RANTOUL — He was 8 years old, the little brother of Isaiah and Dante Britt. And when the older siblings would head to the Rantoul Youth Center after school or during the summer, Travis Britt insisted on tagging along.
Sure, he knew he was too young, too small to get on the basketball court with the guys in his brothers' peer group.
But that didn't stop him from sitting on the sidelines and taking it all in. Impatiently waiting for the day the bigger kids would call his name when they were choosing up sides.
That time came when Travis Britt was 10 or 11 — he can't remember exactly when — and it didn't matter that once again he was forced to wait.
"I was always one of the guys that got picked last, but I'd take it as long as I could play," he said. "It's better than sitting on the sidelines."
Flash forward to 2012. Now 19 and fresh off one of the greatest — if somewhat abbreviated — basketball careers in Rantoul High School history, Britt remains a fixture in the building where he cut his teeth in the sport.
"The Youth Center has always been like a second home to me," said Britt, who has worked as an aide at the facility since the summer following his eighth-grade year. "Coming here every day and playing basketball. Just making me become a better person.
"I love coming here today, although I'm too big to play with the kids now. But I like to see the kids play. I see kids who come in and play every day getting better and better."
Britt can't help but see his younger self in those kids. He was like so many of them. Eager to prove himself on the court. Looking up to the older kids with more talent and more advanced skills. Willingly accepting advice and coaching from the adults and the high school-age aides who worked at the center.
"I like when kids come up to me and ask me to help them with their game," Britt said. "That was me (years ago), so why can't I help him — because someone (once) helped me."
Not all the youngsters at the Rantoul Youth Center, which is open to members age 7 to 15, know Britt as the high school hoops hero. Or as the multi-talented 6-foot-4 guard who played a leading role over the past two seasons in the dramatic revival of a once-moribund Eagles program. Or now, as the 2012 News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year.
"A lot of the kids don't go to the high school games, so they only know him through the Youth Center," said Andy Graham, youth programs director for the Rantoul Recreation Department.
Graham was assistant director when Britt first showed up at the Rantoul Youth Center. "One of those kids that came every single day, rain or shine," he recalled.
Graham also was the guy who hired Britt way back when. Turns out, it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
"He truly cares about this place," said Graham, a Rantoul High graduate and coach of the Eagles' freshman boys' basketball team. "He would truly do anything for those kids."
On any given day, that might include playing a rousing game of ping-pong. Nine-year-old Corshaun Spinks says he can vouch for Britt's paddle-and-ball skills.
Or you might find Britt and one or more of the kids engaged in a video game, laughing and bragging as the competition heats up. Or maybe just talking about whatever — school, sports, TV shows.
But Britt is most in his element with the kids when he's on the basketball court. It's where his particular expertise shines through.
The soft-spoken Spinks, whose late father Corinthian played basketball at Rantoul High, says Britt has helped him with his shooting — particularly from three-point range and at the foul line.
Ricky Gill, an eighth-grader at the same Eater Junior High that Britt once attended, credits the Rantoul High senior with adjusting his shooting motion so that he no longer is shooting across his body.
Then there are the kids who know full well who Britt is and what he's accomplished since first pulling on an Eagles jersey.
"There was a kid here the other day who told me he was going to wear No. 25 when he got to high school," said Britt, referring to his own uniform number. "I was happy. I feel I set a positive example for everyone around me so just to hear kids come up to me and say things like that brings a smile to my face."
There were frowns in the Village of Rantoul as word spread during the summer of 2008 that Britt would not be attending the local high school. By then, it was obvious the Eater Junior High graduate was a special basketball talent.
Brett Frerichs, now the head coach of the Rantoul boys' basketball team but at that time the Eagles girls' coach, had known Britt since he was a seventh-grader playing in pickup games at the Rantoul Park District's Forum Fitness Center.
"He was always good enough to play with the adults," Frerichs said.
By now, the story of why Britt decided to enroll at Culver (Ind.) Military Academy is well known — to make strides academically; to become immersed in a disciplined environment; to mature as a person.
Frerichs was among those who reacted strongly to the implications of Britt's decision for his alma mater.
"I played at Rantoul (High) and want to see the best for Rantoul," Frerichs said. "So when I heard the decision that he was going away, I was very disappointed.
"And at the same time, I wanted the best for Travis."
Whenever Britt was on break from school and back in his hometown, Frerichs resisted the urge to ask him whether he'd ever consider returning for good.
"But only because I knew he was probably getting asked by everybody he saw in town," Frerichs said.
At times, it seemed that way.
"Every time I came home for a visit, people were telling me not to go back," Britt said. "They always wanted me to stay. They would always be saying things like, 'If you come back, our basketball team is just going to be super good with all the potential we have in this town.' "
After two years at Culver, Britt was ready to return.
"I can't lie; I got homesick being up there," he said. "Leaving home at a young age is really tough. I started missing my mom and my brothers and all the support from Rantoul."
By then, although his statistics at Culver were relatively modest, Britt's already-prodigious reputation in Rantoul had only grown. He would, in the eyes of a growing number of townspeople, be the savior of an Eagles program badly in need of one.
At the time, Rantoul hadn't experienced a winning season since 2000-01. But that only hints at the depth of the Eagles' near-decade-long struggles. In the nine seasons before Britt's enrollment as a junior in 2010, Rantoul had a cumulative record of 42-189, with six seasons of five or fewer wins.
This was a community and alumni base starved for a winner, and Britt's return to join a strong group of classmates finally represented real hope.
Real expectations, too.
How lofty where they? One year after going 5-22, the 2010-11 Eagles were ranked No. 4 in the state in the preseason in The Associated Press Class 2A poll.
"Which was just crazy," said Frerichs, who was entering his first season as the Eagles boys' head coach. "We had a new system, a new coach, new players, very little varsity experience (returning)."
In multiple conversations with Britt, Frerichs says he tried to steel his best player against the unrealistic hopes being placed squarely upon the teenager's shoulders.
"I tried to prepare him," the Eagles coach said. "We're not going to win all of a sudden. There's a lot of work to do."
Frerichs was more right than he could have guessed. Although usually competitive, the Eagles lost 14 of their first 20 games. And it certainly didn't lessen the sting that eight of the defeats were by five or fewer points.
Frerichs says he could tell Britt took it personally.
"It really took an effect on Travis because he felt like he let a lot of people down — I think he heard the whispers — and it was very unfair to him," Frerichs said. "It's disappointing when he feels the pressure of a whole community on him."
At the same time, the high-profile newcomer might have overcompensated when it came to making sure his teammates got their shots.
"He was almost too unselfish, trying to get everybody involved," Frerichs said, "But we needed him to be that go-to guy, that leader."
Then, suddenly, it all clicked for the Eagles. They won four in a row, igniting a season-ending 7-3 run that carried Rantoul to its first regional title in 21 years. The Eagles' postseason didn't end until the sectional final.
It was no fluke, as Britt and a large, experienced senior group that included fellow starters C.J. Morris, Jackson Carver and L.C. Franklin would prove this season. They rolled to a 21-5 record in the regular season, with two of the losses to Class 2A powerhouse Normal University High.
In the process, these Eagles reignited a basketball passion in Rantoul that had not been seen since the heyday of Kareem Richardson, Donnell Bivens and charismatic coach Mike Novell in the early 1990s.
"You couldn't go anywhere without somebody coming up to you and saying, 'You guys are playing really good. It's really fun watching you,' " Britt said. "I mean, people who didn't even have kids on the team were coming to the games. One family treated us to two dinners — the whole team."
The Eagles' goals and expectations for this season were no less ambitious than their growing legion of fans. So when top-seeded Rantoul, playing on its home court in a packed gym, lost its Class 3A regional opener to Centennial, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
"We wanted to come back our senior year and really have a big year," Britt said. "It really just stinks that it had to end the way it did."
For Britt, high school basketball might have ended, but the college game awaits, with multiple suitors eager to put a guy who scored 920 points and fired in 112 three-pointers during the past two seasons in their uniform.
The Eagle senior has scholarship offers from Eastern Illinois, Florida A&M, Division II power Southern Indiana and Quincy University. The junior college ranks are interested, too, with perennial Division I power Coffeyville (Kan.) and Parkland College having offered.
Meanwhile, Western Kentucky, Wright State and Eastern Kentucky have been in touch.
"I'm still figuring that out," Britt said of his collegiate destination.
Wherever he ends up, Frerichs is confident Britt is well-equipped to meet the challenges at the next level.
"I'm a little biased, but there's not a lot he can't do on the court," the Eagles coach said. "He can handle the ball — he could have played point guard for us full time if we needed him to. He can get into the lane off the dribble. Pull up and shoot. He's a great passer. He sees the floor very well. He can rebound."
"At times during the season, he got a little fatigued because he did do so much on both ends of the court, so he took maybe a couple possessions off on the defensive end," Frerichs said. "But he could be a lockdown defender."
Frerichs won't claim to be an expert on the entire history of Eagles basketball, but the 1990 Rantoul High grad has seen all the great ones since the early 1980s. Britt, he says, undoubtedly ranks with the likes of two-time N-G Area Player of the Year Richardson, 1990 Area Player of the Year Bivens and Tarie Monroe.
"It's unfortunate he didn't play those four years (at Rantoul) so we can't compare statistics," Frerichs said. "But in my opinion he's definitely in the talk of being one of the best in Rantoul. He's definitely top five."
Rantoul’s Travis Britt joins an impressive list of former All-Area boys’ basketball Players of the Year. A look:
2012 — Travis Britt, Rantoul
2011 — Dylan Overstreet, Paxton-Buckley-Loda
2010 — Rayvonte Rice, Centennial
2009 — James Kinney, Centennial
2008 — Verdell Jones III, Champaign Central
2007 — Verdell Jones III, Champaign Central
2006 — Jordan Lee, Champaign Central
2005 — Brent Ruch, Blue Ridge
2004 — Trent Meacham, Centennial
2003 — Tyler Smith, Unity
2002 — Michael McKean, CPCI
2001 — DaJuan Gouard, Danville
2000 — Brett Melton, Mahomet-Seymour
1999 — Brett Melton, Mahomet-Seymour
1998 — Brian Martin, Chrisman
1997 — Corey Fox, Paxton-Buckley-Loda
1996 — Carvell Ammons, Centennial
1995 — Brian Cardinal, Unity
1994 — Anthony Coomes, Champaign Central
1993 — Craig Buchanan, Mahomet-Seymour
1992 — Kareem Richardson, Rantoul
1991 — Kareem Richardson, Rantoul
1990 — Donnell Bivens, Rantoul
1989 — Brian Martin, Buckley-Loda
1988 — Dennis Miller, Watseka
1987 — Walter Hoult, Chrisman
1986 — Mark Edmundson, Arthur
All-Area first team
NAME SCHOOL HT. YR. POS. COACH
P.J. Blissit Urbana 6-2 Sr. G Vashoune Russell
Travis Britt Rantoul 6-4 Sr. G Brett Frerichs
Corvon Butler Champaign Central 6-5 Sr. F Scott Davis
Devin Carter Centennial 6-4 Sr. G Tim Lavin
Reid Farchmin Mahomet-Seymour 6-4 Sr. F Chad Benedict
Jaycee Hillsman St. Thomas More 6-4 So. G James Kinney
Clayton Jones Champaign Central 6-0 Sr. G Scott Davis
Aaron Larson Unity 6-7 Sr. C Bill Ipsen
Chase Patton St. Joseph-Ogden 6-2 Jr. G Brian Brooks
Tanner Ribbe Bismarck-Henning 6-2 Sr. G Deon Mennenga
All-Area second team
NAME SCHOOL HT. YR. POS. COACH
Dylan Chapman Fisher 6-3 Sr. F Ron Ragle
Jeff Finke Centennial 6-7 So. F Tim Lavin
Taw Fredrickson Fisher 6-2 Sr. G Ron Ragle
Cole Hasselbring CPCI 6-4 Jr. F Kevin Long
Dennis Hightower Danville 6-0 Sr. G Gary Tidwell
Johnny Jones Rantoul 5-10 So. G Brett Frerichs
Brett Lindenmeyer Arcola 6-1 Sr. G Chad Graves
John Taylor Heritage 6-5 Jr. F Andy Place
Alex Thorson Unity 5-11 Sr. G Bill Ipsen
Tim Weaver Cerro Gordo 6-1 Sr. G Scott Bacon
All-Area special mention
NAME SCHOOL HT. YR. POS.
Taylen Alexander Centennial 6-5 Sr. G
Taylor Black Unity 6-0 Sr. G
Addison Bounds Prairie Central 6-4 Jr. G
Jordan Caroline Champaign Central 6-5 So. F
Jaron Cunningham Danville 6-0 Sr. F
Ryan Dieu Georgetown-Ridge Farm 6-0 Sr. G
Robert Elliott Westville 6-4 Jr. F
Connor Gross Bement 6-0 So. G
Matthew Hay Georgetown-Ridge Farm 5-9 Sr. G
Brad Herrmann Mahomet-Seymour 6-3 Jr. F
Brad Izatt Mahomet-Seymour 6-1 Sr. G
Stephen Krout Bismarck-Henning 6-5 Sr. F
Matt Kruse Monticello 6-8 Jr. C
Cameron Lee Oakwood 6-5 Sr. C
Donald McKinley Urbana 6-1 Jr. G
Nate Michael St. Joseph-Ogden 5-10 So. G
Phil Meyer Tuscola 6-1 Sr. G
Ryan Pearce Villa Grove 5-11 Jr. F
Curtis Plank Arthur 5-9 So. G
Tyler Schuring Arthur 5-11 Fr. F
Gauge Snider Paxton-Buckley-Loda 6-4 Sr. C
Nick Stokowski Monticello 6-2 So. G
Max Stutsman Salt Fork 6-4 So. F
Simeon Washington Urbana Uni High 6-0 Sr. G
Andy Webb Atwood-Hammond 5-10 Jr. G
Travis Whitley St. Thomas More 6-4 Sr. C
Malik Williams Judah Christian 5-9 Sr. G
Phillip Wright Centennial 6-1 Jr. G
Joel Wurm La Salette 6-6 Jr. C
Dakota Zenner Paxton-Buckley-Loda 6-0 Sr. G
All-Area honorable mention
ARCOLA — Clayton Johnson, Sr., 6-2; Corey Roberts, Sr., 6-2; Marty Thomas, Sr., 6-2
ARGENTA-OREANA — Keegan McHood, Fr., 6-2
ARMSTRONG-POTOMAC — Luke Gernand, Sr., 5-11; Wade Rogers, Jr., 5-10
ARTHUR — Clayton Honn, So., 5-9; Andrew Maxwell, Jr., 6-2
ARTHUR OKAW CHRISTIAN — Austin Helmuth, So., 5-6; Isaiah Lowry, So., 6-0
ATWOOD-HAMMOND — Phil Irace, Sr., 5-9
BEMENT — Tyce Rittenhouse, Jr., 6-3
BISMARCK-HENNING — Chase Connelly, So., 6-0; Krystian Ingram, Sr., 6-1; Austin Toler, Jr., 5-10
BLUE RIDGE — Tucker Johnson, Sr., 6-4; Travys Nichols, Fr., 6-4; Michael Plunk, So., 6-2
CENTENNIAL — Dustin Walls, Jr., 5-9
CERRO GORDO — Austin Crist, Sr., 5-10; Devin McWilliams, Sr., 6-1; Kaleb Krigbaum, Sr., 5-10
CHAMPAIGN CENTRAL — Chris Freeman, Sr., 5-10; Xavier Martin, Jr., 6-4
CHRISMAN — Chris Hoult, Jr., 6-0
CHRIST LUTHERAN — Casey Schmidt, Sr., 5-10
CLINTON — Michael Creager, Sr., 5-10
CPCI — Beau Anderson, Jr., 6-2; Sterling Young, Sr., 5-10
DANVILLE — Donte Ingram, So., 6-5; Devyn McGuire, Jr., 6-1
DeLAND-WELDON — Dee Woods, So., 6-1
FIRST BAPTIST — Mark Froman. Sr., 6-3
FISHER — Hans Carmien, Jr., 6-2; Parker Perrero, Sr., 5-10
GEORGETOWN-RIDGE FARM — Kyle Coburn, Jr., 6-3; Andy Cravens, Sr., 6-1; Korie Vire, Sr., 5-10
GIBSON CITY-MELVIN-SIBLEY — Sam Johnson, Sr., 6-1
HERITAGE — Keaten Kalk, Jr., 5-10
HOOPESTON AREA — Mason Layden, So., 6-2; Daniel Lawson, So., 5-10
IROQUOIS WEST — Kyle Pool, Sr., 6-2; Ben Wall, Sr., 6-1; Keaton Zirkle, Jr., 6-2
JUDAH CHRISTIAN — Ethan Chitty, So., 6-5; Zack Day, Sr., 5-10; Krys McClure, Jr., 6-4
LeROY — Nick Aupperle, So., 5-11
LOVINGTON — Logan West, So., 6-2
MAHOMET-SEYMOUR — Clay Kibler, Sr., 6-0; Garret Risley, Sr., 5-9
MILFORD — Josh Killion, Jr., 5-11; Max McCabe, Sr., 6-2
MONTICELLO — Ryan Donohue, Jr., 6-1; Daly O’Brien, Sr., 5-9
NOTRE DAME de La SALETTE — Joe Middlemore, Sr., 6-3; Jordan Rigi, Sr., 5-11
OAKWOOD — Kyle Elliott, Jr., 6-4; Tyler Knight, Sr., 5-10; Skyler Slade, So., 6-3
PAXTON-BUCKLEY-LODA — Tanner Harris, Sr., 5-8; Dylan Kingren, Sr., 5-8
PRAIRIE CENTRAL — Ian Briscoe, Jr., 6-3
RANTOUL — Jackson Carver, Sr., 5-11; L.C. Franklin, Sr., 5-5; C.J. Morris, Sr., 5-11
RIDGEVIEW — Dana Bose, Sr., 5-11; Brock Heimer, Jr., 6-1; Josh Weier, Jr., 6-0
SALT FORK — Alec Dutton, Jr., 6-3; Ross Learnard, So., 6-0; David Sacre, Sr., 6-2
SCHLARMAN — Austin Calhoun, Jr., 5-11; Alec Neal, Sr., 6-0; Lucas Spezia, Sr., 6-0
SHILOH — Cole Bogle, Jr., 5-9
ST. JOSEPH-OGDEN — Louis Acklin, Jr., 6-4; Corbin Hesterberg, Jr., 6-1; Blake Hoveln, Sr., 5-11; Brent Schluter, So., 6-2
ST. THOMAS MORE — Kevin Carroll, Jr., 6-1; Cortez King, Sr., 6-0; Michael Rubenaker, Sr., 5-10
SULLIVAN — Micah Plank, Sr., 6-0
TRI-COUNTY — Luke Clapp, Jr., 5-10; Doug Findley, Sr., 6-0
TUSCOLA — Dustin Haake, Jr., 6-4
UNITY — Austin Fender, Sr., 6-0; Matt Restad, Jr., 5-11
URBANA — Brandon Glass, Sr., 6-3; Lawrence McMillion, Sr., 5-11; Jerrod Webster, Sr., 5-10
URBANA CALVARY BAPTIST — Jordan Emerick, Sr., 6-0; Jonathan Hassel, Sr., 6-0
URBANA UNI HIGH — Tahar Bowen-Pinto, Sr., 6-3; Joseph Song, Sr., 6-0; Patrick Wong, Jr., 5-9
VILLA GROVE — Lucas Vandeventer, So., 6-2
WATSEKA — Daulton DePatis, Jr., 5-10; Dylan Schuler, Sr., 5-11
WESTVILLE — Kyle Brazas, So., 6-2
Final N-G Top 10
TEAM (PREVIOUS) W-L
1. Champaign Central (1) 19-11
Six of top eight scorers were seniors
2. Arthur (4) 19-12
None of top eight scorers were seniors
3. Unity (5) 24-4
Four of top five scorers were seniors
4. St. Joseph-Ogden (6) 23-8
One of top eight scorers was a senior
5. CPCI (7) 21-10
Three of top seven scorers were seniors
6. Ridgeview (8) 21-10
Two of top four scorers were seniors
7. Rantoul (10) 21-6
Six of top eight scorers were seniors
8. Arcola (9) 16-12
Top six scorers were all seniors
9. Fisher (2) 17-15
Top two scorers were seniors
10. Bismarck-Henning (—) 27-3
Top three scorers were all seniors