The King Cotton Holiday Classic is on its way to a successful comeback. A reporter-estimated 2,000 fans enjoyed the first round Thursday night alone. After a successful run, the event was discontinued in 1999. With a spruced up Pine Bluff Convention Center and some exciting games, tournament organizers have to be encouraged with the comeback.
While serving as The Commercial's sports editor years ago, I was regaled many times in press boxes and hospitality rooms around the city about how great the event was and the defining moment which occurred in 1992 when Russellville’s Corliss Williamson beat Jason Kidd’s St. Joseph Notre Dame (Alameda, Calif.) squad in a thriller for the tournament title.
I was so disappointed the event wasn’t around by the time I came to Pine Bluff. I was so excited in September when it was announced that the tournament would return as a part of the Go Forward Pine Bluff movement fueled by Simmons Bank, a Pine Bluff stalwart for decades. The group aims to revitalize Pine Bluff and the King Cotton with it.
While it appears the preparation and thousands of dollars that have been poured into the effort have made for a solid future, there are five factors the committee should consider as they move forward on their mission to regain the tournament’s full former glory.
1: More in-state teams
I always figured if the tournament ever relaunched, it would on a smaller scale, including mostly Arkansas teams. Kudos to the organizers for being able to pull teams from coast to coast. However, to start, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to include half of the field from Arkansas. We have great prep basketball talent in the state, and with the games being played over the holidays, many parents and fans would make the trip increasing attendance figures. When hometown team Pine Bluff High School played The Park School from Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday night the arena P.A. announcer asked the crowd, ‘Where are the Pine Bluff fans?'
The crowd roared. Then he said, “Let’s hear the Park School Fans.” Nothing. Silence. Of course, not many made the trip from Buffalo.
How about a first-round matchup of Arkansas Class 6A powers Pine Bluff and Jonesboro? North Little Rock, Little Rock Parkview, Baptist Prep and the list goes on.
There have been some whispers that some Arkansas prep teams were reluctant to play in the tournament. If true, maybe after this weekend that will change. It would be good to see more Arkansas teams and some perennial powers next year.
2: Razorbacks Recruits
As far as I know, there aren’t any teams in the tournament featuring University of Arkansas targets. That is a sure-fire way to drum up some interest. That kills two birds with one stone because the Hogs have done an excellent job of securing the state’s bumper crop of talent the past few recruiting classes. Invite some in-state teams with Hogs ties and some others nationwide. A built-in draw.
3: Where’s Memphis?
The city has been known as a hoops hotbed for years. With its proximity to Pine Bluff and the depth of talent and quality teams there, it only makes sense that a Memphis squad is included every year. Those teams, who are in high demand, may be taking a “Wait and see approach,” but they have played in Arkansas showcases before, and the King Cotton needs to find a way to land Grind City teams.
4: Big-Time Recruits
A Top 50 player nationally committed to one of the major Power 5 programs, ala Jason Kidd. A national player for one of the in-state stars to go head-to-head with. If there was a big-time player in this year’s field, it hasn’t been promoted. From the looks of this year's tournament, there were some quality teams, just not marquee names. That needs to change and will over time.
5: Storied Programs
I know that traditional powers such as Dematha (Hyatsville, Maryland) and Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Virginia) and others can pick the tournaments they play in, but if you can land one and the tournament continues to grow, you will get more. The appeal of a national program with high-profile recruits and notable alumni is just one more way to pique interest and land butts in the seats. Maybe it’s a long-term goal, but the committee needs to keep it in mind and invite them. All they can do is say no and maybe soon they will say yes.
These are just considerations and probably some that are already being tossed around. I want to stress, I am happy for the city and committee and original founder Travis Creed. The rebirth of the King Cotton is fantastic news for Pine Bluff and our state. I hope the tournament's success is a harbinger of bigger and better things to come, and eventually, I will be at courtside as 7,000 fans cheer on a heavyweight matchup with high-caliber players aplenty.