Fifty years ago this past weekend, especially on Saturday night, the decibel level was incredibly high inside the Oneonta Armory, today's Asa C. Allison Jr. Municipal Building.

About 1,500 fans were wildly screaming at a brand-new high school basketball event called the Oneonta Holiday Classic Invitation Basketball Tournament.

The dates and names of the tournament may have changed a bit over the years, but we know this tournament today as the Anthony C. Drago Tip-Off Basketball Tournament.

On the second night of the tournament, Dec. 27, 1958, host Oneonta High battled previously unbeaten Mont Pleasant High School of Schenectady through not one, but two overtimes. Mont Pleasant had come back with ties at the buzzer, at the end of regulation time and one overtime period.

Just seconds before the second overtime ended, Bruce Jester, a scoreless Oneonta substitute that night, was fouled, went to the line and sank the two free throws that clinched the victory, 67-65.

While Jester was the hero, teammates Charley Potter and Bill Crowley were named among the tournament all-stars. Union-Endicott and Canastota were the other teams in the first tournament. Canastota was coached by former Oneonta High coach Ed Kilpatrick.

The second annual tournament in late December 1959 had nearly every bit of the dramatic finish as the year before. That year, the Yellowjackets played powerhouse Cranston, N.J., in the championship game. Two free throws by Bob Turrell put Oneonta ahead to stay, 55-54, with seconds remaining in the game. Turrell and teammate Jim Konstanty made the tournament all-star team. Carbondale, Pa., and Vernon-Verona-Sherill were the runners-up.

Tony Drago had been an assistant basketball coach at Duke University during the early to mid-1950s, along with head coach and former Oneontan Hal Bradley. Drago was offered a job at Oneonta as a basketball coach, which oddly enough paid better than the job at Duke. Drago returned to his hometown as coach in 1957, a job he held until 1965, when he became athletic director.

What inspired Drago to get a basketball tournament started in Oneonta was his experience at Duke University. Each year, Duke hosted or participated in an invitational called the Dixie Classic. Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Wake Forest rotated as hosts, and each year brought in college basketball teams from around the country, making it a three-day event.

There was nothing like this in Oneonta at the high school or college level, and Drago felt there was enough support for OHS basketball in the community to start a tournament, through a highly dedicated committee. It was certainly the first such high school invitational tournament in our region, and possibly in the state, Drago said.

The name of the tournament was eventually changed to the Oneonta Merchants Holiday Classic, Drago said, as they wanted to recognize the businesses that were advertisers in their program. The annual program is always dedicated to a person or persons who've been avid supporters of OHS basketball.

During the 1989-90 season, when Bob Zeh was athletic director, he was finding it increasingly difficult to get teams to play during the school's December holiday recess. Several other basketball tournaments in the region had been created. The Drago Tip-Off Tournament was moved back to just before Thanksgiving break that year, when the basketball season was just getting under way. The name Drago was added to the tournament on the 30th anniversary of the event in 1988.

Until the 1990-91 season, the tournament had been only for boys basketball, and it was that year that a girls' basketball tournament was added.

This weekend, Oneonta gets down to business as a new city in January 1909.

City Historian Mark Simonson's column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or e-mail him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com.

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