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City of Palms Classic canceled due to health, safety concerns about COVID-19 pandemic

Adam Regan
Fort Myers News-Press

This holiday season in Fort Myers won't be the same without the Culligan City of Palms Classic.

For the first time in the 48-year history of the nation's premier high school basketball tournament, organizers canceled the event. It was over health and safety concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Classic Basketball Inc. confirmed.

“This was without a doubt the toughest decision we have ever had to make regarding the nation’s top high school basketball tournament,” tournament executive director John Naylor said in the release. “With the health of the teams and fans our number one priority, we had to make this decision. We know how much people across the nation — and especially in Lee County — look forward to this great event each year, and we know the 2021 version will be viewed with high anticipation.” 

Montverde Academy defeated IMG Academy in the 2019 Culligan City of Palms Classic Championship Game Monday, December 23, at Suncoast Credit Union Arena. The tournament was canceled this year due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tournament, which was slated to be held Dec. 18-23 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College, has been hosted every year in Fort Myers since 1973 when it started as a local tourney that grew into a regional one before it included nationally-ranked programs featuring 175 players since 1988 who've gone on to be McDonald's All-Americans, 147 players selected in the NBA Draft the last 26 years, including six No. 1 picks and seven No. 2s.

Seventy-five City of Palms alums were on NBA rosters to start this past season, making up nearly 15% of the league.

There were a few changes to the original 16-team main bracket, 4-team Sunshine Series, and 4-team Signature Series draw since the field was announced in June.

But tournament vice president Donnie Wilkie said the event grew in stature and generated plenty of interest over the last seven weeks with the addition of Huntersville (N.C.) Lake Norman Christian, which features Mikey Williams, one of the most highly anticipated prospects in the 2023 class, and teams like Bartow, Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy, Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian, Sarasota Riverview, and Mount Pleasant (Utah) Wasatch Academy.

The board was hoping a socially-distanced seating plan at Suncoast similar to that of the Florida High School Athletic Association's volleyball state championships to be held at the venue Nov. 13-14 could make hosting the City of Palms feasible.

FSW sports information director Roy Allen said the college didn't play a role in the cancellation of the City of Palms and is still planning on hosting the Fort Myers Tip-Off college basketball tournament around Thanksgiving.

More:Lake Norman Christian, Brentwood Academy, Wasatch Academy added to City of Palms field

More:Naples returns to City of Palms field, which includes Montverde, IMG, Sandy Creek

The COP board's plan was to sell 1,336 tickets, Wilkie said, and a safety booklet was being developed for the tournament that included whether or not locker rooms would be used for players and officials as well as guidelines on how often basketballs would be cleaned.

Ultimately, canceling the tournament came down to the safety of its customers, officials, media members, and other attendees even with the arena at 50% capacity, Wilkie said of the board's decision.

"Ultimately, it's just not a tournament we can do in 2020," Wilkie said, adding that a lot of fans are in their 60s and 70s, a high-risk age range with regard to COVID-19.

Advanced tickets that were purchased will be refunded and Wilkie called all 24 coaches about the cancellation. 

"We all agreed canceling now instead of later has become the prudent and considerate way to proceed," Wilkie said.

Players competed in the 2019 Culligan City of Palms Dunk Contest Sunday evening, December 22, at Suncoast Credit Union Arena. Malachi Wideman, of Venice High School, won the overall contest after a showdown against Hamilton Height's Samson Ruzhentsev. The 2020 City of Palms was canceled Wednesday due to health and safety concerns over COVID-19.

One of the coaches contacted was Naples coach Garrett Hull. The Golden Eagles, a talented group led by reigning Naples Daily News Player of the Year Tony Green, scored an invite after a 17-year absence for the tournament.

Receiving the news his program would have to wait longer to show what it's made of on a national stage was disappointing, Hull said.

"It shocked me at first. We worked so hard to get to this point to get the invite. And now it's not going to happen because of COVID-19," Hull said. " ... Missing those games with those caliber of teams, it's definitely going to be tough to fill those spots."

With a strong group of younger players, Hull expects to be back in the City of Palms sooner rather than later.

Next year’s Culligan City of Palms Classic is scheduled for Dec. 17-22 at Suncoast.