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Volume 20 No. 42
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Maui’s ‘preseason Final Four’ marks 30 years

If Ralph Sampson and Virginia’s basketball team had just taken care of business against Division II Chaminade on that night in 1982, there might never have been a Maui Invitational.

But the No. 1-ranked Cavaliers couldn’t avoid the greatest upset in college basketball history, and Chaminade, emboldened by its victory, decided to capitalize on its newfound fame by starting its own annual tournament in Maui in 1984.

Lahaina Civic Center has been expanded but remains an unmistakably intimate hoops venue.
Now, the EA Sports Maui Invitational, which celebrates its 30th event next week, is as synonymous with Thanksgiving as turkey and dressing. The event has evolved into probably the most recognizable of the myriad preseason basketball tournaments played annually, with its three days of games leading up to Thanksgiving and the unmistakably intimate Lahaina Civic Center serving as the venue.

“We set out to make this a preseason Final Four, and when you look at the fields, that’s what it has become,” said Steve Lesnik, whose Chicago-based agency, KemperLesnik, has operated the tournament since 1990.

Lesnik worked for Kemper Sports at that time, primarily running golf events, including the Women’s Kemper Open in Wailea, Hawaii. Through his connections at the golf tournament, he was introduced to athletic officials at Chaminade, who eventually sought Lesnik’s help to transform the then-Maui Classic into a more prestigious event.

Over the 23 years since, KemperLesnik has operated the tournament on behalf of Chaminade, a private school based in Honolulu that still technically owns the eight-team event, which features seven schools from the mainland and the home-standing Silverswords.

The current arrangement between Chaminade and KemperLesnik goes through 2025.

“The event has reached a point where it’s certainly worth preserving and maintaining at the highest level,” Lesnik said. “That’s how we look at it. We try to provide a Final Four type of experience in the best place you could hope to have a tournament. That was our vision, to have a preseason Final Four.”

KemperLesnik handles everything from the TV negotiations with ESPN to the selling of the one and only title sponsor the event’s ever known: EA Sports.

The model enables KemperLesnik to cover the expenses for each of the teams that travels to Maui and, after agency fees, Chaminade collects a tidy profit that goes to its athletic department.

Specific figures were not available.

KemperLesnik’s event division of five employees works year-round on the Maui Invitational, as well as the agency’s other events, including the boys and girls McDonald’s All-American games.

KemperLesnik has been integral in the tournament’s recent improvements. Lahaina Civic Center has been expanded in capacity from 2,500 to 3,500, and fan-friendly accessories, like a beer garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean, have added to the experience.

The tournament also brought on former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom to serve as its chairman, replacing longtime ambassador Wayne Duke, the former Big Ten commissioner. Odom’s charge is to assemble the best field among the preseason tournaments, and with a backdrop like Maui, it’s not often difficult. This year’s event has Arkansas, Baylor, California, Dayton, Gonzaga, Minnesota and Syracuse.

“It’s really about the benefits to Chaminade and doing something great for the visibility and the recruiting for the school,” Lesnik said.