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Jim Kenyon: Charity basketball tournament hoping for a rebound

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford's Gunnar West lines up a free throw in the Class 3/4 championship game of the Karp's Classic basketball tournament at the CCBA’s Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on March 10, 2008. (Valley News - Jason Johns) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jason Johns—Valley News - Jason Johns

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/21/2023 12:10:00 PM
Modified: 1/21/2023 11:19:43 PM

Paul Karp, who grew up in Lebanon and raised a family here, was looking for a way to help needy kids in his community. In 1987, Karpy, as he’s known around the city, found it.

The Karp’s Klassic, an end-of-the-season recreational basketball tournament, has raised — even by conservative estimates — more than $150,000 over the years for the nonprofit Carter Community Building Association’s youth scholarship fund.

The money has paid for kids to attend summer camps, take swim lessons and participate in other CCBA activities that their families otherwise would have been hard-pressed to afford.

But for reasons that I’ll get to shortly, the 2023 Karp’s Klassic scheduled to begin in early March has been canceled.

“Every kid who played basketball in Lebanon, or for that matter the entire Upper Valley, probably has a Karp’s Klassic T-shirt, maybe two or three,” said Kieth Matte, who coaches Lebanon High School’s boys basketball team. “Lebanon is a community steeped in traditions. The Karp’s Klassic is one of them.”

The tradition actually began in Hanover in 1979. Karp, who was coaching a team in the Hanover men’s league, couldn’t find a postseason tournament for his players. Hank Tenney, Hanover’s recreation director at the time, suggested Karp start his own. Tenney even came up with the name.

In exchange for allowing Karp to play games in a Hanover school gym, the town’s recreation department received the proceeds.

In 1987, CCBA opened the Witherell Recreation Center in downtown Lebanon. With Karp’s ties to the city, moving the tournament to Witherell was a natural fit.

When Karp expanded the tournament in 1996 to include boys and girls youth divisions, the Upper Valley had its own version of March Madness.

The monthlong tournament, which ran weekends and a few weekday evenings, attracted 100 to 150 teams from throughout New Hampshire and Vermont.

Karp is quick to point out that while the tournament bore his name, it was far from a one-man show. Volunteers, who included his wife, Sue, and late mother, Margaret, were the tournament’s backbone.

Volunteers sold tickets, operated the scoreboard and swept the gym floor. In the weeks leading up to the event, a core group sat around the Karps’ dining room table many evenings, sifting through team entries and setting up pairings.

Karp used money from entry fees to buy T-shirts and trophies. He also set aside money to pay referees.

After paying bills, Karp donated the rest — usually between $5,000 and $7,000 — to the CCBA’s youth scholarship fund. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic ended the tournament prematurely, Karp was able to give $10,000. (Teams told Karp to keep their entry fees to support the CCBA’s worthy cause.)

“It shows all the work we put into it every year is worth it,” Karp said.

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Karp’s Klassic was set to return in early March.

Having dealt with heart issues in recent years, Karp, 72, lined up some of his stalwart volunteers to play bigger roles. Passing the torch, so to speak.

Larry Chiasson took over pre-tournament discussions with the CCBA. For 30-plus years, it had been a handshake deal. This year, however, the CCBA wanted to make the agreement more formal, starting with Karp’s Klassic purchasing liability insurance.

“It’s for the safety of everybody,” said Kerry Artman, who was hired as the CCBA’s executive director in 2020. “I don’t know why it wasn’t happening before.”

The insurance would cost about $1,250, said Rich Tobin, a Karp’s Klassic volunteer who looked into it. Having to buy insurance wasn’t a deal-breaker, Chiasson told me. It would just have to come out of the money earmarked for CCBA youth scholarships.

The CCBA also wanted a signed agreement that outlined Karp’s responsibilities, including cleaning the gym, which his volunteers had always done.

Karp and his volunteer leaders were also under the impression that the CCBA needed to know the minimum donation it could expect before games started.

“I’m not trying to make waves,” Karp told me. “I know the (CCBA) has their rules. I just can’t guarantee what we’re going to make.”

Last week, I brought up the conversations I’d had with Karp and his volunteers to Artman. The CCBA didn’t ask for a minimum contribution, she said: “For us, it wasn’t about money.”

It sounds like a case of miscommunication. Reading between the lines, I suspect there’s more to it.

In watching tournament games from time to time, I came to appreciate the Klassic’s longtime volunteers as representatives of Lebanon’s old guard.

They remember when the CCBA was just about improving the lives of kids, no matter if their parents could afford to pay.

An argument can be made that in recent years, the CCBA has shifted its focus to serving adults. (The pickleball craze being an example.)

Not surprisingly, Artman disagreed. “Fundamentally, we haven’t changed,” she said. But to remain “financially sustainable for years to come, the model had to change,” she added.

The fitness game in the Upper Valley is competitive. The CCBA hasn’t always come out a financial winner.

Between 2016 and 2019, the CCBA’s expenses outweighed its revenues by $846,347, according to the organization’s federal tax return

In 2020, the most recent year in which public information is available, the CCBA bounced back. Revenue exceeded expenses by $336,865, thanks in part to federal COVID-19 relief money.

Still, I imagine the CCBA could always use a few more bucks to help needy kids. So when Karp and Artman told me Friday that they hope to bring the tournament back in 2024, I felt better.

The Upper Valley needs a little madness every March.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.


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