ELDORADO – Some folks get up early the day after Christmas, ready to take advantage of post-holiday savings or take gifts back to retailers.
For Mace Hankins, a Carrier Mills farmer and self-professed super basketball fan, it's the start of a fun but grueling Saline County tradition – three days of basketball at the Eldorado Holiday Tournament.
"This is something that I just really look forward to every year," Hankins says, finding a seat in the bleachers with his young nephew Cash. "There's just an awful lot of local basketball history here, and it's a lot of fun to be a part of."
Hankins is more than just a casual observer, though. For the past six or so years, he's been the volunteer scorekeeper for the Carrier Mills Wildcats. Monday's post-game between the Wildcats and the top-seeded Herrin Tigers had him busy at the score table, double-checking stats before he could switch hats to start watching the West Frankfort Redbirds play the Carmi Bulldogs.
As Mace and Cash watch the two teams warm up, Cash notices the West Frankfor uniforms and observes, "that's not the Louisville Redbirds."
Mace chuckles and agrees.
"You're right, Cash. They're the Redbirds, but they're not Louisville."
Mace goes on to explain that he, Cash, and Cash's dad watched Louisville upset University of Kentucky at the KFC Yum Center Wednesday 73-70. It was the first time since 2012 the Redbirds had beaten the Wildcats, and the game was an eye-opener for Cash.
"Tell'em how high up we sat," Mace says with a smile.
Cash smiles back and excitedly says, "We were on row 315. We thought it was going to be a one-point game for a minute."
That, Mace says, was a great memory made.
As the sound of a pounding rain recedes on the roof of Duff-Kingston Gymnasium, Hankins says fun and memories are the point of watching three days of basketball at the EHT. He went to his first tournament in 1979 when he was in eighth grade, and has not missed much since.
"That first year, my dad drove me over here, and I told him I'd get a ride home with somebody," Hankins said.
That year, and later years, he said very often he was able to get a ride home with neighbor Paul Richerson.
He said the most memorable game he saw was in 2009, when Meridian beat Harrisburg 72-70 for the championship. Meridian player DaVante McClung rained down three three-pointers in the last minute and a half as part of an 11-1 run to go ahead that game, Hankins said.
There have many other great games he's seen over the year, but he said he missed what he considers the greatest game in his own early history of watching the EHT.
"I didn't get to see it, but the best game, to me, that they've had in all the years of this was the Pinckneyville-Cairo game in the 1980 tournament," Hankins said. "It was a 92-91 double overtime game, and Pinckneyville managed to win. Cairo went on to get third place at state that year, when it was still the two-class system."
The memories haven't been just sports moments. One year, a young man chosen to sing the national anthem had an apparent moment of stage fright and forgot the lyrics to the national anthem, Hankins said. When the singer tried to restart, he forgot them again, but that's when the crowd joined in.
"Everyone in the gym sang along, so they kind of helped him out," Hankins said.
Though the tournament will have a new champion crowned Wednesday night, Hankins said it's the overall experience that keeps fans like him coming back year after year after year.
"It's just a lot of fun," he said. "There's really no other way to put it. It's a holiday tradition and it's fun."