Kroner: Assembly Hall switch dims event's electricity
CHAMPAIGN — Senior Lawrence McMillion will suit up for a basketball game Saturday. Just like the schedule shows.
He will join his Urbana High teammates in a nonconference shootout game against St. Thomas More. Just like the schedule shows.
The only difference will be the location. The sixth Shootout at the Hall has been relocated from the Assembly Hall to Parkland College.
For teenagers whose dream has been to play on the same court used by the nationally ranked Illini and exit from the same tunnel where they've seen UI athletes appear for years, the NCAA-forced change is a disappointment.
"It would have felt great to say I played on the court where the Illini play," McMillion said. "I've been to previous (Shootout) tournaments and have watched the UI for years. It would have been an honor to play on the university court in the city where you live."
When the Tigers and the Sabers tip off at Parkland about 3:45 p.m., McMillion and his teammates won't be focused on the site.
"Things happen," he said. "There's still a basketball game to play. We have to keep our heads up."
Shootout organizers are optimistic that the event can be returned to the Assembly Hall in the future. That won't benefit current seniors such as McMillion.
"There's not a next year," he said.
For the Assembly Hall to regain the event, Cory Hatfield said, it would require more involvement from local high schools. Besides putting a team in the shootout, they would need to be involved in the planning, organization and sponsorship.
"This year, it blindsided us," said Hatfield, the sports and sales director for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, referring to the NCAA edict announced eight days prior to the event.
"We want to keep it in Champaign and at the Assembly Hall. We will review and go over with the (UI) compliance office to see what can and can't be done.
"We've asked for further clarification."
Champaign County's Convention and Visitors Bureau has focused its attention this week on the pared-down five-game schedule set to tip off with a 12:15 Saturday game between Rantoul and Chicago Hope Academy. Tickets had to be repriced (to $8) and reissued.
Other details had to be confirmed with Parkland. Everything from security to parking had to be reorganized.
It's unfortunate, Hatfield said, that the NCAA changes came when the Shootout was gaining in popularity.
"It's our sixth year, and we've been getting calls from schools that want to participate," he said.
Rather than oversee and help plan the future, Hatfield said his office may play more of a secondary role if the Shootout continues.
"I don't know how much involvement we might have," he said. "We have to look at new ways and how we can work together to assist local schools to see what can be worked out."
More local involvement
Hosting an event on a college campus is not necessarily a problem. The current NCAA legislation affects only one sport: boys' basketball. The annual News-Gazette Honor Roll track meets, scheduled for next May, will not have to be moved from the UI track.
Champaign-Urbana athletic directors are willing to study and evaluate options for keeping the Shootout in existence. However, it's not necessarily full speed ahead, according to Centennial's Brian Easter.
"It's a huge undertaking, but I would be somewhat interested," Easter said. "Before I tackle it, I'd want to find out the compliance issues. It's something we'd have to work with the UI on."
Easter's concerns are financial and manpower.
"If it's going to be a deficit project, no way would I take it on," he said. "We like the idea of being able to bring in these high-profile players.
"If Centennial can help, there's no reason we wouldn't be interested if it's something that's not burdensome on the school and not overly time consuming."
Easter's counterpart at Central, John Woods, said the possibility of serving as a host for the Shootout comes when preliminary talks have taken place to create other events within the community.
"We've been kicking around the idea of bringing back a Thanksgiving tournament with local teams," Woods said. "It would eliminate travel, generate excitement locally and keep folks in town to watch some basketball."
The time is right for the discussions as the Big 12 Conference faces a revised format for league play. With Mattoon's departure next June, a double round-robin schedule will be drawn up for basketball.
The nine Big 12 members will play all other schools on a home-and-away basis. That decision will diminish a school's ability to play many nonconference foes, unless there's creative scheduling, Woods said.
"If Urbana, Centennial, Danville and Central were in a four-team tourney, counting those as conference games, that would allow more nonconference games," Woods said. "Otherwise, for schools in three tournaments, with the 16 conference games, there'd be no regular season nonconference games."
As for the early-December shootout, Woods understands what it means to the players.
"Kids grow up watching the Illini and would love to play on that court," he said. "When we were involved (with the Shootout at the Assembly Hall), one year we sacrificed a home game, but it was worth it."
Urbana athletic director Greg Hall is taking a wait-and-see approach. Like Easter, there are questions he'd like to have answered.
"It's a great event, and I'd definitely be open to it," Hall said. "I'd like to do it in a manner that would be beneficial to our athletic department."
Hall suggested a possible rotation system between the C-U schools so the workload was shared equally over a period of time.
"It would be tough to do (for one school) year in and year out because it is so big," Hall said. "I understand you'd have to pay money for rental of the facility, but if money could be brought in, if we could provide concessions, I would appreciate that."
Urbana graduate Matthew Moyer is following with interest the developments connected with the Shootout at the Hall. As the head of basketball operations for bleidsports.com, he has experienced similar headaches on a national scale.
His company was sponsoring shootouts at Rupp Arena, in Lexington, Ky., Cameron Indoor Stadium, in Durham, N.C., as well as others in Florida, Oregon and Louisville, Ky.
"We've had to scramble to find backup locations," said Moyer, a former soccer player at Urbana who thought he had the go-ahead for his events.
"The hard part for us," he said, "is we had a letter of approval and a case number."
The event scheduled for Rupp Arena was moved to nearby Lexington Christian Academy.
"We went from a 24,000-seat venue to an 1,100-seat venue," Moyer said.
It was a quick turnaround, Moyer added. He had 34 hours to make alternate arrangements and "24 of those hours were Thanksgiving."
In another case, he had to change plane reservations for the Chicago Young team. Instead of flying them to Florida for a shootout game against an opponent from North Carolina, they traveled to North Carolina and played on their opponent's home court.
Young and Chicago Simeon are in separate games in a Dec. 17 shootout that has been shifted from Durham, N.C., to Fayetteville.
"It would have been easier to book them into Charlotte," Moyer said. "There will be a 75-mile drive now for some of these teams."
Not giving up
Moyer's parents, Christopher and Sandra, still live in Urbana, "in the house I grew up in," he said.
The NCAA restrictions, he said, won't discourage his company from organizing similar events in upcoming years. It will just change where the games are played.
"We'll probably look at places that are not the home of any Division I team," Matthew Moyer said. "Places like the St. Pete (Fla.) Times Forum, the Great Western Forum (in Los Angeles), and I've spoken to the Charlotte Bobcats. For us, we'll move into something like that.
"I hope we can work together and figure this out. We're trying to provide kids the chance to play in a cool environment."
Making it happen
Hatfield isn't anticipating a turn-away crowd at Parkland. Last year's Shootout drew 3,200 spectators to the Assembly Hall, but he said "at no one point were all those people there at the same time."
Parkland's gymnasium can seat about 2,000.
"We're excited," Hatfield said. "We have a nice backup plan, and it will all work out pretty well. The locker rooms (at Parkland) are about the same size as the visitors at the Assembly Hall."
Jayne DeLuce, the president and CEO of the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said expectations were changed in regard to Saturday's event.
"Our goal," she said, "is not to make money, just to make the event happen."
For 10 high schools — and their assortment of fans — the games will go on and the showcase will continue. At least for this year.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, at 217-351-5232 or at email@example.com.
Saturday’s Shootout at the Hall will be played at Parkland College and will feature five games (not seven). The lineup:
12:15 p.m. — Rantoul vs. Chicago Hope Academy
2 p.m. — Peoria Manual vs. Springfield Lanphier
3:45 p.m. — St. Thomas More vs. Urbana
5:30 p.m. — Centennial vs. Chicago Curie
7:15 p.m. — Niles Notre Dame vs. Crete-Monee
Ticket update: Prices have been reduced to $8 for adults and $5 for students. Those who have already purchased tickets still will be granted entry and adult ticket-holders will receive a $4 credit to the concession stand. Also, those who previously purchased tickets and want a refund will have to return those tickets to the Assembly Hall ticket office to have them processed.