Why it was ‘very important’ to keep the Maui Invitational in Hawaii

If there’s one place that could replicate the environment of March Madness in November, look no further than the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, Hawaii.

For a majority of the past 40 years, the small gymnasium on the west side of the Hawaiian island has hosted one of the premier early-season college basketball tournaments, the Maui Invitational. Several top ranked teams and future NBA stars made their way across the Pacific Ocean to play in one of the most raucous environments in college basketball, hosted by Division II Chaminade University.

“I was just mesmerized by the sound of the crowd,” former Chaminade athletic director Bill Villa told USA TODAY Sports. “The quality of the teams, and the support from the crowd and the excitement, it was just like the atmosphere surrounding the tournament was like a Final Four.”

This year’s tournament was promised to bring another electric atmosphere to Lahaina, with six teams in the USA TODAY Sports men’s basketball poll, including four in the top 10.

But tragedy struck Maui three months before the tournament was set to begin, as devastating wildfires ravaged the west side of the island and historic Lahaina town. Over one hundred people were killed and the damage resulted in at least $4 billion in estimated economic losses. 

With so much devastation, there was uncertainty whether the Maui Invitational could stay on the island. It was ultimately decided to move the tournament, but not too far. Instead of being played in Lahaina, it will move 77 miles northwest on Oahu at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center on the University of Hawai’i campus.

It won’t exactly be the same Maui Invitational college basketball fans have loved for decades, but it was important for those involved to keep the tournament on the islands so that while exciting basketball is played, it brings attention and help to those still in need.

Why isn’t the Maui Tournament being held in Maui?

Despite the destruction in Maui and the buildings surrounding it, the Lahaina Civic Center was not damaged in the wildfires. But in the days after recovery efforts began, tournament organizers weren’t sure about the availability of the gymnasium. 

“While it wasn’t damaged, fortunately, it was beginning to be used for official purposes,” said Tom Valdiserri, executive vice president of KemperSports LIVE, the operator of the Maui Invitational. “We pretty much knew that we weren’t going to be able to go because of how they needed the civic center for the various organizations.”

The center continues to be a resource for locals months later, used to help displaced residents or those in need of assistance.

“The Maui Invitational needs to take a backseat to that. You gotta take care of the people first,” Villa said. “Just to be there just wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

With the Lahaina Civic Center not an option, tournament organizers wanted to keep the games on the islands, especially since the 2020 and 2021 editions were on the mainland due to COVID-19. But Valdiserri said the University of Hawai’i stepped up quickly and offered to host the tournament. After conversations with the Hawaiian government, plans came together to host the tournament in Honolulu.

Logistics of moving Maui Invitational

Switching the tournament location in less than three months provided some challenges. Notably, Hawai’i men’s basketball has a home game on Day 2 of the tournament, meaning five basketball games will take place in the same arena on the same day.

Other things that needed to be addressed were changing the flight plans for all eight teams and finding hotels with space for the teams and fans. But a bonus is the capacity for each game will go from 2,400 to 10,300, allowing more fans of participating teams – and Oahu residents – the opportunity to see the tournament for the first time. Maui residents, business owners and first responders from the fire will also be flown in to attend the tournament.

“We’re going to have a packed house and a lot of excited people will see some outstanding players, teams and coaches,” Valdiserri said.

Importance of Maui Invitational on Hawaii

Even when it became clear the Lahaina Civic Center wasn’t going to be available, Valdiserri said it was “never a question” to cancel or postpone the tournament. But the main goal was to avoid holding the tournament on the mainland.

“It was very important for us and Hawaii to keep it in the state,” Valdiserri said. 

All participating schools wanted the tournament to stay in Hawaii, but perhaps none wanted it more than Chaminade. Contrary to belief, the university isn’t actually located in Maui, it’s in Honolulu, less than a mile from the University of Hawai’i. It’s rare for a Division II school to get so much attention in a Division I tournament, but the tournament has been synonymous with the Silverswords.

“It’s a huge part of our identity,” said Chaminade head coach Eric Bovaird. “It’s just a special, unique opportunity that we have.”

It’s also a big money maker for Chaminade and the state. Villa, who retired from his position in 2020, said the Maui Invitational is the largest source of revenue for the athletic department, and remembers it would bring around $16 million in economic value to the state.

Continuing to help and support Maui

Of all the reasons to keep the tournament in Hawaii, the greatest reason was because it can help people still struggling from the loss. 

Valdiserri is in his 15th year of tournament organization and said he has been embraced by the ohana spirit Maui gives to all visitors. Bovaird preached the “everybody kind of knows everybody” thinking Hawaii residents have, so in some way, nearly everyone knows someone that was affected by the wildfires. 

“Sometimes we’re in a society where, if it’s not on the front page, we kind of move on a couple of weeks later and everybody goes back to life as normal,” Bovaird said. “Life isn’t back to normal over there. Maui still needs our help.’

‘We’re all one big ohana in Hawaii.’

Awareness has been raised by participating schools, including Kansas and Tennessee, which used proceeds from scrimmages before the regular season to raise money for relief efforts. Kansas head coach Bill Self said the university raised over $1 million in the fundraiser.

There’s also the Hoops for ‘Ohana online auction, where college basketball memorabilia, surfboards, game tickets and gear can be bought. The auction will be open through Nov. 22, with all proceeds going directly to wildfire relief and recovery efforts.

“Through the sales and donations, that’s what’s maybe making this Maui Invitational a little bit even more special,” Villa said. 

Throughout the tournament, the ESPN broadcast will feature Maui and its residents, and will continuously offer ways people can still help. Analyst Bill Walton will also make his return to calling the tournament, something Valdiserri thinks will be a benefit for viewers to learn more about the culture of Maui. 

The 2023 Maui Invitational will “likely be a little bit even more special,’ Villa said, as the tournament plans to celebrate 40 years while helping the island rebuild. But will it be possible to return to the Lahaina Civic Center in 2024?

“Absolutely. That is the plan,” Valdiserri said. 

2023 Maui Invitational teams

No. 1 KansasNo. 2 PurdueNo. 5 MarquetteNo. 8 TennesseeNo. 10 GonzagaNo. 24 UCLASyracuseChaminade

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