Almost as if by magic, the Tonto Apache Gymnasium will transform into a hotbed of basketball this weekend complete with visiting players from the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona State University football team.
The Arizona Cardinals were also scheduled to send representatives but because the team is in the NFL playoffs and in Minnesota taking on the Vikings, those plans were canceled.
The Rim country hoopla drawing all the attention is the inaugural 1999 Copper State Jam --a three-day 16-team basketball tournament for middle and junior high school teams from around the state.
The tournament is hosted by Tonto Village Shelby School. Steve Rensch, the Shelby coach and team founder, will serve as tournament director.
According to Rensch, former Suns player and ex-NBA All-Star Tom Chambers, who now helps coach the Suns, will visit the tournament as a special guest.
Should the NBA strike end, however, Chambers would cancel the visit, Rensch said. "He would be needed to work with the Suns' centers and forwards."
Tentatively scheduled to represent the Sun Devil football team are tight end Todd Heap, safety Willie Daniels and tailback Gerald Green.
All three played high school sports in Arizona -- Heap at Mesa Mountain View, Daniels at Phoenix St. Mary's and Green at Mesa High.
The athletes, Rensch said, will be visiting on an informal basis only. "None of these players are coming up to give a speech. They are just coming to hang out with the kids or anyone who wants to talk with them."
Having the players at the tournament, Rensch said, is "a great opportunity for aspiring athletes and sports fans."
Tournament action will begin at 10 a.m. today (Friday), and continue unabated until 10 p.m.
Tomorrow, Saturday, hardwood play tips off at 9 a.m. and wraps up at 9 p.m.
The final session will begin at 9 a.m. Sunday. The championship game and the subsequent presentation of the tournament all-stars and most valuable player will be at 5:30 p.m.
Admission to the tournament is $2 per day for adults and $1 for children.
On the tournament grounds near the Apache gym, Rensch said there will be two large, lighted, heated tents for players and fans to gather when they are not playing basketball.
"We will provide quality food from a local restaurant, music, games and areas for other activities, " he said. "We will make it comfortable for families to come by providing on-site security and medical care."
The tournament, he continued, has been designed to be memorable for not only the players and coaches, but also the fans and their families.
There is no admission charge to the tournament grounds .
Who'll be there?
Set to participate in the hoop shoot-out is a smorgasbord of teams representing almost every section of Arizona.
From the Rim country are Shelby School and a split squad -- Blue and Gold -- from Rim Country Middle School.
Kayenta, Kaibeto, Beaver Creek and John F. Kennedy are Northern Arizona reservation teams set to participate.
Tucson will send Tortolita and Old Vail.
Gilbert, Apache and T.G. Barr are Phoenix-area schools. From Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, Thunderbolt is in the mix. Holy Angels, a school near Globe, has also entered.
Rensch said he expects two other teams to join the field at the last minute.
The Shelby School team will enter the fray with a sterling 14-2 record. that includes a 12-game season-opening winning streak. The victory skein came to an abrupt halt Dec. 20-22 at the Holiday Tip-Off Classic in Tucson. There, a pair of big-city all-star teams finally handcuffed the potent Shelby lineup.
One of the defeats was administered by the Tucson Razorbacks 38-24. The other loss was dealt by the Phoenix West All-Stars 67-25.
Both victors, Rensch said, are "year-round all-star teams that travel around the country. We were over matched."
Shelby is a tiny, rural schools with only a handful of middle school students that has been highly competitive for the past two seasons despite its lack of numbers.
Throughout the course of the early season, Shelby has been paced by the scoring of Dallas Rensch, the coach's son, and Chicago Houdek. Nicky Cassuto also has the ability to fill up the nets and is an accomplished rebounder and defender.
The Rim Country Middle School Maverick teams enter the fray as an unknown having not played or practiced extensively this season. The White Mountain League campaign -- in which the Mavericks participate -- opened only this week. Practices didn't begin until Jan. 4.
The inexperienced and untested Mavs will be at a distinct disadvantage against teams that have played as many as 20-games this season.
However, the Mavs do sport many talented athletes as evidenced by the school's White Mountain League football championship and bronze medal finish in wrestling.
However, whether the players can come together for a solid team effort with only five practices is a huge question mark.
Among the remaining squads in the field, Rensch expects Gilbert to be the favorite.
T.G. Barr, a Phoenix Roosevelt District School, he said, was one of the best teams in the state last year.
Thunderbolt won the Lake Havasu Tournament and Tortolita was a Tucson league champion, Rensch said.
In the double elimination tournament, the teams were seeded for first-round play yesterday (results not available at press time) in a blind draw to ensure fairness, Rensch said.
Also in the interest of fairness, Rensch has tried to attract referees from different regions of the state.
At the conclusion of tournament play, trophies will be awarded the top three teams and the most valuable player.
Those trophies, Rensch said, "will be sculptured originals."
The all-tournament team honorees will receive medals and jackets. The most valuable player also gets a commemorative patch for his jacket.
For more information on the tournament, call Rensch at 478-0357.