The culture of college basketball made an impactful landing in George Town on Monday, when the opening games of the Cayman Islands Classic were played at John Gray High School. A host of fans came from all over the United States to watch the tournament, sporting their team colors and bringing their allegiances from home.
The Iowa Hawkeyes and the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns were the first matchup on Monday, and the stands at John Gray showed a clear separation of supporters. Half the crowd wore yellow and black in support of Iowa, and half wore red and white in support of Louisiana.
“I saved money for a year to get here,” said Iowa fan Vicki Van Roekel, attending the tournament with her daughter Jodi. “As soon as I heard they were having a tournament here, I started saving my money because I’m a big Iowa Hawkeyes basketball fan. … I usually just watch them on TV but it’s in the Caymans and I love the beach and my baby daughter lives in Florida.”
Tyler Cook, a sophomore forward for Iowa, scored the first basket of the tournament on a layup, but Louisiana pulled away from Iowa shortly thereafter, ultimately winning the game 80-71.
Van Roekel, a 1980 graduate of the University of Iowa, was wearing a white shirt with the Hawkeye logo on it, and said she only had plans to watch Monday’s opening game.
“Never been here,” she said of coming to Cayman. “First time here and I can’t wait to get to the beach. We got in last night after dark, walked down to the beach this morning. I’m going to watch basketball and then I’m going to the beach.”
Frank Bartley III, a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was part of a large group of Louisiana fans milling about before the game. Mr. Bartley, the father of Louisiana guard Frank Bartley IV, said the group had been looking forward to the tournament for quite some time.
“This has been a wonderful experience since we’ve been here,” said Mr. Bartley about an hour before his son took the court. “Man, we wouldn’t trade it right now for nothing. This is where we want to be.”
Mr. Bartley said his group follows the Ragin’ Cajuns “religiously,” and they have had quite a bit of time to prepare for this trip. Now that it is finally here, they want to watch their team win and then take in more of the sights and sounds.
“The view’s been beautiful,” Mr. Bartley said. “The scenery has been great. The food’s been excellent. The people have been extremely nice over here. They’re very personable people. We’re really enjoying everything we’ve experienced so far.”
Minister of Tourism Moses Kirkconnell thanked the assembled audience before the first game and spoke about what the government hoped the tournament may become.
“As you sit in this gymnasium today, I want you to see the vision that we believe is the way forward,” he said. “We have built this for the students, for the young people of this country and partnered with people like yourselves to have tournaments here in the Caribbean. We’re extremely pleased with the success of the first tournament that we’re having.”
Several other members of the Legislative Assembly attended Monday’s opening game, including Dwayne Seymour, David Wight, Joey Hew and Austin Harris.
Laurie-Ann Holding, the managing director of events company Kelly Holding, said that it took 100 volunteers – staggered in three different shifts – to staff the three-day tournament. It took two years, she said, to plan and prepare for the eight-team tournament.
“This started over a year and a half ago with signing teams and confirming teams,” she said. “The government and the entire crew that built this facility, I’d say it’s about two years in the making, with really intense work in the last six months. It’s very relieving to be here today.”
The hope, over time, is that the Cayman Islands Classic will become a staple of the preseason basketball schedule and that it will spark a more intense love of the game among the local populace. At this point, Mr. Kirkconnell said, anything is possible.
“I want to say to you that for us here and for you, sport is so important because it breaks down all the barriers,” he said. “It speaks a language that everybody clearly understands and it allows us to build communities and countries together. My hope from this first tournament is that the players will have a tremendous time and our young people will see how they perform and how they act.”