Teams from around Europe are gearing up for what could be the last U.S. Air Forces in Europe-sponsored basketball tournament, being played this week at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

USAFE is reviewing sports funding, which could affect the annual basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer tournaments played by the service’s top “varsity” athletes. The best players from each base form the varsity teams, which compete against teams from other bases.

Hundreds of athletes would be affected by the move, although USAFE would not release the exact number.

“[The tournaments] have been enjoyed for 40 years but things change … Funding has dropped,” said Tom Burkett, USAFE sports and fitness manager. “That’s not a decision that’s been made yet.”

Still, some players and coaches have been talking about the possibility since the start of the season and seem to think the end is near.

“I’m pretty sure it’ll be done after this tournament,” said Calvin Cathey, who coaches the men’s basketball team at RAF Mildenhall, England.

“I understand it’s a money crunch, not just for varsity sports but across the board,” said Cathey, a budget analyst with the 100th Operations Group at Mildenhall.

In 2007, USAFE spent about $136,000 on the four main sports tournaments and another $103,000 on more than a dozen other competitive sporting events. The basketball tournament this week in Italy is costing USAFE $30,000 to bring in teams from Ramstein, Spangdahlem and Incirlik air bases as well as the teams from RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath.

Bases sponsor tournaments throughout the season, but teams pay to travel to them. The players’ travel tab is paid for the USAFE tournaments.

For players such as Airman 1st Class Glen Thomas, the USAFE tournaments are the most competitive and would be missed.

“That’s why I put in all the time,” said Thomas, with the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Mildenhall. “It’s for the level of competition. You don’t get that with intramurals.”

Players have been disheartened to hear USAFE might discontinue the tournaments. But the possibility is proving motivational, said Thomas, who plays for Cathey’s team.

“I think it’s going to help us win the tournament. We keep saying. ‘Man, we’ve got to win if this is going to be the last season,’” he said. “We got to go out with a bang.”

Should USAFE discontinue the tournaments, the U.S. Forces in Europe basketball and softball events could be in jeopardy, said Jim Maddingly, sports, fitness and aquatics director for Installation Management Command-Europe. Those events pit the top two Air Force teams against the top two Army teams in the men’s and women’s divisions.

“If USAFE drops the varsity level program we would probably discontinue what we call the final four championships [in those two sports at least] unless we could coordinate with the Navy or Marines,” he said.

The Army would still have community-level championships, the equivalent of USAFE’s tournaments. But competing against Air Force teams at the Europe-wide championships is an incentive for many Army players, said Jack Peterson, who coaches men’s softball at U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr.

“It’s the next level,” he said. “You always want to go to the next level and beat the Air Force.”

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