SPIRO, Okla. -- The LeFlore County Tournament is the longest-running tournament in Oklahoma and the longest-running true county tournament west of the Mississippi River.
Yet, it's much more than a basketball tournament; it's also the social event of the year in the county.
A total of 13 high schools play Monday through Saturday with 20 games each in the girls and boys bracket, which includes a consolation bracket, fifth place, third place and championship games.
"From a parent's perspective, it's bragging rights for a whole year in the county," Greg Nichols said. "From a player's perspective, some teams would probably rather win that than go a long way in the playoffs. From a coach's perspective, I always thought it was great preparation for the playoffs. It's a great environment for the players and coaches."
Nichols coached three different schools in 26 LeFlore County Tournaments and won five county titles in his illustrious career. Nichols was in the inaugural class to be inducted into the LeFlore County Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last year.
"I'd tell my players that it's going to be loud just like it is in the playoffs, that it's going to be a great time for a learning experience so when we get to the playoffs it's not anything new," said Nichols, who was 628-397 as a boys head coach, including his start in Texas and three years as the head coach at Greenwood. "You're in a gym where it's noisy. During timeouts, you had to scream to just tell the kids to slow down or speed up or whatever coaching you had to do."
The tournament began in 1932, and it's been a well-oiled machine ever since.
At that time, LeFlore County, the sixth largest county in Oklahoma by land size, had 55 teams from 31 schools that participated. The tournament had four different classifications based on the following: High schools that offered four years of instruction were Class A, one to three years of instruction as Class B, high schools that had three to five teachers were put in Class C, and the smallest schools that had one or two teachers were in the Class D bracket.
Games began at 8 a.m. each day and went all week.
Schools had to pay a $1 entry fee, but free meals and lodging were provided as long as they were alive in the tournament.
An executive committee, consisting of school officials from around the county, ran the operations of the tournament.
Consolidation swallowed up most of those earlier schools although Hodgen, Fanshawe, Monroe and Shady Point still have junior highs that participate in the 17-team weeklong junior high county tournament, which is annually played two weeks before the high school teams take the court.
Rivalries run deep and start early in LeFlore County, where elementary schools all have sports teams and participate against other schools beginning at most schools in the third grade.
"Kids in the elementary school talk about it," Nichols said. "They can't wait to play in the county tournament."
Randa Grant is in her eighth year as an assistant coach at Northside under Rickey Smith. The Lady Bears play in the state's largest classification in Arkansas and against the best competition not just in the state but also regionally with the annual Tournament of Champions and out-of-state tournaments.
Still, the LeFlore County Tournament remains a highlight of her career.
"It's special, it's unique, words can't describe it, you just have to experience it," Grant said. "There's been some incredible showdowns through the years and great talent. All of these classifications battling it out. Everybody shows up."
Stephanie McGhee became the all-time leading scorer in Oklahoma high school history with 3,376 points scored from the 2000-2001 through 2003-2004 seasons, first at Pocola and her final two seasons at Howe. She set the state's record during the County Tournament hosted by Cameron in 2004.
"My greatest memory in high school is playing in the county tournament championship games," Grant said. "Even in junior high I went and watched Stephanie McGhee when Cameron hosted it. I was in the seventh grade, and I went to watch her. I remember going and watching these players and wanting to be like them. I try to make every championship game even though I'm over here."
Rivalries that begin in elementary school hit a crescendo in high school, and Grant completely understands all of that. She grew up in Arkoma, moved to Cameron, finished junior high in Hodgen and moved to Howe where she won the county championship and was an all-county selection.
"That's the biggest difference in being here in Fort Smith and over in LeFlore County, it's small-town basketball and it starts when you're little bitty," Grant said. "It starts at a very early age. The rivalries get heated up very early. Everybody knows everybody."
The semifinals and finals of the tournament are annually played before packed gymnasiums and standing-room-only crowds that rush to seats as soon as the front doors are opened.
An annual tradition of the tournament is the announcement of the 10-player all-county teams, both boys and girls, along with the Tournament Most Valuable Player, Tournament Hustle Award and a Sportsmanship Award. Most of those players are there at the finals and meet on the court for photos, and are remembered forever as All-County. For 38 years, the Billy Brake Memorial Award has been awarded to the "best little man" who displays the best hustle, desire and sportsmanship. It's named in memory of Pocola's Billy Brake, who was killed along with Cameron's Karl Lindsey in a head-on accident. Brake was the MVP of the 1985 tournament.
"The LeFlore County Tournament is an amazing thing," Howe Lady Lions coach Chris Brown said. "The semifinals are just crazy."
Not even the biggest flood in the history of the county could stop the tournament although maybe it did threaten it a little in 1938. Widespread flooding and mudslides closed roads and left towns as islands, postponing the tournament for two weeks as the constant rains caused mudslides and wiped out roads. The tournament was scheduled to be played at Panama before traffic was halted for three days due to the heavy rains and flooding across Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
The tournament underwent a major format change in 1990 when a consolation bracket was added. Prior to that, the tournament was single-elimination. Teams that were eliminated early went almost a week without playing a game.
"We took a proposal to all the administrators and ask them about double elimination," Nichols said. "There were some kinks we had to get ironed out. Once we got it all ironed out, the administrators were all for it. We used two gyms; the host gym and another gym."
Carl Albert State College in Poteau was the site of a lot of the games along with the designated host school.
Semifinals and championship games were held at Carl Albert, which could hold the most fans in the county until renovation a few years ago.
"When it was at Carl Albert, it would give you goosebumps on championship night because the fans were literally on top of you," Grant said. "I remember things getting thrown on us. You're running in and out, playing a big rival like Heavener or Pocola. You heard everything from the stands. Every minute was so intense. There's just nothing like the LeFlore County Tournament."
The stands were extremely close to the court, but there was enough room at each end of the court where fans also gathered several deep at times.
"At Carl Albert, the stands were fully packed, and people were standing about 10 deep at each end," Nichols said. "The noise in there was deafening."
It was always rumored that the fire marshal was on vacation the week of the county tournament.
"When it was at Carl Albert, it was just an amazing atmosphere to play in," Brown said. "We felt like if we could handle that then there was nothing we were going to see along the way to state or even competing for state would match that."
Now, three gyms are used in the early rounds of the week with semifinals and championship games being held at Spiro although they have been held at Wilburton High School, which isn't in the county but had a new, big gymnasium and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, which isn't even in the same state.
The host site rotates among the high schools, which means it comes around just once every 13 years. The host school gets all of the revenue but also, as Nichols puts it, "and the headaches.
"It's a tough week for the host school because there are so many things to take care of," Nichols said. "You've got to have gatekeepers at every site, you've got to have hospitality workers at every site, some people would rather have the clock keeper and bookkeeper go to their site. For the whole school system every employee probably has the opportunity to work at the county tournament. It's a busy week for the whole school. With three gyms, you've got to have school administrators at every school. If it's run correctly, they make a lot of money."
The tournament will turn 100 years old in the not-to-distant future, and it will be just as big then as it is now because it's a countywide affair that everybody in LeFlore takes a lot of pride in.
"Everybody feels like they're a part of it," Grant said. "It's a special tournament that everybody should experience."