URBANA — When Niklas Bals decided to spend a year in the United States to attend high school, he wanted to experience school spirt and the competition of high school sports.
So he came to Urbana with visions of "High School Musical" in his head, the movie in which "everyone plays basketball."
But the Illinois High School Association only allows students who are in the U.S. as a part of approved exchange programs to play sports. Bals, who's from Hannover, Germany, pays tuition at Urbana High School, and Urbana resident Lenny De Forge is hosting him, independent of an exchange program.
Bals made the basketball team and practices six days a week with the team, but can't play.
Bals and De Forge will attend a hearing Monday in Bloomington that should determine whether Bals can play.
If he's ruled ineligible, he'll be "devastated," De Forge said.
But as the season is half over, De Forge points out that even if Bals is declared eligible to play Monday, he'll be behind because of the playing time he's missed.
De Forge said he's upset that the school district didn't know Bals wouldn't be eligible. He said he introduced Bals at the beginning of the school year, and even then, Bals expressed his interest in sports.
De Forge started filling out paperwork for the IHSA in September, he said, and found that it didn't apply to Bals. The school district submitted it twice, De Forge said, and Bals' eligibility was denied both times.
De Forge went as far as becoming Bals' legal guardian in an effort to make him eligible to play sports. (Guardianship also allows him to help Bals in case of a car accident or legal trouble, he said.)
But even after Judge Holly Clemons made him Bals' guardian, the IHSA still wouldn't allow Bals to play.
"It's not fair," De Forge said, adding that students who come to the United States who aren't a part of a traditional exchange program won't get a full high school experience if they're not allowed to play sports.
IHSA Spokesman Matt Troha said the IHSA's bylaws are proposed by and voted on by the principals or athletic directors that represent the member schools.
He said he couldn't comment on Bals' case, but in general, students who are in the U.S. through an approved exchange program are eligible for one year.
He said that rule has been in place for longer than he's worked at the IHSA, but believes it was passed because approved programs allow schools to verify facts that are sometimes skewed by language or cultural barriers.
Those things may include students' age, grade and academic eligibility.
Some schools also used what Troha called "pipelines" of foreign student-athletes to bring in standout players. This practice also likely led the schools that make up the IHSA to propose more stringent rules about students' eligibility, he said.
But Bals said he wasn't recruited.
He's 6 feet 6 inches tall, but said he has no plans to play basketball in college.
"I think we've proved that I'm not recruited," he said, and then, as a joke, "we should have sent the video (to the IHSA) of me playing."
Basketball is much more physical in the U.S. than it is in Germany, he said. De Forge said he's had to learn basically to play a different game.
"He made the team because he's tall," De Forge said.
Urbana's Assistant Superintendant for Curriculum and Instruction Don Owen said the school district's enrollment of exchange students, either through a program or through the kind of visa Bals is using, is separate from the student's interest in athletic participation.
"We do that because enrollment and acceptance into our high school is based on academic success, not any kind of athletic eligiblity," Owen said.
The IHSA decides whether a student is eligible for athletics.
"That's true for any student, whether they're an exchange student or not," Owen said.
Bals attends all of the team's practices, but only runs plays when another teammate is exhausted, as he doesn't want to take away anyone else's practice time. His teammates aren't sure how to treat him, he said.
Though he can't dress in the team's uniform, he sits on the bench during every game. So far, the team has played been 12 games. Bals did not attend one tournament early in the season, but did attend one following Christmas.
"It's hard for him because he wants to be a part of (the team), but he can't," De Forge said.
He'd also like to play tennis this spring, and has played since he was 5 or 6.
Bals came to Urbana because he and his family knew De Forge.
Bals' next door neighbor in Germany stayed with De Forge when De Forge lived in Las Vegas, as a part of an exchange program.
De Forge and Bals' family forged a relationship so close that Bals decided to forgo using a company for exchange students and come to Urbana on an F1 student visa. He paid tuition to attend Urbana High School, which De Forge said was about $10,000.
The idea was, Bals' family would save money, because it would cost more to go through an exchange company.
"It didn't seem helpful," Bals said, because his family felt they had everything they needed to proceed independently.
But Bals said he would have taken the traditional route had he known, and his parents have spent almost as much now as they would have, had he made that decision.
The last two and a half months have been a struggle, he said, and because he attends practices, he's not able to spend as much time with friends who are not on the basketball team. At home, his parents feel helpless, too, he said.
"It just ruins my year abroad," he said.
However, he does like Urbana, he said.
"I just love the people here," he said, adding that everyone seems to know everyone else.
However, he said he's upset by how the year has gone, and the time it's taken to appeal the IHSA's ruling that he's ineligible.
"Time is all I have here," Bals said. "I've just one year."
De Forge said he feels guilty that Bals came to Urbana, rather than through an exchange program that would have sent him somewhere else, but would have made him eligible for sports.
"It's terrible," he said. "It really should be the best year of his life."