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How the Les Schwab Invitational rose to national elite holiday basketball tournament prominence

What started as an idea from two respected Oregon high school basketball coaches in the early 1990s has become a much-hyped annual showcase

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was December 1997, hours before the championship game in the second Les Schwab Invitational (then the Oregon Holiday Invitational), when John McCallum realized the plan to create a buzz-worthy prep holiday basketball tournament in Portland hit an inflection point.

He can point to one specific moment. 

His phone rang.

The president of the small liberal arts college tucked into Portland’s west hills hosting the championship game was not happy. So many fans had come to Lewis & Clark College hours before tipoff to watch Churchill High School (Eugene, Oregon) take on national power Oak Hill Academy (Virginia) that people were parking cars on lawns — all to watch a high school basketball game.

They had, McCallum was realizing, caught lightning in a bottle.

“I’m out there trying to solve problems because now, we have an event,” said McCallum, who at the time was heading the event as a recent college graduate in his early 20s. 

“Now, the word was out. Pre-social media, this is all someone getting on a phone, calling somebody and saying, ‘Hey, you got to see this team play!’ ”

Now, 25 years later, the Les Schwab Invitational has become both a fixture in the Portland area and one of the nation's premier elite holiday basketball tournaments. 

Since the idea spawned 30 years ago from two prominent prep basketball coaches, the tournament has hosted hundreds of high-level college basketball prospects and some 45 future NBA players, including basketball greats Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler.

And every year, the event draws packed crowds from the Portland area, and notable sports figures often attend. Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons have made appearances in years past.

The talent of this year's field is up there with the best of them: Bronny James, LeBron James’ oldest son; several projected one-and-done five-star prospects; three nationally ranked programs, including the No. 2 team in the country; and, like every year, many of Oregon's top prospects and programs. It runs Dec. 26-30 at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Oregon.

The idea to build an elite high school basketball tournament didn’t happen overnight. 

It started in the early 1990s with Beaverton's Nick Robertson and Barry Adams of South Salem lobbying the state high school association to change rules. And it took a well-connected former NFL quarterback, an influential local sponsor, a billion-dollar athletic apparel brand and two well-respected Oregon high school basketball coaches to be its champion.

For an upstart tournament that organizers hoped was built to last, that phone call 25 years ago was the kind of operational hiccup they’d been dreaming about.

On that winter day at Lewis & Clark in late December 1997, it was starting to look like their idea had turned to gold. 

Over the next 25 years, the Les Schwab Invitational spawned sellout crowds, hosted celebrities, delivered memorable moments and pitted the top teams in Oregon against a rotation of elite national powers every December.

All of that started 30 years ago with two coaches and an idea.

The vision

Les Schwab Invitational co-founder Nick Robertson (right) poses with Lake Oswego standout freshman Winters Grady for 2021 all-tournament awards.

Les Schwab Invitational co-founder Nick Robertson (right) poses with Lake Oswego standout freshman Winters Grady for 2021 all-tournament awards.

In the early 1990s, Robertson and Adams started to hear from coaches around the state of Oregon who wanted to test their teams before league play but didn’t have the funds to travel out of state.

At the time, the football postseason was played into mid-December, so early-season media attention was sparse, and coaches wanted to liven the public’s intrigue around high school basketball at a time of year when interest is historically low.

So, Robertson and Adams thought, why not bring the desired talent to Portland?

“We were looking to give the beginning of the basketball season kind of a bang,” Adams told the (Salem) Statesman Journal in 1996. 

They secured three days before Christmas, but they would need the 16 teams to play four games, which butted up against a rule barring teams from playing two games in one day. 

For three years, they lobbied the Oregon School Activities Association to change a rule.

Despite their best efforts, the OSAA delegate assembly voted down proposals to add games to the schedule in 1992, 1993 and 1994. An exception was made in 1995, and they were on.

Now all Robertson and Adams needed were sponsors, which is where former NFL quarterback Neil Lomax came in.

Get ready for LSI 2022 

After Lomax, a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback and Lake Oswego (Oregon) native, retired from the NFL in 1988, the former Portland State standout formed ProMax Event Management.

His company was pivotal in the event's founding and would run and manage the tournament until McCallum formed PrimeTime Sports in 2006. 

The key? Lomax delivered on a crucial title sponsor: Les Schwab Tire Centers.

“He came to Barry and I and said, ‘Hey, I got a sponsor,’ ” Robertson said. “What do you guys have? We go, ‘Wow!’ We'd like a Christmas tournament. And so, boom, that's really where it took off.”

They brought in East Anchorage (Alaska) and Laguna Beach (California), but Oregon’s talent proved superior in Year 1. 

Robertson and Adams — both now Oregon Sports Hall of Fame inductees — were at the top of their games. Adams was coming off his second state title in 1996, but Robertson’s Beaverton team swept the field and beat McNary to win the inaugural tournament championship.

Teams played early-round games at three local high schools — Westview, South Salem and Beaverton — and played the championship game at University of Portland.

McCallum interned with ProMax Event Management in college and was hired full-time after he graduated in 1996. He was put in charge of the inaugural Oregon Holiday Invitational the same year — at 22 years old. 

“I had no idea what I was doing,” McCallum said. “That was the fun part.”

After the first year, McCallum and ProMax went back to the drawing board. They researched and studied the ins and outs of elite tournaments around the country. 

“We had to sit down and re-do the whole game plan,” McCallum said.

How could the tournament profile be elevated?

They agreed on one thing: Year 2 needed a big splash.

Welcome to Portland, Oak Hill

Steve Smith coaches Oak Hill during a timeout in 2015. His teams have won a tournament-record seven LSI titles.

Steve Smith coaches Oak Hill during a timeout in 2015. His teams have won a tournament-record seven LSI titles.

As McCallum was planning out which out-of-state powers to pursue to invite for the tournament's second year, a Nike executive lobbed a suggestion.

How about Oak Hill?

"I'm like, 'Are you joking?' " McCallum said. 

The bar was set high for the field that second year, and the LSI hasn't looked back since. 

The tournament has long partnered with Nike and its longtime national high school basketball manager, Tony Dorado, to bring in national powerhouse programs affiliated with the athletic apparel behemoth headquartered just down the road in Beaverton — a relationship tournament founders said has proved pivotal to the event's staying power.

In 1997, word traveled quickly around Portland that nationally-ranked Oak Hill, a Virginia-based prep academy that has produced big-name NBA talent, was coming to town.

It was a big deal for a fledgling tournament.

Title sponsor Les Schwab bought in, too, donating $24,000 to offset Oak Hill’s travel expenses, The (Vancouver) Columbian newspaper reported in 1997.

Once the 1997 tournament started, buzz spread even quicker that Oak Hill and soon-to-be Xavier star Lloyd Price were sending local crowds into frenzies. McCallum recalls in an earlier round seeing a 360 fast-break dunk over three players for Jefferson — a historical Oregon power with two young future NBA players on its roster — jolting the local crowd. 

“I remember everybody coming out of their seats,” McCallum said, “like they had not seen that happen at a high school game.”

Mentions of the LSI cropped up in national media outlets such as USA Today.

Oak Hill has returned and won the Les Schwab Invitational title six times, including in 2005 with star forward Kevin Durant, thanks in large part to tournament power brokers' relationship with now-retired longtime head coach Steve Smith

McCallum knew he wanted these teams to come not just once, but to come back. So, he asked Smith over a round of golf: Why has Oak Hill continued to fly across the country to Portland to play in the LSI when it reasonably has plenty of suiters closer in proximity? 

"He goes, 'John, after the first year, you get guys who are at the airport picking us up, no questions, you had all the travel arranged, hotel was great, back and forth was easy, if we needed a shootaround you figure out whatever needs to be done to make that happen.' Because most places didn't do that." 

More national powers such as Bishop Gorman, Mater Dei, Sierra Canyon and Montverde Academy have also made multiple appearances.

Something to write home about

Over the years, fans came to expect elite, show-stopping talent, and the tournament continued to deliver.

In 1998, legendary Los Angeles coach Willie Green's run-and-gun Crenshaw team blew past the field. In 1999, the No. 1 team in the nation, Rice (N.Y.), came to town and lost to hometown Jesuit on a free throw in the final seconds. 

Tyson Chandler and Dominguez High School (California) put on a dunk and block show in 2000, months before he was taken No. 2 overall out of high school in the 2001 NBA Draft. The following year, Carmelo Anthony and Oak Hill swept to an LSI trophy.

"People in Oregon aren't used to super athletes," Robertson said. "I remember him like it was LeBron. 

"Every year you got someone with that kind of ability coming in." 

The Salem Statesman Journal sports front in December 2000 featured a centerpiece story on a South Salem upset of a national power in the Les Schwab Invitational.

The Salem Statesman Journal sports front in December 2000 featured a centerpiece story on a South Salem upset of a national power in the Les Schwab Invitational.

As time went on, the state of Oregon continued to produce its own transcendent talent. 

The visiting national powers are embraced as celebrities by local fans — and even players on the Oregon teams. Current Beaverton (Oregon) coach Andrew Vancil watched Jesuit upset Rice as a kid, then played on Robertson's Beavers that faced Kevin Durant and Oak Hill in 2005. 

"We jumped out 2-0, we got the first bucket, and our student section was chanting, 'It's all over!' " Vancil recalls fondly. "We ended up getting our doors blown off us that day, but for a moment we had the lead there."

Robertson, who retired from coaching in 2004, has stayed involved for the tournament's long list of most epic moments, from the first year when the championship was played at University of Portland, to the packed-in gyms at Liberty High School. 

He's seen moments like Ben Simmons throwing an alley-oop to himself off the backboard in 2014, and the 2006 final, which many consider to be perhaps the best atmosphere in tournament history, when two of the nation's top prospects hailed from Oregon: Lake Oswego's Kevin Love and South Medford's Kyle Singler. 

Robertson takes great pride in the spotlight the event has put on Oregon teams — many of which have more than held their own. 

"A game where people are hanging from the rafters, that makes it fun," Robertson said. "Thats the atmosphere I love, when people are begging to get in the game."

SBLive Sports is the Official Media Partner of the 2022 Les Schwab Invitational. Stay with SBLive Oregon for unmatched tournament coverage.