FORT MYERS – The kid out of Jacksonville Forrest was something no one in this neck of the woods had ever seen.
Two years earlier, Stacey Poole had won the City of Palms Classic’s MVP. In 1988, he returned as the first-ever McDonalds All-American to play in the tournament. Poole’s presence helped the tournament turn the corner from a well-known statewide event to a national showcase.
Also there during that time period: Tom Massolio, Charlotte Tarpon basketball player.
“He was the first big-time player to come to the City of Palms and we got the opportunity to watch him in that first tournament,” Massolio said. “He kind of got all this started and made this thing what it is today.
“That’s my favorite and most memorable time as a player and a kid, watching him and seeing how athletic he was at the time and what he could do on a basketball court. Just elevated the tournament.”
Massolio will be bringing the Tarpons back to the tournament this season, where Charlotte has been a regular participant during his two-decade tenure as Charlotte’s coach. The City of Palms Classic committee unveiled its 26-team field on Thursday at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida Southwestern College.
After a one-year layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Palms Classic will return this December 17-22 for its 48th tournament.
Charlotte, who went 21-10 in 2020-21 and reached the FHSAA Class 6A Final Four, will be the local representative in the 16-team national tournament field and will play the prime-time game on opening night (Dec. 17) against Milton, out of Alpharetta, Georgia.
“I’ve been very lucky to come back to the school where I was a player and played in the City of Palms for two straight years,” Massolio said. “I grew up watching it a little bit, watching some of these great coaches coach their teams. I’ve been very fortunate to be in a place I truly love and I’m really excited about the tournament.”
Milton, coached by Allen Whitehart, went 28-3 a year ago, winning the Georgia Class 7A state title. The school also participated at the GEICO Nationals at season’s end, along with four other teams in this year’s City of Palms field.
“The fact I get to coach in this tournament, possibly against those coaches, is pretty cool,” Whitehart said.
There are several teams in the 16-team national tournament field that the Tarpons saw up close last season. Montverde, the defending national champions, played host to the Tarpons during a Thanksgiving tournament. While they didn’t play Montverde, they did play Calvary Christian. Orlando Christian Prep participated in the Wally Keller Classic, as did IMG Academy, whom the Tarpons then met on the Monday after that event.
Louisville (KY) Ballard, Berkmar (GA), Buchtel (Ohio), Orlando Dr. Phillips, Gill St. Bernard’s (NJ), Greensboro Day (NC), Isidor Newman (LA), Oak Hill Academy (VA), St. John’s (DC) and Chicago Whitney Young round out the field.
The four-team Signature Series will feature AZ Compass Prep, Combine Academy (NC), Crestwood Prep (Toronto) and Victory Rock Prep out of Bradenton. The Tarpons played host to Victory Rock in a preseason showcase last November.
The four-team Sunshine Series will consist of Fort Walton Choctawatchee, Kissimmee Life Christian, Miami Norland and Tampa Catholic and the Hugh Thimlar Tribute game between Miami Columbus and SW Florida Christian will open the Dec. 17 evening session prior to Charlotte’s game.
In all, seven defending state champions, three runners-up and four semifinalists are in the showcase. Eight of the nation’s top-20 seniors, nine of the top-20 juniors and four of the top-20 sophomores will be playing. Among them will be the nation’s No. 1 senior (Jalen Duren, Monteverde), No. 2 junior (Omaha Biliew, Montverde) and No. 2 sophomore (Naasir Cunningham (Gill St. Bernard’s) will be on the floor.
Charlotte junior John Gamble is currently the nation’s No. 79 junior, according to Rivals and is No. 21 in Florida, according to PrepHoops.
Since Poole’s heyday, 182 McDonalds All-Americans and 100 future NBA first-round draft picks have played in the event.
THE 48TH CITY OF PALMS CLASSIC
Where: Suncoast Credit Union Arena, Fort Myers
When: Dec. 17-22
Tickets: Single-day general admission $22-26; single-day reserved $32-37; With six-day single-seat packages for $168 or $290. A six-day VIP parking pass is available for $65. For more information or to buy tickets, visit cityofpalmsclassic.com
NATIONAL TOURNAMENT THUMBNAILS
A look at the 16 teams in the City of Palms Classic’s national tournament field:
The Bruins, out of Louisville, Kentucky, were a KHSAA Sweet 16 semifinalist and will feature the state’s top senior, 6-9 Maker Bar, and the No. 2 junior, 6-4 junior Gabe Sisk. Coach Chris Renner owns a 675-179 career record, with 623 wins coming at Ballard.
The Lilburn, Georga-based Patriots are paced by the nation’s No. 66 senior, 6-10 Malique Ewin. Berkmar fell to Milton, in the Class 7A championship after leading by 7 points in the third.
The Griffins, hailing from Akron, were the Division II-Region 6 runner-up in Ohio. Chris Livingston, a 6-7 senior, enters as a consensus top-5 player after averaging 31.1 points, 15.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4.7 steals and 4.3 blocks.
CALVARY CHRISTIAN (17-7)
The Fort Lauderdale-based Eagles handed Charlotte a 75-49 loss at the Montverde Thanksgiving tournament on their way to the Class 3A state championship. They are loaded with three top-150 seniors and three top-65 juniors, including 6-4 Marvel Allen, the Rivals’ No. 9 junior. Brenen Lorient, who joins the team as a transfer.
The Tarpons are led by coach Tom Massolio, who is five wins shy of 500 for his career, and John Gamble, Rivals’ No. 79 junior. Joining Gamble are rising sophomore Chris Cornish and senior sharpshooters D.J. Woods and Jordany Reyes-Sanchez.
DR. PHILLIPS (27-3)
The Orlando-based Panthers won the Class 7A title and boast four consensus top-25 class talents in seniors Ernest Udeh Jr., Denzel Aberdeen, Riley Kugel and sophomore Jordan Tillery. Aberdeen scored 27 points in the 54-46 win against Dwyer for the state championship.
GILL ST. BERNARD’S (11-3)
The Knights, out of Gladstone, New Jersey, were Skyland Conference semifinalists. They are led by 6-7 Naasir Cunningham, rated as the second-best sophomore in the nation by ESPN. Mackenzie Mgbako is Rivals’ No. 5 junior and ranks inside the top 10 in most services.
GREENSBORO DAY (24-6)
The North Carolina Class 4A semifinalist Bengals feature longtime coach Freddy Johnson, who has 1,104 career victories and 11 state titles.
IMG ACADEMY (21-3)
The Bradenton-based Ascenders reached the semis of the GEICO Nationals this past spring. A few months earlier, Charlotte played IMG tight for three quarters before falling, 73-53. IMG is loaded, featuring six top seniors and two top juniors, led by 6-7 Jarace Walker (Rivals No. 9 senior) and 6-3 Jaden Bradely (ESPN No. 14 senior.
ISIDORE NEWMAN (19-7)
The New Orleans-based Division III state runner-up Greenies not only boast two of the nation’s best juniors in Chris Lockett Jr. and Canin Jefferson, but the nation’s No. 1 junior quarterback, Arch Manning, nephew of Peyton and Eli. Coach Randy Livingston is an 11-year NBA veteran.
The Eagles return six of their top seven players from their Georgia Class 7A title run. In addition to an abundance of basketball talent, Milton features 6-3 junior L.T. Overton, a defensive end who Rivals ranks as the nation’s No. 1 player in his class.
MONTVERDE ACADEMY (24-1)
The Eagles are the consensus defending national champions as well as the most recent City of Palms titleholder (2019). The nation’s top senior, Jalen Duren, is anticipated to be an early departure, but Montverde will find a way to move forward behind nine other top-40 players, including two of the nation’s best juniors, Omaha Biliew and Kwame Evans.
OAK HILL ACADEMY (20-9)
The Warriors, out of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, are guided by legendary coach Steve Smith, who has amassed a 1,199-88 record in 36 season. The Warriors’ 9 losses this past season were the program’s most in 40 years, but just three players from that team have departed.
ORLANDO CHRISTIAN PREP (27-0)
The Warriors bring a 47-game winning streak and the Class 2A state title into the 2021-22 season after defeating all comers last year by an average margin of 25.3 points. Charlotte played the Warriors to within 15 points, 53-38, during the Wally Keller Classic in January.
ST. JOHN’S (0-0)
The Washington D.C.-based powerhouse didn’t play last season, due to the pandemic, but feature 6-8 Amani Hansberry, a consensus top-60 junior and ESPN’s No. 88 senior, 6-6 Christian Watson.
WHITNEY YOUNG (15-1)
The Chicago-based Dolphins are primed for a return to the consensus national rankings after an 8-year absence, thanks to the presence of seniors A.J. Casey and Xavier Amos, as well as junior Dalen Davis.