Where are the best basketball venues?

Where are the best basketball venues?
January 13, 2012, 7:08 pm
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The holiday basketball tournament season is a recent memory, a time when some hoop-happy fans travel throughout the state during a one-week period to see as many games at as many events as they can squeeze into their schedule...from Collinsville to Carbondale to Centralia to Bloomington to Pontiac to Kankakee to Rich South to Lincoln-Way to Proviso West to York to Lemont to East Aurora to Wheeling to Elgin to De Kalb.

Heath and Jaryt Hunziker have been there and done that. But they have gone a step farther. Their mission has been to visit the cathedrals of high school basketball in Illinois, the arenas or fieldhouses or gymnasiums that are filled with tradition, the high school versions of Madison Square Garden and Allen Fieldhouse and Rupp Arena and Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean Dome and Pauley Pavilion.

"Each year, my brother and I coordinate a basketball trip to a state with rich basketball tradition to accomplish three things: motivate and prepare us for the upcoming high school season, play games in the state's storied high school gyms and learn the histories of the great programs,"
Heath Hunziker said.

"Two years ago, we had a humbling opportunity to travel through Indiana and tour and play a few games on such historic high school, college and professional gyms as Assembly Hall at Indiana, Chrysler Fieldhouse in New Castle, Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Conseco Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the Wigwam in Anderson, Everett Case Arena in Frankfort and Memory Hall in Lebanon. It is an experience that we still talk about."

In Illinois, the Hunzikers have visited old Trout Gym in Centralia, Duster Thomas Gym in Pinckneyville, Max Morris Gym in Frankfort, Stan Changnon Gym in Mount Vernon, Wharton Field House in Moline, gyms at Teutopolis, Peoria Manual, Benet and Hebron, Sunset Woods Park in Highland and Loyola University's old Alumni Gym.

They also attended the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Milan, Indiana, team that the popular motion picture Hoosiers was based on, the 50th anniversary of Collinsville's 1961 state championship team and the inaugural induction ceremony for the Pinckneyville-based Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame and Museum. And they plan to attend the 60th anniversary of the 1952 Hebron state championship team.

"What I enjoy about high school basketball is that it is pure, similar to the college game," Heath Hunziker said. "Coaching makes a big difference in a team being good or great. Most kids play because it is fun and they love it, except for the money or fame. Ad I think one last reason is the tradition and history of the teams that you are watching. Most of the programs have been around since the early 1900s."

Heath Hunziker, 33, currently lives in Bloomington, Illinois. But his family is from Kahoka, Missouri, a rural community in the northeast corner of the state, 40 miles from Quincy, Illinois. Heath and his twin brother Jaryt were hooked on basketball from the time their father introduced them to the game when they were in elementary school. They played on their father's traveling team that competed in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois.

"It was during our school years that we watched all of the Illinois state tournament games on the Quincy television station," Heath said. "We learned about Illinois' rich basketball history and its most successful programs from those broadcasts. In addition, we would read about Illinois high school basketball while perusing the newspaper for scores and articles because the Quincy media covered northeast Missouri sports as well."

For years, Heath and Jaryt discussed traveling to Indiana to play two-on-two games at some of the historic gyms in Indianapolis and throughout the state. Finally, in 2008, they realized their dream. At the time, Indiana boasted 15 of the 16 largest high school gyms in the nation so they scheduled visits to several of them. Afterward, they planned a similar trip to Illinois in 2010.

"I am a fan of old gyms that hold tradition and coaches using that tradition and success to build their programs," Heath said. "There is nothing better than playing in a gym where some of the state's greatest players, coaches and teams have played."

During their Indiana trip, the Hunzikers had an opportunity to talk to Hoosier legend Rick Mount in his hometown of Lebanon. They were equally excited to talk with Phil Judson about the 1952 Hebron team.

They said they were "amazed" to see old Trout Gym in Centralia. Former mayor John Stuehmeier met them at the old school and gave them a tour. They also talked to Centralia old-timers Butch Border and Bill "Pops" Taylor.
Built in 1943, Trout and the old school have been replaced by a new building and gym that retains much of the tradition that former coach Arthur Trout and legendary stars Dike Eddleman and Bobby Joe Mason established.

"There are a lot of elements of the old gym that are astounding, including the stain glass window that Arthur Trout had installed with some of his values such as "of sound body, of sound mind" inscribed in Latin,"
Heath said. "The staircase behind the basket, the Radio WRXX box and the balcony all are parts of the gym's historic environment."

They also were impressed with Wharton Fieldhouse in Moline, Stan Changnon Gym in Mount Vernon and Duster Thomas Gym in Pinckneyville. Built in 1927, the 6,500-seat Wharton Fieldhouse is barn-like structure that is Moline's home court and home to the MolineRock Island series that is the oldest rivalry in the state.

"I thought Duster Thomas Gym in Pinckneyville was an interesting gym as well," Heath said. "It is strange when you walk towards the entrance from the parking lot and you open the doors to a very unique gym, a gym built under ground level.

"The school colors, the photos of the championship teams in the corners of the gym and the bleachers wrapping around the court make it unique. I remember one of the coaches telling me that when the community voted to build the gym, one of the conditions was that the doors would be open for anyone to come in and play ball."

The Hunzikers said they still have a lot of "hidden gems" to explore throughout Illinois. For example, they would like to visit Cobden and Tamms and relive the magic of Cobden's 1964 team that lost to Pekin in the state final and Tamms' Chico Vaughn, the state's all-time leading scorer.

The Chicago area is another destination. While the history of basketball in the city and suburbs dates mostly to the 1950s and 1960s, falling short of the traditions established in the 1940s by Centralia, Mount Vernon, Paris, Champaign, Decatur, Taylorville and Pinckneyville, there are many sites that the Hunzikers plan to add to their travel itinerary.

The gym where Lou Boudreau and Thornton's Flying Clouds played in 1933,
1934 and 1935 is long gone. But the current facility in Harvey, built in the 1950s, has been home to some of the great teams and players in state history.

Proviso East in Maywood has produced four state championship teams since 1969. Marshall's small gym dates to George Wilson and the Commandos' unbeaten 1958 powerhouse, the first all-black team to win a state championship. Du Sable dates to 1954 and the fabled Sweet Charlie BrownPaxton LumpkinShellie McMillon team that finished lost to Mount Vernon in one of the most controversial state finals.

The gyms at Carver, Crane, Farragut, Englewood, Cooley, Cregier and old Westinghouse are gone. Whitney Young and Simeon are cathedrals compared to Phillips, Hirsch, Tilden, Manley, Vocational, Roosevelt and Von Steuben.

But the great teams and players who played there...Pete Cunningham, Cazzie Russell, Eugene Ford, James Jackson, Mark Aguirre, Eddie Johnson, Hersey Hawkins, Rickey Green, Johnny Kerr, Russell Cross, Lou Landt, Juwan Howard, Larry Williams...will never be forgotten.

The Hunzikers don't want to forget, either.