NEGAUNEE - In the mid 1970s, West Virginia native Don Lewis moved to downstate Traverse City to start his construction business.
Shortly after arriving, Lewis put together a basketball team. He recruited players around his age and younger to play in a city league.
"We put together the best group of young guys, just out of high school, college or whatever, that were still too stubborn to quit playing and act their age," Lewis said.
"We started having a lot of fun and it got to the point where there wasn't really anybody in our backyard that could give us much of a game."
In search of better competition, the team went across the bridge. Lewis recalled the Upper Peninsula featured basketball tournaments almost every weekend and that's when he first heard about the Negaunee Invitational Basketball Tournament (NIT).
"I remember saying we're going to come back here every single year and try to win this doggone thing, and 35 years later, we're still coming," Lewis said.
"I tell people I caught an incurable disease, which is whatever you want to call the Negaunee Invitational."
Lewis, who still plays in the 45 and Older class, now manages in Class A. His team, Lewis/Skil, is composed of former college players, including former Central Michigan guard Luke Johnson, who has helped recruit new players to the team.
"To me, it's kind of like dj vu. He's kind of in the same place I was 35 years ago when I started doing this," Lewis said. "I warned him what he was getting into, and he bought into it just like I did.
"Luke still has some pretty good ties and connections with Central."
One of those ties is Traverse City native Robbie Harman, who played guard for four years at CMU and is making his first NIT appearance.
"This kind of connects the dots for me because one of the things I've always done is try to bring new people every year," Lewis said.
Lewis/Skil is one of 16 teams competing for the $8,000 first-place cash prize. Last year's champion, Lids Team Sports/The Bar of Green Bay, is hopeful to repeat, but forward and former UW-Green Bay standout Jeff Nordgaard recognizes the challenges that come with the NIT.
"The competition is very high and to come back and have the expectation of winning it again would be very difficult," Nordgaard said.
"We recognize that we could get ousted in two games, or we could win the championship again. That's just how it is when there are so many good players, so many good teams."
Nordgaard, who played professionally for 13 seasons overseas, is making his sixth NIT appearance. The core of his team is in its late 30s, so they've added some younger players to boost their chances at a repeat.
"(We've) mixed in some young guys who we get along with and feel comfortable playing with, because you really need that ability to maybe create some shots and create some plays that some of us can't do anymore at our age," he said.
Some of the youth Lids brought in include former UW-Green Bay players Steve Baker and Pat Nelson, and former University of Milwaukee guard Al Hanson. Lids will begin its title defense at 8:15 p.m. Friday as it takes on Solid Gold of Chicago at Negaunee's Lakeview Memorial Gymnasium.
Detroit, last year's runner-up, will look for redemption as the squad is making the trip back to Negaunee. Tournament director John Basolo said Detroit is always a perennial favorite, but with so many talented teams, it's hard to pick a winner.
"You never know who's going to be the favorite," Basolo said. "As soon as you think you got it, the competition is so tough that there are six or seven teams capable of winning the whole thing."
Friday, eight games will kick off the first day of Class A play, starting at 2 p.m. Tickets are $3 at the door.
Editor's note: Jon Young of the Negaunee Invitational provided information and quotes for this story.