After a 17-year hiatus, The King Cotton Holiday Classic basketball tournament, which was once deemed by the New York Times as the nation's top high school basketball tournament during its heyday, is back.
And it's coming along with more than a half-million dollars worth of renovations to the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
Go Forward Pine Bluff, the City of Pine Bluff, Simmons Bank and a host of others will be sponsoring and volunteering to put on the event at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Dec. 27-29.
A news conference was held at the convention center Wednesday to announce the tournament's return.
The tournament is part of the Delta Celebration Series funded by GFPB.
It will feature a field of nine teams, including: Columbus High School in Columbus, Mississippi, ranked number one in Mississippi and number 35 nationally;
Houston Math, Science and Technology Center in Houston, ranked number 16 in Texas and number 91 nationally. Two of their players are ranked in the top 50 players for 2019 in the state of Texas;
Landry Walker High School in New Orleans, ranked number four in Louisiana; Gulliver Preparatory School in Pinecrest, Florida, which has two players ranked in the top 75 national class of 2020 and has players ranked number five and seven in the state of Florida;
The Park School of Buffalo in Snyder, New York, a 2018 state of New York championship team ranked number four in New York and 102nd nationally; Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, named “Sports School of the Century” by Sports Illustrated in 2005;
Mills University Studies High School in Sweet Home, Arkansas, ranked number four in Arkansas and number 104th nationally;
Jacksonville High School in Jacksonville, Arkansas, and Pine Bluff High School, which won the 2015 6A state championship.
Travis Creed founded the King Cotton Classic in 1983 and said on Wednesday that during the 17 years that the classic was played, many memorable moments occurred, including the first nationally-televised high school basketball game, which was Pine Bluff High School and Flint Hill Prep on Dec. 28, 1987.
Creed said that he envisions the return of the King Cotton Classic as a community event that will make Pine Bluff a better place.
“King Cotton Holiday Classic is the best example of what I know can happen in a community when everybody gets on the same page,” Creed said.
“All of the leaders and the community get together and say we're going to make this work. We literally didn't hear no, everybody wanted to help. When I think about Pine Bluff now I really hope that these words will be remembered because the King Cotton Holiday Classic is right where Pine Bluff needs to be in the future, we need to all get on the same page.”
Economically, the city of Pine Bluff has taken a decline since the days of the King Cotton Holiday Classic. Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington sees this as a city-altering event.
According to Washington, when she first took office, she would always hear how Pine Bluff is going down fast and it will never be what it once was.
With the announcement of the King Cotton Holiday Classic returning, Washington said she sees nothing but progression for Pine Bluff as a whole.
“On behalf of the citizens of Pine Bluff, I am thrilled to welcome you this morning,” Washington said.
“I'm proud to say that the city of Pine Bluff has been moving forward with the initiative to improve the quality of life. I am convinced that there has never been a more important time for our community than right now. Pine Bluff is a city of progress, and Pine Bluff is a city on the move.”
The CEO of the presenting sponsor Go Forward Pine Bluff, Ryan Watley, said GFPB was a key component in the resurgence of the King Cotton Holiday Classic. In 2017, citizens agreed to fund the Go Forward plan through a five-eighths cent sales tax.
A part of the plan was to make Pine Bluff a point of destination.
Watley said he is happy that they were able to play a part in bringing a tournament of this magnitude back home.
“Today we are here to officially announce the granddaddy of them all,” Watley said.
“This community will once again assemble those near and far to the Pine Bluff Convention Center for a first class basketball tournament. The King Cotton is one of Pine Bluff's most prized possessions, and it holds a special place in the hearts of those who've ever attended. With the return, we continue the resurrection of pride and the quality of life throughout Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas.”
Watley mentioned that this would not be possible without the title sponsor Simmons Bank and George Makris, chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Incorporation.
More important to Watley is that Makris is a Pine Bluff native who continues to invest in the community. Other sponsors include Jefferson Regional Medical Center, which will provide a sports medicine component to the tournament, and MK distributors.
Tournament Director Samuel Glover said he has worked for more than a year with to put the event together.
“It's an event that gives more steam to the locomotive that is the city of Pine Bluff,” Glover said. “A little over a year ago we began this journey to give light to the king that's above every high school tournament in the country.”
Pine Bluff Convention Center Executive Director Joseph McCorvey said he is all for the return of the King Cotton Holiday Classic. In order to enhance the experience during the tournament, and for events at the convention center going forward, there are renovations taking place.
“These upgrades will provide a greater visitor experience during the tournament as well as position this Convention Center to attract future sports tournaments and special events,” McCorvy said.”We will be one of the top mid-size arenas in the state of Arkansas.”
Renovations will include rehabilitated public restrooms, concession stands, a fresh coat of paint in the arena, new score tables with LED displays, message boards on the east and west walls of the arena, a new video board, new lighting and more.
Maurice Taggart, executive director for the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency, said the renovations will total $540,000 and are being done as part of the agency's “objective to renovate a public facility. We are keeping the money in the City of Pine Bluff.”
The Urban Renewal Agency is an offshoot of GFPB.
Local contractor Ricky Jordan was selected to oversee the renovations, Taggart said, noting the importance of keeping as many of the dollars as possible local.
Jordan's company will be responsible for renovations to the concessions stands, bathrooms, dressing rooms and the shower area.
“I am happy to be a part of the great things that are happening in Pine Bluff,” Jordan said. “When I heard the news of my selection, I was overjoyed. This is the biggest project we've ever had. We are committed to providing a quality product and hopefully building a long-term relationship with the convention center.”
Taggart said that “this is yet another example of our fervent commitment to doing business locally and with local contractors. Mr. Jordan and his team are doing a great job to ensure the convention center facilities reflect the energy and vibrance we have come to expect during the King Cotton Classic.”