A national championship high school basketball tournament that had been played in Madison Square Garden in New York City for three years now is calling Southwest Florida home.
The Geico Nationals will have an eight-team boys tournament and a five-team girls tournament. The games will be played Thursday through Saturday at Florida SouthWestern State College’s Suncoast Credit Union Arena with tickets on sale for $10 at geicohoops.com. The girls championship game will tip off at 10 a.m. Saturday and will be followed by the boys title game at noon.
ESPN’s channels will broadcast the entirety of the tournament, but Paragon Sports President Rashid Ghazi also is hoping to have fans in the stands after putting on the tournament last year without them due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tournament began in 2009 at Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C., when it was known as the National High School Invitational. Dick’s Sporting Goods became the title sponsor, and the event moved in 2014 to Madison Square Garden before moving to Christ the King High School in 2019.
“Ultimately, COVID was much worse than any of us expected it to be,” Ghazi said of the canceled 2020 tournament, which would have been held in South Carolina. “So, we canceled the event because COVID was so fluid and fast-moving. We realized we couldn’t hold it safely anywhere in the country.
“We decided to look for a new home in 2021. With COVID still in flux and New York under a lot of restrictions, we wanted to move it to Florida or Georgia. We looked at Atlanta and various venues in Florida.” Because FSW already served as the home of the City of Palms Classic basketball tournament, a premier high school event in the country, in mid-December made choosing the same venue as an easy choice.
IMG Academy from Bradenton, Oak Hill Academy from Mouth-of-Wilson, Virginia, and Montverde Academy from near Orlando all played at FSW in the 2021 City of Palms Classic.
“There are a couple of reasons why,” Ghazi said of choosing FSW. “We thought the venue was a great size. The venue was available. We love the connections with City of Palms. That venue is used to high-end basketball well. We knew there would be strong recognition with IMG, Montverde and Oak Hill, because they’ve all played in the City of Palms before. And Fort Myers is a beautiful location.
“We always want to host it where the destination is a place for people to go. For the kids, for the clients and for the schools. Fort Myers is a gorgeous location with beautiful beaches.”
Paragon Sports also secured the hotel rooms for the visiting teams a year ago, when the bookings were far cheaper than they are now, the height of tourist season. “A year ago, it wasn’t so much the typical tourist season because of COVID,” Ghazi said. “We were able to lock in hotels for 2021, because people still weren’t traveling. We locked in hotels months ago. If you look now, there’s a shortage of rooms in the area. But we had planned well enough in advance. We enjoyed the venue so much. FSW rolled out the red carpet for us.”
The national tournament could continue and evolve into a Fort Myers fixture, he said, depending on how this year goes, but “right now our plan would be to come back.”