McPherson Invitational turns 50

By Steve Sell
January 22, 2014

It’s the golden anniversary of the most golden high school basketball tournament in Kansas.

The McPherson Invitational turns 50 this year and you’ll get few arguments that it is the gold standard that all others are judged by.

Nearly all of the state’s greatest players have graced the Roundhouse court at one time or another. Not to mention arguably the greatest team in Kansas history — the 1977 Wichita Heights Falcons — who were the epitome of the glory days of the tournament.

When play begins Thursday, the field will as usual be star-studded. Tournament officials have continually brought in only the top talent, most of it from bigger-class schools. Teams from all over the state have taken part, including many that have gone on to win state championships after competing in this midseason classic.

It’s hard to believe the granddaddy tournament of them all has reached the half-century mark. The list of stars who have competed is a virtual Who’s Who of Kansas high school basketball — Darnell Valentine, Steve Henson, Antoine Carr, Nino Samuel and Lucius Allen just to name a few. Four of those five players later competed in the NBA and the only absentee, Samuel, may have been the most dominant player ever in Kansas high school annals. The late Jay Frazier, who coached McPherson in the tournament for nearly 20 years, always said that Samuel was the best high school player he ever saw. Who is going to argue with him, considering what he accomplished in his Hall of Fame career?

And recently, the field was enhanced by arguably the three top players in Kansas from the last three years — Christian Ulsaker, Perry Ellis and Conner Frankamp.

The players and teams are only part of the tournament experience. The Roundhouse is perhaps the most legendary arena in Kansas, a place where the hometown Bullpups have won a mind-blowing 85 percent of their games since the grand old building opened at the start of the 1963-64 season. 

Think about that. When the loyal and cerebral McPherson fans go to watch their team at home, they basically win almost nine out of every 10 games. The guess here is that no team has a better home winning percentage in state history than the Bullpups.

Adorning the Roundhouse are the 50 state banners the school has won in interscholastic competition. There are no league titles celebrated with banners. The Roundhouse is reserved only for championships.

The atmosphere at the Roundhouse is unmatched. Assuming McPherson wins its opening-round game, which has been the case nearly every year, Fridays and Saturdays have been packed to the rafters. There used to be times when fans camped outside hours before the gates opened as they wanted to rush to their favorite seat. The pomp and circumstance is is pure pageantry and the intensity for the championship game is palpable.

There’s also massive media attention. Radio and newspaper coverage blankets both the airwaves and print. The media is provided stats by the McPherson Optimist Club, a crew that is experienced and skillful. Generally the Wichita television stations are here to capture some of the action since Wichita teams are involved. This year, there will even be live video streaming for a game. 

When McPherson High takes to the court Thursday, it will do so with the No. 1 seed as it attempts to win the title for the 21st time—that in itself is a monumental feat. This is a team that displays many of the same fundamentals of the Frazier- and Mike Henson-coached teams, with the success continuing under Kurt Kinnamon, who is in his 19th year. The three coaches, the only ones MHS has had since 1957, have combined for 11 state championships and helped establish McPherson as arguably the most consistent program in Kansas in the last 50 years.