-Irvine and Bernard Basham played football (and briefly basketball) for the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Melvin Davis was yet another standout for Patrick Henry as well.
“That starting five was scary good,” Harrison said.
With head coach Woody Deans calling the shots, PH powered its way to the 1988 VHSL Group AAA state championship. In the state semifinals, they beat Indian River (led by national prep player of the year Alonzo Mourning) by 16 points.
They certainly took care of business in Bristol.
“We were focused that year,” Lynch said. “It wasn’t about who was going to be the leading scorer. We had been playing together for several years, all of us liked each other and we knew that what it took to win was team basketball.”
Before zapping Zo in March, PH-Roanoke had to deal with another big man from Virginia in the Arby’s Classic.
Having laid the smack down on Sullivan Central and Sumter (South Carolina) in its first two games, PH-Roanoke met defending VHSL Group AA state champion Brunswick in what was a dream matchup for many folks.
Brunswick entered the semifinal game on a 33-game winning streak and had edged Science Hill, 47-45, the day before. The headliner for the Bulldogs was 6-foot-6 senior Bryant Stith, a University of Virginia signee and future NBA starter for the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We had gone to a Five-Star basketball camp in Radford the summer before my senior year and a lot of those guys [from Patrick Henry] were there,” Stith said. “We were just talking trash to each other saying if we played y’all we would win. We had no idea that we would be matched up in the Arby’s Classic in Bristol, Tennessee. It was so fun. We didn’t have social media back then, but we would call their team at the hotel and they’d call us and we’d leave each other messages. It was just so cool to play against one another.”
Brunswick suffered a 76-60 loss to PH as a 14-2 run to open the third quarter sealed the deal. The Bulldogs ended up taking third-place in the event and would repeat as state champs a few months later.
The team’s head coach, Gerald Burke, happened to be a native of Nickelsville, Virginia.
“Going into that season we had been begging our coach to schedule us against some of the top competition in the Triple-A division,” Stith said. “But Coach Burke didn’t tell us he had something even more special up his sleeve when he signed us up for the Arby’s Classic. That just streamlined our focus the rest of the year.
“As good as we thought we were and as good as we wanted to be, we lost to Patrick Henry and that got us back focused and we knew what areas we had to improve on.”
The Griffin Bears from Georgia would be PH’s opponent in the finals as they advanced with a 70-62 semifinal win over Chattanooga Brainerd.
Brainerd featured University of Tennessee recruit Jay Price and future Georgia Tech and Phoenix Suns power forward Malcolm Mackey.
“I remember those cats,” said Wiley Henley, a senior for Griffin. “They were stunned when we beat them.”
Darrin Hancock was just a sophomore for Griffin, but was already among the most highly-touted prep hoopsters in the country.
He was a versatile 6-foot-6 stud who later played on a NCAA Final Four team at Kansas and spent time in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs.
“He was a man among boys,” Henley said. “He could have gone to the NBA right out of high school.”
Added David Pack, a senior on the squad, “He had no equal in Georgia high school basketball during the years he played.”
What did Calvin Sinkfield have to say about his teammate? “Darrin was a naturally gifted athlete,” Sinkfield said.
Hancock won the slam dunk contest at the Arby’s Classic, but his team would not claim the championship.
The Bears suffered an 88-66 loss to PH-Roanoke as Lynch went for 26 points and 13 rebounds.
Griffin coach James Martin received a technical foul during a 17-0 second-quarter run by PH and he didn’t even take his team to the locker room at halftime as the Bears remained on the bench.
“I don’t have nothin’ to say,” Martin told the Bristol Herald Courier’s Steve Bawden following the game. “All you need to do is get some good officiating next year. We missed our shots, they made theirs. They got the calls, we didn’t. Sure, they’re good. But not 22 points better than us.”
Martin and Deans had gotten in a tiff prior to the game over which side of the court each team would warm up on. Martin eventually got his way on the arrangements.
“I told him that he might’ve won the argument,” Deans told the media afterward. “But that might be the only thing he’d win tonight.”
What does Henley think now that he’s had decades to look back on it?
“They were bigger and stronger than us, but not as fast and athletic,” Henley said. “There were a lot of blown calls. We played man-to-man full court and it seemed like everything was petty calls.”
Griffin would not lose another game that season in claiming Georgia’s AAAA state championship.
Chattanooga Brainerd placed fourth in the Arby’s Classic, but head coach Robert High’s club was first in the state in March as the Panthers claimed the TSSAA Class AAA championship in Nashville.
Brainerd suffered a 66-58 loss to Brunswick in the third-place game. Price’s final collegiate game at UT four years later happened to come to Stith and the Virginia Cavaliers in the second round of the 1992 NIT.
“The Arby’s Classic was definitely special,” said Price, who scored 40 points in a first-round win over Greeneville. “There was so much talent there. No doubt about it, that helped us. We learned so much from playing against those guys. You didn’t have social media or the internet – all we had was VHS tapes and our memory. We tried to learn from every game we played and you start trying to do some things that you saw the very good players do and implement in your game.”
There had been superstars in the Arby’s Classic before (Pulaski County’s Michael Porter being the most notable), there would be other prospects in the future people filled up Viking Hall to see (Terry Kirby, Ron Mercer, Ray Allen, Brandan Wright, Isaiah Wilkins, too many others to list) and the adored local heroes (Council’s Brad Nuckles, David Crockett’s Patrick Good, Gate City’s Mac McClung most recently), but the ‘87 event stands on its own to those who were in the stands and those on the court.
“I talked to George Lynch a while back and we talked about that Arby’s Classic,” Price said. “He said, ‘Man, there was a team from Tennessee there that had Malcolm Mackey and a guy that could really jump.’ It took him a moment to realize that was our team and that was me. That one tournament meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Now, for a look at high school basketball events which occurred this week in history:
Dec. 29, 1969
Sam Boyd scored 27 points, but it wasn’t enough as Tennessee High dropped a 51-47 decision to Lenoir City in the Kingsport Invitational Tournament.
Dec. 28, 1977
Mike Cox banked in a 15-foot jumper at the buzzer as Sullivan West eked out a 52-50 overtime win over Sullivan Central. … Johnny Hicks went for 13 points and 15 rebounds as Ervinton edged Castlewood, 64-63, in the Russell-Dickenson Holiday Tournament. … Randal Wilson had 25 points and 11 rebounds as Honaker posted a 61-55 victory over Lebanon in the Russell-Dickenson Holiday Tournament.
Dec. 28, 1983
Michael Porter (21 points, nine assists, five blocks) starred as Pulaski County vanquished Virginia High, 66-58, in the quarterfinal’s of the Arby’s Mountain Empire Classic. … Fred Phillips fired in 31 points and Randy Lowe hauled down 15 rebounds as Richlands recorded a 69-48 victory over Graham in the Tazewell County Tournament. … Despite 20 points from Bryan Curd, Sullivan East suffered an 81-60 loss to A.C. Flora (South Carolina) in the Arby’s Mountain Empire Classic.
Brent Messer scored 23 points and hit the go-ahead free throws with 5.3 seconds remaining as Tennessee High edged Statesboro (Georgia), 46-44, in the Arby’s Classic. … Despite 30 points from Stacy Ervin, Twin Springs dropped a 59-57 decision to Sullivan Central in the Arby’s Classic. Steve Swift led a balanced Central attack with 14 points. … Rahim Lockhart’s 20-point, 11-rebound, six-block masterpiece led the way for Piney Woods (Mississippi) in an 85-63 win over Sullivan North in the Arby’s Classic.
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1987 Arby’s Classic All-Tournament Team
George Lynch, Patrick Henry-Roanoke (MVP)
He averaged 22.3 points and 13.4 rebounds in Bristol, won a 1993 NCAA title at North Carolina and spent 12 seasons in the NBA.
Percy Covington, Patrick Henry-Roanoke
He’d dish out 432 assists in four seasons at Virginia Military Institute.
Curtis Blair, Patrick Henry-Roanoke
He had 18 points in the Arby’s Classic title game, later starred at the University of Richmond and is now a NBA referee.
Andre Favors, Griffin
He scored 20 points in a double-overtime win over Jefferson County in the semifinals.
Darrin Hancock, Griffin
The Slam Dunk Contest champion had 23 points in the finals and later played at Kansas and in the NBA.
Reginald Taylor, Brunswick
He had 26 points and nine rebounds in a win over Brainerd in the third-place game.
Bryant Stith, Brunswick
His thunderous dunks and smooth skills endeared him to the crowd at Viking Hall. He later played at the University of Virginia and 10 seasons in the NBA.
Malcom Mackey, Chattanooga Brainerd
He was a star at Georgia Tech where he once appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was a first-round draft pick of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
Jay Price, Chattanooga Brainerd
He scored 40 points in a first-round win over Greeneville and played four seasons at the University of Tennessee.
Ronnie Robinson, Cookeville
He played collegiately at both Tennessee and Tennessee Tech.
1987 Arby’s Classic Results
Saturday, Dec. 26
Jefferson County 60, Daniel Boone 55
Sumter (S.C.) 72, Dobyns-Bennett 64
Science Hill 64, Cookeville 52
Patrick Henry-Roanoke 82, Sullivan Central 60
Chattanooga Brainerd 100, Greeneville 61
Northwestern (S.C.) 58, Tennessee High 53
Brunswick 63, Sullivan South 42
Griffin (Ga.) 72, Sullivan North 55
Monday, Dec. 28
Quarterfinals: Brunswick 47, Science Hill 45
Quarterfinals: Patrick Henry-Roanoke 83, Sumter (S.C.) 65
Quarterfinals: Griffin (Ga.) 72, Jefferson County 68 (2OT)
Quarterfinals: Brainerd 65, Northwestern (S.C.) 55
Losers Bracket: Cookeville 65, Sullivan South 48
Losers Bracket: Daniel Boone 62, Sullivan North 50
Losers Bracket: Sullivan Central 75, Dobyns-Bennett 63
Losers Bracket: Greeneville 43, Tennessee High 41
Tuesday, Dec. 29
Semifinals: Patrick Henry-Roanoke 76, Brunswick 60
Semifinals: Griffin (Ga.) 70, Brainerd 62
Losers Bracket: Jefferson County 54, Northwestern (S.C.) 52
Losers Bracket: Science Hill 63, Sumter (S.C.) 62
Losers Bracket: Cookeville 67, Sullivan Central 59