Portland, Ore. — It’s probably fitting that Mark Hollis was the one who first got the idea.
As 16 teams continue to play in the PK80 Invitational this weekend — many among the top college basketball programs in the nation — much of the attention has gone to the teams and Phil Knight, the founder of Nike who is being honored by the event.
But the unprecedented tournament — most holiday tournaments are half the size and don’t involve two separate tournaments as well as two women’s games — began more than six years ago as Michigan State’s athletic director was on a visit to the Nike headquarters.
The mastermind of so many big events, Hollis was touring the Moda Center and Veterans Memorial Coliseum, two arenas that stand side-by-side in downtown Portland. And that’s’ when the next idea started to percolate in Hollis' brain.
“I’ve always been driven to create memories for student-athletes,” Hollis said as he headed to have dinner with the Michigan State women’s team on Thursday. “This was another opportunity for us.”
He’s had his share of ideas for memory makers. It was Hollis who first came up with the idea for an outdoor hockey game in a football stadium, creating the Cold War at Spartan Stadium in 2001. He was at the forefront of Final Four games being played in football stadiums, was the first to come up with the idea for a basketball game on an aircraft carrier and, along with basketball coach Tom Izzo, pushed for the Spartans to be part of games at military bases around the world.
So, when he had the idea to put this many teams in the same site as a way to honor Knight on his 80th birthday, there was the minor detail of making it all work.
“I have this bad habit of coming up with an idea and then having to find somebody to help pull it off,” Hollis said laughing. “We’re gonna have an outdoor hockey game and then how do we make the ice? But they been fabulous in putting (this) together. Getting through the first round of games here, everything seemed to be coming together in a great way.”
The help this time around has come from those at both arenas as well as ESPN, which jumped in early and has basically been running the event. Hollis pointed out that Nike is not “putting on” the event, but it has jumped in with its support.
On Wednesday night, all of the teams taking part were at the company’s headquarters in Beaverton as Knight hosted an event and talked with teams about chasing their dreams with hard work.
“Mr. Knight has so much respect for people that coach the game and talked (Wednesday) night about the value of athletics and the fact that you can put all of your energy into something and lose a game very similar to you can lose in business,” Hollis said. “You can lose no matter how hard you work and it’s a good lesson that you get from participating in sport.
“Having that forum, having that environment where the kids, the coaches, in a very intimate setting, got to hear firsthand from Mr. Knight some of his business philosophies. I thought that was a good conversation and something that Nike put together.”
It was all part of that experience Hollis is looking for when he comes up with an idea for an event. The teams got to see the Nike facilities and then were surprised with a message from LeBron James and customized new shoes from the NBA great. He even tweeted to the MSU women’s team — not the men.
And the gathering on Wednesday wasn’t it. Hollis loves when teams have a chance to interact off the court, something they’re doing in Portland this week. It was at the center of some of his other ideas that haven’t been pulled off, like a three-city barnstorming event or when he tried to set up four games being played simultaneously, much like a summer AAU event.
What has come together has created the excitement of something that would normally happen at the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it’s awesome,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “It’s like two regional sites. You’ve got eight teams (in each tournament) and the logistics of it, it’s remarkable. But to have this kind of event this early in the season is what we should do and Hollis gets it. The players don’t want to play directional state. I’m 54 and was lucky enough to play in college and when my teammates and I get together we don’t talk about the good old days of playing directional state.
“Players want to play in big games and the fans want to see big games and it’s not hard to figure out which games the players want to play in. It’s the games that we want to watch and why not do those more often? I think it’s fantastic. I’ve loved every second of it.”
As good as it’s been, the event isn’t likely to be repeated anytime soon. Each team schedules well in advance and getting 16 teams on the same page can be tough.
There were some other obvious teams that could have been involved but chose not to participate. Hollis said he was disappointed Kentucky didn’t play, but that was hardly taking away from what he sees is nothing but positive.
“Each school has their own choice and I’m very excited about every team that’s here,” Hollis said. “I just I think it’s a great opportunity for these kids on these different teams to have something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and they will.”