The Vail Independent Basketball Tournament was a cornerstone of our youth in Vail, Iowa; a waymark in the passage of every year, for every kid growing up in Vail. The Tourney was sponsored each January by the Knights of Columbus, and it was extremely popular in the region.
Growing up in the late 1950s and across the 1960s, the Tourney was simply a big deal, and in Vail, there were not a lot of big deals. For us kids, it really came down to the Pony Show in July and the Tourney in late January. That was pretty much it for big deals, the sort of events that would have out-of-town cars parked for blocks surrounding the main street where the Memorial Hall anchored one corner and the baseball field the other. In my memory, not too many other events routinely packed our little town of 450 souls.
The Tourney was a money-maker for the Knights and the town. Before the games, during the games, and after the games the taverns were packed, and the food available at the tournament location sold out. The Tourney’s location was the Vail Memorial Hall, which had been a Work Progress Administration construction project during the Great Depression. The Tourney started shortly after it was built, more than likely the brainchild of our parish priest, Fr. Denis Clark. Father Clark loved sports, and had been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth (he was a personal friend of Joe Lewis, and brought him to the parish school one day). He especially loved basketball. The Catholic High School, which folded up its tent in 1960, when graduating classes were lucky to have a dozen students, fielded more than one championship contender. My oldest brother Jerry played for St. Ann’s, and went on to play for Creighton University and their legendary coach Red McManus.
The Tourney was not about high school or college basketball. It was about town teams, bar teams, and a few Catholic parish teams from across western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. The teams were made up of young adult men, and a few not as young. The games were hard fought, and played in front of a packed house.
The venue was not the best, but the best we knew. The Memorial Hall’s basketball floor was 6 feet short of full-sized, but a line three-feet from the middle line marked the over-and-back for a violation. Also, there was maybe 3 feet between the out-of-bound line on either end and the solid brick wall. A large mattress hanging on the wall was the only protection for a player who flew through a good layup or got slammed off the court. Some games indeed had a level of body checks a good hockey player would admire. It was loud! The crowd was on top of the game in bleachers on the stage on the south side, and bleachers on the north floor side with a balcony above. The Memorial Hall was brick, but the interior was filled with wood, the backboard steel, and that place rocked!
My dad, like Marty’s, had died too young. A volunteer fireman who died in an accident on the way to a fire. He had been a Grand Knight in the local Knights of Columbus, so his peers always took care of me when it came to the Tourney. When I was young, in my earliest days of Tourney attendance, one of the Knights would make sure my mom and I had a “season ticket.” Later in my youth, I had to work for that pass helping clean up after the day, making popcorn, or the prime job…dust mopping the basketball court between quarters, after the game, and toweling up after a fall. It meant a lot, and spared me from sneaking in through a back door opened by a fellow Vail boy…right Marty!
The teams came from all over, many from small towns nearby, but always a team or two out of Omaha, Sioux City, Ames, and Des Moines. My favorite was a team out of Omaha, which for many years included the All-Star Pitcher, Bob Gibson. To imagine a future hall-of-famer, and World Series Champion, playing basketball in Vail, Iowa, for a local team, is sort of amazing in this current era of multi-million-dollar professional contracts. I imagine today, those contracts specifically forbid such amateur sport participation. Heck, they may have in the early to mid-1960s, but Bob Gibson played basketball in little old Vail, Iowa. I was a big fan of the Cards, and would get his autograph on the Tourney program, a spare baseball, etc. I know other kids did too, and I wonder if any survive. Being a poor kid, I know for a fact I turned around and played baseball with that very same autographed ball! Who knew?
The Memorial Hall was transformed into a hub of action, and I was in the center of it. The games brought new faces and a level of excitement to town, something that wasn’t in ample supply most days. While those teams were mostly composed of local players from the sponsoring town, business, or parish, they always brought a ringer or two. Bob Gibson wasn’t the only real athlete to grace those floors, and it wasn’t only Omaha teams that knew how to stretch their talent pool. I remember the year my brother came home from Creighton and brought his teammate Paul Silas, a future NBA great, to play for the St. Ann’s Parish Team. They were freshman at the time, and drove up from Omaha to play in the game, feed up on home cooked meals at my mom’s, and then back to Omaha so they didn’t miss practice. St. Ann’s won that year, but Jerry and Paul couldn’t play in the final game because they got caught by their coach, Red McManus. St. Ann’s still won.
Another lasting memory from Tourney time was of our local perv. I won’t name him, even though he’s dead now, but suffice it to say only in Vail would the City Council hire the guy as the town cop. My big brothers warned me to stay away from him before I even hit Kindergarten. My memory of him is how he volunteered (or maybe the KofC’s hired him) to mop the shower area. I swear to God almighty this is true. There he’d be after every game, busily mopping up the wet concrete floors, with a white-knuckle grip on the mop handle and lust in his eyes. Crazy yes, but also so very Vail.
The tourney endured as an annual event from the 1940’s (at least) through the early 1970s. I was too young to transition from spectator to player, but Marty did, as did other Vail boys. A true MVP of the Tourney for several years was Larry Seibert, of Vail, he was not tall but an exceptional offensive shooting guard. Larry had game! Like other things the Tourney sort of slipped away, just like the Pony Show and many locally-owned businesses. I suppose it was all part of the changing rural American landscape…but that’s a topic for another time. The Tourney was a major happening in a small town with very few. It was great sport, great fun, and something that brought people together.