MURDO — Murdo's cozy Harold Thune Auditorium will be crammed with fans and 50 years of memories this week.
The Jones County Invitational, which is South Dakota's longest-running basketball tournament, is celebrating its 50th year. The tournament brings together eight West River communities for three days of hoops every January.
"It's kind of a winter happening here for these communities in terms of gathering in one site and it kind of breaks up the winter," Jones County Activities Director Larry Ball said.
The fans brave the harsh South Dakota winter weather and pack the crackerbox gym to cheer for their respective teams. It's one part basketball and one part a socializing event for eight West River communities. The teams include White River, Bennett County, Lyman, Kadoka Area, Colome, Stanley County, Philip and Jones County.
"It's been quite an event for not only our Jones County community, but for the communities that come," former Jones County coach and athletic director Jerald Applebee said. "They look forward to it every year. They see teams they don't get to see too often and meet people from the other communities that they know and so on. It's been really good for us out here in West River, South Dakota."
The tournament was established in 1969 after the Three Rivers Conference scrapped its conference tournament. Applebee, former Murdo Athletic Director Harold Thune and former Murdo Superintendent Maurice Haugland then conceived the idea of hosting the Murdo Invitational (later changed to the Jones County Invitational).
"They decided to drop that conference tournament and then Mr. Haugland — our super — talked with me about starting an eight-team tournament here, played out just as the state tournament would be and so that's how it kind of come about," said Applebee, who had the court named after him in 2013.
The tournament has featured 25 different teams through the years, but Jones County, Stanley County and White River have played in all 50 tournaments. Many teams have gone on to win state championships and a host of South Dakota basketball legends have played in the tournament.
Stanley County's Dan Duffy was a two-time Most Valuable Player recipient in 1978 and 1979. Midland's Kory Petoske was also a two-time MVP in 1999 and 2000 when the Vikings were a Class B powerhouse.
The state's all-time leading scorer, White River's Louie Krogman, was a three-time MVP and guided the Tigers to the first three titles of an 11-year reign.
"He drew people. He just did," Ball said. "He had the knack for that and he was an outstanding ballplayer."
The tourney's most famous alumnus is U.S. Sen. John Thune, who grew up in Murdo and was a two-time all-state basketball player for Jones County. As a kid, Thune eagerly waited for his chance to play in the invitational and said the tournament is reminiscent of the movie "Hoosiers."
"On the Friday night and Saturday night rounds — if you had good teams in the tournament — they would fill that whole place up on both sides," Thune told The Daily Republic. "Bleachers would be full and in central South Dakota at the time, it was always the place to be."
The Coyotes won the tournament during Thune's junior season in 1978. Thune never played in a state tournament and said the JCI was the closest thing to that atmosphere.
"The first time you play in front of that crowd — if you are a basketball player and that doesn't get your adrenaline going — I don't know what else will," Thune said.
Thune and the Coyotes played against Stanley County for third place his senior season. Thune fouled out halfway through the third quarter and he stills upset about the call.
"Ronnie Jeffries, he got a charging call against me and I still think it was a bogus call," Thune said.
Thune is still a tournament regular and is again at this year's invitational, which he also uses as an opportunity to rekindle old relationships.
"It's a good chance to reconnect with a lot of people from the area," Thune said. "If you want to see people from a lot of those smaller communities, you really do get a chance to and it's a great basketball atmosphere."
That atmosphere adds to the mystique of the tournament. The small auditorium has been overflowing with 1,000-plus people for most championship games.
"There have been years where it's been borderline having to turn people away," Ball said. "... We had multiple years where I tell you what, the crowd was phenomenal."
That's what keeps Jim "Jocko" Johnston coming back every year. The longtime Mitchell referee began officiating the tournament in 1979 and has been back for every tournament since then. He estimates he's reffed roughly 280 Jones County Invitational games.
Johnston, who has reffed high school basketball for 42 years, said what he looks forward to most every season is officiating semifinal night and championship night at the tournament.
"It's an atmosphere like no other around the state this time of year," Johnston said. "That's what keeps you coming back. It's special and you really have to witness it yourself to know how special it is."
Johnston never imagined in 1979 he would have gone back every year since, but he said the town of Murdo, its people and the community grew on him.
"It's more than just about the games," Johnston said. "It's about the people and it's about the friends we've met over the years we like to see and have a good time with."
Johnston also praised Ball and former Jones County athletic directors Applebee, Harold Thune and Robert Slaba for their hospitality over the years.
"They've always treated us great and the people of Murdo have treated us great," Johnston said.
The Jones County School District provides money for the schools to travel. The Jones County Parent-Teacher Organization, the Murdo Chamber of Commerce and Murdo Lions Club also help host the tournament that is going 50 years strong.
"It's a community happening and everybody really pitches in to make sure that it continues," Ball said.