The weekend after Labor Day is a pigskin buffet, with the NFL season opening amid a full schedule of high school and college football games.
In Niagara Falls, it’s also one of the most bountiful basketball weekends of the year.
For 22 years, the Can-Am Basketball Classic has brought elite AAU teams to play at Niagara Falls High School, Niagara Catholic High School and Niagara University. The Niagara Police Athletic League has run the tournament for all but the first few years.
In 2009, the event was renamed the Alan R. Elia Sr. Memorial Basketball Tournament to honor its late founder.
In its heyday, the Can-Am attracted top-tier talent, including future NBA players DeJuan Blair, Jamal Magliore, Danny Fortson, Demetrius Nicholson, Andy Rautins, J.R. Giddens and Sean Singleton, among others.
The host team matched up well in most years, with Falls stars Paul Harris, Jonny Flynn, Jeff Parmer and Greg Gamble playing with the Niagara PAL.
“The year we had Paul, we played in the finals against a (Rochester Area Players) team that had four Division I kids, and we beat them by 40,” said Sal Constantino, tournament organizer and Niagara Falls’ boys basketball coach.
The talent level has dropped off in recent years now that NCAA rules prohibit Division I coaches from attending AAU tournaments in early September, but the Elia Memorial Tournament continues to be a fixture on the schedules for strong programs in upstate New York and southern Ontario.
“In years past, it would draw some of the best players in the country. It was a mainstay for many, many years,” said Gene Cairo, founder of the Rochester Area Players program that has won four of the last five Elia championships. “With the NCAA rule changes, it’s not what it was, but it’s still a very well-run tournament that gives you an opportunity to play against Canadian teams and in front of all of the Division III coaches in Western New York.”
More than two dozen Division II, III, NAIA and junior college programs were represented at this year’s tournament, Constantino said.
Former Niagara Falls High School stars Demondi Johnson, Kelvin Agee and Taijay Williams all played for colleges that discovered them at the Elia Memorial. “I try to get as many college coaches as I can,” Constantino said. “It gives the kids an opportunity to play with a little structure, against quality talent, in front of colleges.”
Medaille College coach Mike MacDonald attended the inaugural Can-Am Classic when he was an assistant to John Beilein at Canisius College. He continued recruiting at the tournament when he became the head coach at Canisius, watched his son Matt play in the tournament the past three summers and returned this year to scout players for his Division III program.
“For me, it’s always signaled the kickoff of the school year and basketball season,” MacDonald said. “It’s always been a really classy, well-run, well-organized tournament. They are not just out there to make a buck. It’s really done the right way, to get kids exposure. That was Al Elia’s original thing, to do it for the kids, and Sal has continued that.”
Ottawa coach Andy Waterman wrote: “PAL always manages to run a good event. Great exposure and playing experience for the Canadian teams.”
The tournament raises about $1,000 annually for Niagara PAL basketball programs, according to Executive Director Art Eberhart. Most of that comes from entry fees, as few spectators pay the $2 admission to watch the games.
“I don’t think enough people from the city really realize the amount of talent that comes here to play,” Constantino said.
But the Elia Memorial Tournament still fulfills its founder’s vision.
“Alan Elia was one of the biggest basketball supporters that I have ever seen in my life,” Eberhart said. “The idea was to try and balance, as much as possible, the Canadian and American talent, and allow the college coaches to come and get a look at the kids. We think it’s helped open the Canadian market to the college coaches. It’s been a good showcase, a good vehicle to get our kids recognized.
Rochester Area Players won this year’s 2013 Alan R. Elia Sr. Memorial Tournament, getting 24 points and 13 rebounds in the championship game from sophomore Anthony Lamb, one of four players on the RAP team currently receiving recruiting interest from Division I schools.
The Niagara PAL team went 2-3 and placed fourth. Canisius sophomore Harold Washington averaged 24.8 points in four pool play games the first day but did not play in last Sunday’s third-place game loss to Ottawa, which was led by Division I recruit Tristen Ross.