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State Federation basketball tournament has Long Island roots

In 1974, New York State was one of four states that didn't have a state basketball championship. Then the Top Eight was created. St. Anthony's coach Gus Alfieri and the Friars beat Long Island Lutheran to win the first ever Top Eight tournament held at Hofstra University (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware; Robert Cassidy)

The best high school basketball teams from across the state will converge on Glens Falls next weekend for what has become an annual ritual.

Officially known as the “Federation Tournament of Champions,” it’s an invite-only convention of the season’s most successful teams.

All types of high schools will be represented — public and private, big and small, with schools hailing from New York City and Long Island to the state’s most northern and western regions. Best of all, once the clock starts, none of that matters. This is a true state tournament.

And its roots are on Long Island.

It’s been almost 45 years since a run-of-the-mill postgame conversation between a few coaches and officials is credited with jump-starting the idea of gathering the best of the best to determine a true champion.

Despite the time that has passed, the coach who was there — Gus Alfieri, formerly of St. Anthony’s — still can hear this phrase being spoken: “Wouldn’t it be great to have a statewide tournament?”

In truth, there was a lot of talk like that in those days. According to stories that ran in Newsday in the early 1970s, New York was one of only a handful of states at the time that didn’t have a state high school basketball tournament, much to the dismay of the area’s best coaches.

But what was different about this conversation — which included Alfieri, Long Island Lutheran coach the Rev. Ed Visscher and an official, future Hofstra athletic director Jim Garvey — from all the other talks of what-if is what came of it: Action.

Alfieri, 80, of Smithtown, recently recalled that Garvey, who died in 2013, followed up on their postgame chat by calling a meeting with himself and three of the area’s most successful coaches — Visscher, Frank Morris of St. Agnes and Brendan Malone of Power Memorial, a now-defunct all-boys private school from New York City.

(Visscher died in 1999 and Morris passed away in 2004. Malone, a longtime NBA assistant coach and current scout for the Detroit Pistons, said through a spokesman that he declined to comment because it was so many years ago.)

Alfieri said Garvey gathered them together at Mulcahy’s in Wantagh to pitch his plan for “the first unofficial state tournament.” According to Alfieri, Garvey’s pitch essentially was this: If the state wasn’t going to run one, then let’s do it ourselves. So they all agreed to invite the state’s best eight high school teams for their own single-elimination tournament in March.

It was called the Top Eight Classic.

“The rest of the state would sit on the sidelines, waiting to see if the tournament made it or fell on its face,” Alfieri wrote in his recently released book “The Heart of a Champion.” Played over four nights at Hofstra in 1974, it represented what longtime basketball scout Tom Konchalski calls “the closest that New York State had ever seen to a state tournament.”

Konchalski, 70, said he attended every game that was played during the tournament and remembers Long Island Lutheran entering as the favorite. The field also included St. Anthony’s, St. Agnes, Power Memorial, Queens schools Archbishop Molloy and Andrew Jackson, Central Catholic of upstate Troy and St. Francis from the Buffalo suburb of Athol Springs.

And it was notable for the crowds it drew each night, especially in the title game. That it wound up featuring two Long Island-based teams made the tournament all the more fulfilling to Garvey and the coaches.

Alfieri said 18,000 tickets were sold over the four days. That includes 5,500 that Newsday reported were at Hofstra for the championship game to see second-seeded St. Anthony’s — owner of a 38-game winning streak — face Long Island Lutheran, a team filled with D-I talent in its starting lineup. Even St. Anthony’s best player, point guard Tom Hicks, recently recalled that “LuHi had great players. They were better than us.”

“I remember thinking when we walked in, it was almost like a pro game,” said Wayne McKoy, Lutheran’s top player, a 6-8 freshman center. “There was no room to stand. Hofstra at the time was one of the biggest gyms I played in, and I remember when we got started, you could hardly hear.”

It was that way when the score was tied at 59 with two minutes left. St. Anthony’s planned to hold for the last shot. There was no shot clock in those days, so St. Anthony’s ran the weave, knocking seconds off the clock with each handoff. The play was called “Sit on it,” for obvious reasons. Its goal, Alfieri said, was to put Lutheran “to sleep.”

When a Lutheran player thought he had enough time to fix his shoe, an alert Hicks saw an opportunity. With the Lutheran player bent down, Hicks found Ken Kolakowski cutting to the basket for a layup and the lead for good.

The first — unofficial — state tournament ended with St. Anthony’s edging Lutheran, 63-61. And Alfieri said he has “no doubt” that the success of that Top Eight Classic led to the state’s education department holding its first state tournament in 1979 (St. Anthony’s won that, too.) The state tournament has been held every March since then.

Alfieri credits Garvey’s vision for helping create the tournament that will take place next weekend in Albany, drawing boys and girls basketball teams from all over the state. Heck, clearly Garvey had a knack for seeing potential. During his tenure as Hofstra’s athletic director, he hired a rookie basketball coach.

His name was Jay Wright.

With Robert Cassidy

TOP EIGHT:

A DOCUMENTARY

Watch a documentary about the original Top Eight Classic, featuring Gus Alfieri, Tom Hicks, Ken Kolakowski, Wayne McKoy, Mike Palma and current Brooklyn Nets coach Ken Atkinson.

newsday.com/sports

THE TOP EIGHT CLASSIC

March 21-24, 1974

QUARTERFINALS

March 21 — Long Island Lutheran 65, Andrew Jackson 64

March 21 — St. Agnes 88, St. Francis (Athol Springs) 87

March 22 — St. Anthony’s 54, Central Catholic (Troy) 47

March 22 — Archbishop Molloy 61, Power Memorial 49

SEMIFINALS

March 23 — Long Island Lutheran 99, St. Agnes 87

March 23 — St. Anthony’s 51, Archbishop Molly 35

FINAL

March 24 — St. Anthony’s 63, Long Island Lutheran 61

New York Sports