The Riordan Crusaders will play bigger games against better teams over the next three months.
But they’ll never captivate an entire city like they did on Thursday night.
Playing in the opening round of the 68th Gridley Invitational Basketball Tournament against the host Bulldogs, much of the town of 7,500 came out to Farmer’s Hall to watch the Crusaders deliver a 75-43 beatdown to the hometown side, throwing down 12 dunks in the process.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” forward Christian Wise said. “Whenever the lights is on you, that’s always the best environment.”
Wise scored 15 points and was responsible for three of the 12 Crusader dunks. Jasir Rencher rocked the rim four times and also scored 15. His steal and two-hand slam sent Riordan (5-0) into halftime with a 46-19 lead, and he threw down an alley-oop from King-Njhsanni Wilhite, who scored a team-high 16 points, early in the third. Rencher finished off his night with back-to-back jams off steals, a one-handed hammer and a two-handed flush, exciting the ballboys from nearby Sycamore Middle School who were standing behind the baseline.
Taking three lopsided beatings against the juggernauts that visit the small town for the prestigious tournament is something of an annual tradition for the host team. The seven teams that descend on Gridley for the weekend are better than any other competition the Bulldogs will face throughout the year, and they enter league play more battle-tested than their other foes. Six-foot-seven junior forward Aaron Kullar scored a game-high 20 points for Gridley (2-2), drawing cheers from a student section that included more than a few kids sporting work boots.
For the Bulldogs, the GIBT is about so much more than facing good teams, though. It’s Gridley’s biggest event of the year, save for hosting the Butte County Fair. Farmer’s Hall, which hosts the tournament and serves as Gridley High’s gym, is also a key venue for the county fair.
The tournament’s unlikely history, which started in 1953 when coach John Valentino decided to invite some of Northern California’s best basketballers to the small town, has now entered its eighth decade. Players stay with host families in the community, and they get a taste of farm life while most of their peers are busy cramming for finals. Riordan head coach Joey Curtin tells stories of his international players learning to ride ATVs, and Dublin head coach Tom Costello recalls when his players arrived at Farmer’s Hall covered in cow dung after learning how to throw a lasso.
“We come from the city, so we don’t see a lot of this,” Wise said. “It’s a nice change of scenery.”
Last year, even though he was unable to play in the tournament, Wise took part in the transformative experience. He was sitting out a transfer period after coming to Riordan from Heritage, but still stayed with a host family.
“They treated me as if I was one of their kids,” he said. “The people here are beautiful.”
Data from the 2020 census shows that Gridley is just 0.3% Black, which would equate to just 22 people in the entire town. Nine of Riordan’s 12 players are Black.
”The diversity here is lacking a little bit, but you would never know by the way that they treat you,” Wise said. “There’s no discrimination or anything like that. The people are hecka cool.”