Kansas City has long been known for the beauty of the Plaza lights during the holidays. However, "back in the day," the lights weren't the only tradition which made the holidays special for those in the area.
The Big Eight preseason basketball tournament was held during the 1950's-early 1970's in Kansas City, most notably at Municipal Auditorium in downtown. I had a flashback to that winter tournament when I exited Sprint Center recently after a college hoops contest--downtown was alive with fans, scurrying to bars and restaurants, both before and after the game.
The preseason tournament brought all eight conference teams to Kansas City for three days and nights of action in the week between Christmas and New Year. What made the tournament special was not only the quality of players and coaches who appeared in Kansas City, but also the access which fans had since the teams stayed at the Muehlebach and other local hotels in the downtown area--all within walking distance of Municipal.
As a young boy growing up and attending the tournament each year, I remember rubbing elbows with my favorite University of Kansas players as we'd walk into the auditorium from the underground parking garage or the Muehlebach. Each conference team would play three games--a winners bracket and a losers bracket--thus ensuring fans plenty of opportunities to see their team and the league competition.
Not surprisingly, Kansas and Kansas State dominated the tournament in the 1950's and 1960's, and Missouri won its share in the 1970's. The tournament ultimately was disbanded once the conference began its postseason tournament, played in Kansas City at the then new Kemper Arena. The league's coaches didn't want to risk playing a conference foe up to four times in a given season, and the teams not named Kansas, Kansas State or Missouri never particularly cared for the location of the tournament in Kansas City.
The loss for Kansas City is the regularity of an event, during the holiday season, which ensured downtown crowds and dollars spent in hotels, restaurants, bars and stores. And, for a young boy growing up and in love with sports, there was little which matched sitting through four games during an afternoon and evening, cheering on my favorites from Kansas and discovering other player and coaching personalities in the old Big Eight.
Why can't a similar event be created for Kansas City during this holiday week? Consider the fact that most schools in the Big 12 conference are participating in football bowl games this week, thus impacting fan interest and attendance. And, schools like Kansas and Kansas State aren't keen on sharing revenue for an event featuring more than one game given that they can sell out Sprint Center for a single non-conference game during early or mid-December.
Unfortunately, the preseason tournament is an event whose time has passed but whose history is part of what made downtown Kansas City special during the 1950's-1960's.