Derek Lemmens, right, looks to pass to Brad McDonald (25), while being guarded by Jesse Robinson and Charlie Grill during the Russ Johnson Memorial Alumni Basketball Tournament Saturday, Dec. 21 at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Members of the championship winning team at the Russ Johnson Memorial Alumni Basketball Tournament pose for a picture following play Saturday, Dec. 21 at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium. In the front row, from left to right, are Derek Lemmens, Brad McDonald, Tyler Thorsen and Brian Paulson. In the back row are Brandon Karaba, Jake Smith and Ryan Kelly.
12/26/2019 7:31:00 AM The tradition continues at alumni basketball tourney
Players spanning nearly five decades of Hodag basketball returned home Saturday for the 18th annual Russ Johnson Memorial Alumni basketball tournament.
Roughly 30 players were on hand to take part in an event that has become a holiday tradition over the years.
"It's awesome that, year after year, we get a chance to lace them up, stretch and play all over again," said Brandon Karaba, a member of the Hodags' 2001 state tournament team and alumni tournament organizer. "It's always a great time."
Karaba and RHS boys' basketball coach Derek Lemmens were two of the notable alumni who took part in the contest, along with Jake Smith - an all-state player for the Hodags in 2006-07 who went on to have a successful collegiate career at UW-Superior before becoming the head boys' basketball coach at Superior High School.
The three played together on a team that won the tournament, which was comprised of several short, first-to-15-points games.
The squad won all but one of the games they played, losing a game to the youngest team in the field, comprised of several 2017, 2018 and 2019 RHS grads. Lemmens, always confident in his abilities, quipped that he was taking it easy on some of his former players.
"That youngest group, we let them get the W because, honestly, they're probably not going to return if we just take it to them again like we did the first time," Lemmens said, tongue-in-cheek. "They're young, they're impressionable yet, and I don't want young guys like that not having the opportunity of feeling a meaningful W. We gave that to them and hopefully that will get them coming back next year."
The tournament featured players from a number of different eras - from Junior Howard, the leading scoring on last year's Hodag squad, to Class of 1972 grad Ken Pazdernik and plenty of others in between.
"That's the amazing part. We have such a strong tradition here," Karaba said. "To have graduates from the '70s era all the way up to just last year. It's amazing to have all these guys out and everybody's having a blast."
There was even one non-Rhinelander alum in the field. RHS activities director Brian Paulson, who battled against the 2001 Hodag state team while at Antigo High School, joined forces with Lemmens and Karaba on Saturday's winning team - though that didn't stop Lemmens and Karaba from needling the former Red Robin.
"I think he's earned his stripes," Lemmens said. "He understands now what a real color is and wanted an opportunity to be a part of that. I hope he appreciates it."
Karaba couldn't help but take a jab at the infamous stall game between Rhinelander and Antigo in the 2016 playoffs. "(Paulson) held the ball a little longer than I would have preferred, but that's a typical Antigo Red Robin right there," he quipped.
The alumni tournament has been held since 2001 and became known as the Russ Johnson Memorial tournament in 2016 in memory of Johnson, a longtime Hodag basketball supporter and youth coach who passed away in January of that year.
"The Johnson family has always been huge supporters of youth basketball and they continue it every year going into the alumni," Karaba said. "They personally donate money (to the Rhinelander Basketball Association), along with donating the Gatorade and water and granola bars. Everybody just loves it. It's a big tradition and to have the tournament named after Russ, it's just amazing and the family does so much and they continue to support. I can't thank them enough."
This year's winning team included Karaba, Lemmens, Paulson, Smith, Ryan Kelly, Brad McDonald and Tyler Thorsen.
"It's a fun group to play with because everyone knows the game and everyone's respectful of the game," Lemmens said. "They're sharing the basketball and just playing the right way. It's a lot of fun - and it's the best workout you can get.
"Just to see all these guys still coming out to play is special."
In addition to the Johnson family, Karaba thanked the School District of Rhinelander for the use of the Miazga Gym, Metro Screenprinting and Embroidery for printing the championship T-shirts and Bucketheads Sports Bar for hosting a get-together for the alums following the tournament.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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