From 1983 to 1999, the Pine Bluff convention center played host to what was considered to be the most esteemed high school basketball tournament in the United States: the King Cotton Holiday Classic. The invitational tournament—the first high school basketball contest to be nationally televised—brought together the very best teams from around the country to represent their states, towns and schools and compete for glory. Many of the players, though only teenagers at the time, would go on to celebrated careers in both college and the NBA—players like Joe Johnson, Kareem Reid, Bobby Hurley and Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
But while the tournament’s 16-year history is a veritable highlight reel of rising stars, one game stands above the rest. In 1991, 7,600 fans showed up to watch Corliss Williamson lead Russellville High School against the Jason Kidd-led St. Joseph Notre Dame High School from California—a game that ended in a nail-biting finale that saw Williamson block Kidd’s last-second shot, securing a one-point victory for Russellville. Williamson received the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award for his performance, but in a show of great sportsmanship while standing at the podium, he chose to give the medal to Jason Kidd instead.
With the King Cotton Holiday Classic returning to Pine Bluff this month, we asked Williamson about that 1991 game, the nerve-wracking climax and what it felt like to play in front of such a large audience.
“IT WAS surreal. You call your family and friends and tell people, Hey, we’re gonna be on ESPN tonight. You don’t expect to hear that from a high school kid, not in the ’90s. That was a big break for all of us. I’d played in big games before, whether it was high school or AAU, but that was the first time I’d ever been on a nationally televised game.
I’ve got the greatest family in the world when it comes to support. I mean, they were there from both sides of my family. All the support from Russellville, my hometown, the state—everybody was there to support. That made it even more special, and it also made it easier, in a way, knowing that you had all that support in the stands. It wasn’t like we were on the road playing in a different arena or a different state. It was like it was a big-time home game for us. That was by far the biggest audience I’d ever been in front of.
I thought both teams played well. We had guys on our team that played well—I remember Marcus Thompson having a big game for us. As far as the other guys playing well, and Jason Kidd, he was everything that he was advertised to be. So to have that moment leading up to the end of the game where we’re leading by one point and just see him push the ball up the court. I mean, it’s … I can see the play right now in my mind. I can see myself sprinting back, trying to make sure I can get down in front of him and hopefully get a block or distract him at least. Fortunately, I was able to get there and block the shot.”
The King Cotton Holiday Classic returns Dec. 27-29 when eight teams, including lineups from Pine Bluff and Jacksonville, will square off once again to become champions.