The 86th annual NHIBT runs March 31-April 3 in Oak Park, IL.
The year is 1931, two years before the Depression and Prohibition would end. The U.S. Congress is adopting The Star-Spangled Banner as the National Anthem and construction on the Empire State Building concludes. Across New York harbor, immigrants pour into Ellis Island by the millions, tens of thousands of Greeks among them. They seek a better life, and more than a few already made their way to Chicago.
The same year, notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone receives an 11-year prison sentence for tax evasion. But on the North Side, at a rickety old gymnasium at DePaul University, six teams gather for the first National Hellenic Invitational Basketball Tournament. Unbeknownst to them, their actions would initiate a century-long cultural phenomenon.
The 86th annual NHIBT tips off March 31 through April 3, 2016 at Fenwick High School in Oak Park. The NHIBT is one of the oldest national tournaments of any kind, preceding the NAIA (1937), NIT (1938), and NCAA (1939). The NHIBT even predates FIBA (international basketball federation, 1932), a governing body which included Greece among its 8 nation founders.
History of NHIBT
Chicago seems well-suited for a national tournament. Centrally located and a basketball trailblazer, the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament (NHIBT) was founded at the University of Chicago in 1917, and the National Catholic Interscholastic Basketball Tournament began at Loyola University of Chicago in 1924. Area Greeks, reared on Olympian tales of “mind, body, spirit,“ adopted one of America’s up-and-coming games and used it to assimilate into the new world. It was also a way to meet parea that oftentimes became lifelong friends, business associates, and more.
Founders were Phillip J. Collias, Leodamas Deligiannis, and Constantine Pappas. Others helped grow the NHIBT in the ensuing years, including honorary members Orpheus Askounis, Steven Javaras, Nick Danakas, George Polek, James J. Kulidas, Tom Bouzeos, Peter Conomikes, and Peter Economos. To them, we owe a debt of gratitude.
Local “legacy” entrants were the Sons of Plato Assumption, Ypsilanti Sons of Pericles, Lord Byron, and the Centaurs. At times, the NHIBT has been international with teams from Greece, London, and Toronto. After World War II, the person most responsible for keeping it thriving in salad days and alive in lean years was Phil Bouzeos.
President Phil Bouzeos looks back
Phil Bouzeos, who served as equipment manager for the 1947 NFL champion Chicago Cardinals before a career with Champion sporting goods, first became connected with NHIBT when he was 15. He’s served as its president for the past 60 years. His wife, Lynn, has been at his side for virtually every one of those tournaments and is a large part of why it still exists today. Phil’s brother Tom was a two-sport athlete at the University of Illinois and played in the first tournament.
Many romanticize about the NHIBT’s old, creaky gyms. Phil said the DePaul gym was old even back then. This is all part-and-parcel to NHIBT nostalgia. The NHIBT’s hey-day was c. 1950-1970. It got so big there was an annual Saturday night dinner dance, held at the Aragon Ballroom or Knickerbocker Hotel, that attracted upwards of 2,000 or more revelers. This `cultural public square,’ it’s been said, is responsible for more Greek marriages than any institution outside the Greek Orthodox Church itself or AHEPA. For a decade, there was even a contest to select a queen and her court.
“When guys returned from the war, there was a big explosion of interest. The crowd was so vocal in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. We had capacity crowds. There was tremendous excitement. We had a team from Cheyenne, Wyoming that would don their Indian costumes and put on a dance show at halftime. Greek Indians. You can imagine.”
If any venue elicits romantic thoughts among the faithful, it’s Cicero Stadium, which played host to 25 years of action. One eccentric quirk was the analog game clock.
“Half the time it didn’t work. Games had to be stopped to sort it out. Even when it worked, you had to keep looking closely to see if you could get off a last-second shot. We finally donated a digital clock.”
Players share memories
St. Demetrios player Kirk Vidas gave crowds many a thrill. He went on to play pro ball for Panathanaikos, helping them to a Euro title in the 80’s. We asked for his most fond tournament memory.
“In 1975 we (St. D’s) played Boston in the high school championship. They started in zone defense and immediately I went to the wing, hitting the first seven shots in a row. We were up 14-0 before they called time-out. In the next game, our men’s team with Steve Pappas also played Boston in the championship game. It was back and forth and then Steve put me in. I scored the last four points and we won.”
The following year, the committee prohibited players from competing in two divisions (since rescinded).
There are myriad zany stories in NHIBT lore. Competition was fierce and can still be at times. Stories of ringers, non-Greeks playing, and players either being given jobs or outright paid to switch to other teams, abound. Even committee members laugh it off years later.
Cincinnati player Gus Perdikakis related his favorite memories.
“Dean Lampros (former University of Cincinnati standout) and I playing in the 70’s, with a number of teams coming from Cincy, Warren, and Flint. We’d drive to Cicero Stadium on Friday, play our games, and then hit Greek Islands (in Greektown) for a meal and free ouzo while waiting in line. Great times and memories.”
Out of town teams
Other out of town teams frequenting the NHIBT over the years have come from Boston, Lynn (MA), Denver, New York, Detroit, Flint (MI), Fon du Lac (WI) Milwaukee, East Chicago (IN), Minneapolis, Washington DC, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Akron (OH), and Salt Lake City. Some of the dominant teams of recent include Ypsilanti Chicago (holds record for most titles), Denver, Group Home, Budlong, and Garfield.
Fortunes ebb and flow during a century’s time but things are looking up today. There are four Chicago-area tournaments that are all Greek or PanHellenic, including NHIBT, AHEPA Marrow, GMMT, and George Demos. The Archdiocese church league, began by Phil Bouzeos and Frank Nicholson, is thriving, providing a feeder system. All tournaments have women’s, high school, and biddy divisions.
Not everybody can play college ball, but most can play Greek ball and for a lot longer than the four years of college eligibility. The NHIBT still serves a noble purpose. But most of all, it’s just plain fun!