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Tuesday, July 18, 2006 | Candice Wiggins is a two-time college basketball All-American – the La Jolla Country Day alumnus is two-for-two after her sophomore season at Stanford – but before her national profile grew you could have watched her play many times in San Diego’s best-kept sports secret: the 20th annual San Diego Classic.

Diana Taurasi – the darling of women’s basketball at Connecticut, on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and now as the leading scorer in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury -caused the biggest stir in the Classic’s two decades when she played in the high school girls’ basketball tournament six years ago with her Don Lugo High team from Chino.

“It was unbelievable,” said Classic director Wade Vickery, also known as San Diego’s record holder for career wins in girls’ basketball as the long-time coach at Santana High. “You knew where her team was playing just by looking for the ring of people standing around the court.”

Even Terri Mann – the Bill Walton of San Diego girls’ basketball until knee injuries prematurely ended the Point Loma legend’s career in college – is an alumnus of the Classic. Mann, the 1987 USA Today National Player of the Year, was the original drawing card when Vickery dreamed up this idea.

“I just wanted to have different teams from different areas play some games in the summer,” Vickery said. “It wasn’t my intent to create this monster, but it just kept growing every year by word of mouth.”

If you’ve got a young daughter, or son for that matter, interested in basketball, this is the sports bargain you’ve been overlooking while ringing up credit card debt to take your kids to watch pro sports. A $20 season pass could have got you in to watch Wiggins or Taurasi and others over and over for four straight days.

This year’s San Diego Classic is Thursday through Sunday and includes 380 teams, a new high, with Mandan, N.D., having traveled the longest distance. The headquarters is UCSD’s RIMAC Arena, but games are spread out on 10 multi-court facilities.

It’s the largest girls’ basketball tournament of its kind in the nation, with high school teams competing as opposed to club teams or individuals that are invited by a shoe company for a recruiting event.

But college coaches do turn out for the San Diego Classic, because there will be Division I prospects such as Mount Miguel senior Precious Robinson, Bishop’s senior Kathleen Rohrkasse, Torrey Pines senior Lauren Zaniboni, Rancho Bernardo sophomore Victoria Lippert and LJCD’s tandem of 6-3 junior Janae Fulcher and athletic 5-10 sophomore Gizelle Studevent.

“There is pressure to win in our tournament, but not the pressure there is at the other tournaments when everyone is chasing a scholarship,” Vickery said. “At the club tournaments, they’ll feel lousy if they didn’t play well even if their team won. They know they hurt their scholarship chances. Our focus is on the team. I never like to lose, but I can sleep after a loss in the summer. I can’t sleep after a loss in the winter.”

That also means there isn’t some Internet basketball geek running around ranking the supposed best sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grader in the nation.

A low-pressure tournament in a vacation spot also lends itself to family trips. Vickery hasn’t commissioned a financial impact study, but he’s an algebra teacher at Santana, so he crunched some numbers.

“With 380 teams, and over 300 coming from out of town with a lot of parents, I figure about 4,000 people come to San Diego,” Vickery said. “With hotels and meals, I think the impact is about $2 million, and I think that’s conservative.”

The multi-court facilities that have been built in recent years – RIMAC, Alliant University, USD’s Jenny Craig Pavilion, San Diego City College’s Harry West Gym – have allowed the San Diego Classic to grow so large. Imagine the draw of a medium-sized outdoor facility – 10,000 seats-plus – that could host international soccer and track and field competitions or even local high school football double-headers. But that would require some vision from city leaders.

As the tournament grew, Vickery at one point looked into applying for TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) funds that are available to events that attract tourists. But after reviewing the paperwork, he decided there was too much bureaucracy involved.

So he kept things simple and the San Diego Classic continued to grow and attract tourist dollars without any help from the city of San Diego, a body that was at the same time throwing grants from hotel tax funds at such dubious events as Gold Coast Classic at Qualcomm Stadium.

There’s another event, the Comic-Con, in town Thursday through Sunday that brings in far more money than the San Diego Classic, but would you rather you and your kids be in the company of the next Candice Wiggins or a 50-year-old man dressed up like Spiderman?

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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