How Chris Spencer’s patience paid off

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Chris Spencer remembered the threats.

Back in 2001, the Cincinnati-based promoter wanted to stage three holiday college basketball tournaments in Las Vegas. He had seen how popular summer basketball tourneys were for high school kids and he believed bringing in some good college programs would augment the schedule UNLV played at the Thomas & Mack Center.

His plan was to play his events at a ballroom inside Paris Las Vegas. The NCAA had signed off on it. But there was some pushback from politicians. They were pressuring university presidents to put some guidelines in place that would prohibit guys like Spencer from staging college basketball games inside casinos that also had sports books.

There was also a 2-in-4 exempt rule for schools that wanted to participate. They could only go to two exempt events every four years.

Spencer would eventually move his events to Valley High School while fighting to get the “2-in-4 Rule” eliminated.

Seventeen years later, the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational remains part of the local hoop scene, holding its annual event at the Orleans Arena. And it has plenty of company. The MGM is hosting its Main Event tournament at T-Mobile Arena. The South Point has a women’s basketball event this weekend.

Next month, there will be more holiday hoops. For Spencer, it’s wonderful to see.

“I always thought Las Vegas was the perfect place to hold an event,” he said. “The players were familiar with the city because many of them had played in the summer AAU tournaments. For the coaches, it was a good recruiting tool. And it was great for the fans. Who doesn’t like a trip to Vegas?”

Spencer sold his event to Fox Sports a few years ago and the tournament is nationally televised on that network. He remains involved as the tourney director and he’s proud of what he has accomplished. He was able to hold off the politicians and get the 2-in-4 Rule off the books in 2006.

“Early on, it was about trying to establish ourselves,” he said. “But we brought in some really good teams. And nobody seemed to mind that we were playing in a high school gym.

“The Orleans has been great to us over the years. It’s the perfect venue for what we do.”

It’s potentially a tough ticket this week, though a few seats are still available at the Orleans Arena. Nevada, North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State, Texas are in the field and few tournaments can match the quality of the Las Vegas Holiday Invitational.

If you’re seeking an appetizer, T-Mobile Arena will be hosting the MGM Resorts Main Event Wednesday. Saint Mary’s, Mississippi State, Arizona State and Utah State are in the Heavyweight Bracket.

The Main Event has been around since 2014 and was launched to help bring awareness to men’s health. UNLV won last year’s event.

For women’s basketball fans, the South Point’s Thanksgiving Shootout, scheduled for Friday and Saturday, will have eight teams, led by No.  4-ranked Baylor, No. 5 Louisville and No. 19 Arizona State. 

But all eyes will be on the Orleans. Nevada is ranked No. 6 in this week’s Associated Press poll, North Carolina is ranked No. 7, Michigan State is No. 11 and UCLA 17th. The LVI will be nationally televised on Fox Sports 1 and the schedule is fixed where the Tar Heels meet Texas and the Bruins square off against the Spartans in the evening session Thanksgiving night. The Wolf Pack meets Tulsa at 1 p.m.

“We’ve had some great teams and some great games in the past,” Spencer said. “It’ll be tough to top the Kansas-Florida game (in 2006) or when UNLV beat (North) Carolina (in 2011). But this is a great field and I’m glad we’re still in Las Vegas all these years later providing a quality event for the fans.”

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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