Henefer’s vintage ‘madness’ to end?
March 20, 2012
While the rest of the basketball world watched in amazement as Lehigh and Norfolk State pulled miraculous upsets at the Big Dance last weekend, the residents of Henefer, Utah, had a more important event on their minds.
Never mind the Final Four, Elite Eight or Sweet Sixteen. For the past 65 years a different kind of March madness has gripped the Summit County town the Henefer Tournaments.
It’s more than church ball, more than hardnosed inter-town rivalry. The Henefer Tournaments are a homecoming, a chance to renew old acquaintances, to come together for three nights in March as a community.
"Whether you travel across town, drive or fly in from other states, you are always welcome to join us and enjoy the company of past friends and neighbors," a program said.
The traditional reunion has survived the test of time — until now, anyway.
Held first in a 1906-era dance hall, the tourneys are now hosted in the gym of the town’s Latter-day Saint church. The facility, much as the event itself, is unlike any other. The cultural hall was added on to the existing chapel in 1957 and features a balcony on the west side of the building that overlooks the court, providing plenty of prime seating for spectators.
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Unfortunately, the building will be demolished after the new church house is completed later this spring.
"What’s so special about the 65th annual tournament is the simple fact that this is the last time it will be here," said Henefer Tournament committee chairman Clare Richins. "The question is, could we have it at another facility with the arrangement of the kitchen, hallway, balcony, stage and all the nostalgia and memories that go along with it."
Richins believes the "rough and tough" play in their currently facility will be hard to reproduce in another building.
"You’re right there with the action, and that’s what’s made it great," he said. "It’s not too large like a gym or stake center where you don’t get the same type of feeling and game-time response. Everybody is right (next) to each other."
By eight o’clock on Friday evening, the place is packed tighter than the Rose Garden on opening day of the NCAA tourney. Nearly everyone has courtside seats lining the entire gym, the stage and the balcony. The hallways are jammed as well. Parents, children, coaches and players socialize and prepare for the next game, the next halftime show. People walk by, hands filled with sloppy joes, hotdogs, popcorn, or recently purchased Henefer Tournament T-shirts.
Behind the chaos on the court, meticulous planning goes into preparing for the tournament. Of the two wards in town, one is in charge of running the kitchen while the other provides halftime entertainment for every game. Two weeks before tipoff, coaches for each of the eight teams gather together to draft players from the community. Only people who have lived in Henefer the eligible length of residency is somewhat murky and have graduated from high school are allowed to play. A single-elimination bracket is then drawn up and referees preside over play. Numerous fouls lend to the popular slogan: "Did you survive the Henefer Tournaments?"
For the 65th anniversary a committee was established to emphasize the history of the tourney. More than 600 photographs spanning the entire length of the event were compiled into a slideshow to celebrate its rich history. Articles, histories and other memories decorated the hallways. Still in attendance at the age of 95, Veda Brooks received the all-time lifetime fan award. Edison Stephens, a 93-year-old resident of Henefer and participant in the original 1947 game, was named Grand Marshal of the opening ceremony.
Stephens described a time when Henefer was nothing more than "an old worn-out school" and a few cabins. The lack of a ward house made social gatherings difficult, which is why he believes the tournaments became vital in uniting the community. When asked what would happen if the tradition was ended, Stephens had only one reply.
"I think it would be a disaster."
In an ironic twist of fate, disaster helped foster the birth of the first tournament. With young men returning home from the battlefields of World War II, the bishopric at the time hosted the first Henefer Tournament to reunite the community. Four generations later, the grandsons and great-grandsons of one of those founders, Norman Richins, are still competing.
"I feel privileged and honored to have been a part of it," Colby Richins, the great-grandson of Norman Richins said of his first tournament experience. Along with the Joneses, Fawcetts and Stephens, the Richins and other multi-generational families make up a large portion of the tourneys. Two of Colby’s brothers, Gavin and Garrick, three first cousins, Wes, Wyatt and Nathan, and an uncle, Courtney, were all on teams vying for first.
"It’s a great family legacy," he said.
As the championship game concluded on Saturday night, chairman Clare Richins and the rest of town were left guessing at the future of their beloved Henefer Tournaments. But whether this is the end or merely the beginning of another chapter, one thing is for certain:
"I dare say that there’s (not) another small town in Utah, in the country that for 65 years has kept a tradition like this going on," Clare Richins said. "(The tournaments) have kept going on and on."