Holiday basketball tradition turns humble beginnings into a nationally-renowned annual basketball event
In December 1958, eight North Texas high school basketball teams gathered for a four-day tournament in Fort Worth’s Public Schools Gym to help raise money for Fort Worth’s West Side Lions Club. Bowie High School won that first tournament, besting Arlington Heights High School 70-52.
Over the next two decades, the small, regional tournament became an annual Texas tradition. In 1984, San Antonio-based Whataburger became the title sponsor of the newly named “Whataburger Basketball Tournament.” Today, 48 teams from far and wide attract more than 30,000 spectators and scouts from across Texas and beyond. The action takes place in three Fort Worth venues: the 5,000-seat W.G. Thomas Coliseum of Birdville Independent School District hosts the orange division teams; the 1,500-seat gym at Haltom High School hosts the boys’ blue division teams; and the 2,200-seat gym at Saginaw High School hosts the girls’ blue division teams.
In its storied history, the Whataburger Basketball Tournament has provided a national spotlight for players that went on to professional careers as players and coaches with the NBA. For example, Rashard Lewis, an alumnus of Elsik High School near Houston, is a two-time NBA All-Star currently playing for the Washington Wizards. Other tournament veterans include Sam Cassel, assistant coach for the Washington Wizards and San Antonio Spurs Vice President of Basketball Operations Danny Ferry.
Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Morgan Wootten, now retired, remembers 1981 when his team, DeMatha, which has graduated many Hall of Famers and NBA stars, won the tournament. “The competition is excellent,” said Wootten, whose basketball program was one of the best in the nation. “You play against some of the finest teams in Texas, as well as from around the country.”
“The Lions Club started this tournament because of the community’s love of basketball and the opportunities offered to players, including playing for major college scouts,” explained Tom Rogers, Tournament Director. “We were thrilled to celebrate the historic legacy of Whataburger’s holiday basketball tradition with the 50th tournament. It’s always a joy to share in the enthusiasm of the teams, families and fans.”
“We share the parents’ and fans’ pride in the players’ achievements and appreciate their dedication to the sport. It’s a thrill to watch them shine in a major tournament,” said Whataburger President and CEO Preston Atkinson. “The tournament allows us to thank our customers from Whataburger communities large and small and showcase some highly competitive basketball.”
Sports Illustrated and USA Today have called the Whataburger Basketball Tournament one of the nation’s top five holiday high school tournaments. More than 15,000 high school athletes have played in the tournament since its inception. Each year, nearly 600 basketball players broaden their skills and experience against a variety of teams and showcase their abilities in front of scouts from some of the nation’s top colleges in three days. The tournament has shaped the lives and careers of high school students from communities with a few hundred people to those with a population of millions. It has built a legacy of holiday basketball and community spirit in Fort Worth known across the nation. Little did the Lions Club members that planned that first tournament in 1958 know what a long-standing and far-reaching tradition they would create.