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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jul. 9, 2014 4 years ago

Commentary: FHSAA should keep basketball finals at Lakeland Center

by: Steven Ryzewski Senior Sports Editor

First thing’s first — I’ll admit I’m a little biased on this.

I’ve covered the FHSAA Boys Basketball Finals in Lakeland each of the past three seasons and, in addition to being a basketball junkie who loves watching the state’s best teams duke it out, my favorite part has always been the drive — or rather, the lack thereof.

It’s hard to beat a one-hour commute to cover a state championship, just ask a preps reporter from south Florida or the Panhandle.

So, as the FHSAA weighs its options in where it will hold the state tournaments for boys and girls basketball in the spring, I have to admit I’m a little partial to keeping it in Lakeland at The Lakeland Center — where it has been for 33 of 38 seasons since 1977.

Selfish? Sure.

It’s also a good idea.

According to the Orlando Sentinel’s Buddy Collings, the FHSAA is considering Jacksonville and Tallahassee along with Lakeland in addition to the possibility of bids materializing from West Palm Beach and Fort Myers.

The thing Lakeland has above all of them is something I believe is underrated — it’s a central location in our massive state.

If you’re a team from Tallahassee, the drive to Lakeland is right around four hours, as is the drive for a team from Miami. Neither is particularly enticing (you really can’t beat the hour commute from Orlando), but they both trump the seven-hour trip from Miami to Tallahassee.

Heck, I’d love for Orlando or one of the other towns here in the immediate Central Florida area to bid for the tournaments, but no such interest has been expressed and there’s another thing to consider when thinking about keeping the championships in Lakeland — tradition.

I’m a millennial and we’re not known for being overly nostalgic, but there have been some special moments in The Lakeland Center over the years — something Dr. Phillips boys basketball coach Anthony Long believes should be taken into account.

“I’ve got a lot of great memories from taking teams to that building,” Long said. “So selfishly I’d like to see it stay in Lakeland.

“I think they do a good job in Lakeland and I think the city kind of takes the whole event in, feels like it’s part of it.”

For basketball players across the state, Lakeland has become synonymous with the final stop en route to a championship.

That means something.

I’m sure some of the facilities bidding for the games are newer and nicer, but I think the 33 years worth of champions crowned on the hardwood at Lakeland is a tradition worth fighting for — and, along with Long, the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches agrees.

The FABC distributed a written statement recently, expressing its position that its members would generally like to see the championships remain at The Lakeland Center.

Of course, there’s always more to these things, with the Lakeland Ledger having reported that FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing doesn’t believe the organization feels welcome there because of certain bills passed by Lakeland legislators.

I’d like to hope that such differences could be overcome and that the tradition of hoops at The Lakeland Center will live on. There’s something cool about the stars from one generation sharing the same floor as stars from years past.

Despite his preference on location, Long said that no matter where the championships are held this spring, the tournament itself is always a thing of beauty.

“It’s always going to be special no matter where it is,” Long said.

Now that’s something we can all agree on.

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