GIBSON CITY — Steve Arends' success story is a heartwarming reminder of what it was like to be an athlete in a different era.
In the reality of today's sporting world, basketball players are nationally ranked before they've attended a single high school class. They work on their game 12 months a year in hopes that their efforts will lead to the promised land of financial rewards.
They receive college scholarships, and they want more.
Arends' tale, which culminated with his induction into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Saturday, is one without the frills and the lavish perks.
The story starts in Gibson City, where Arends was involved with different sports.
"You didn't have these programs where everyone concentrated on something," he said. "You played basketball in basketball season and baseball in baseball season. You didn't really work on it (in the offseason)."
Arends made one important commitment prior to his senior year.
"Between my junior and senior year, I used weights and developed a lot," the 1964 Gibson City graduate said. "That elevated myself as a senior."
He had a breakout final year, averaging 24.6 points per game for the Greyhounds, which is the third highest to date by any Gibson City, Melvin-Sibley or Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley athlete.
Only Dennis Graff with averages of 29.7 (1970-71) and 33.4 (1971-72) had better single-season marks.
Arends wasn't highly recruited.
"I got a couple of letters," he said. "I didn't have many (coaches) who thought I could play."
He went to Illinois State, he said, because "my parents could afford to pay for my college."
Once on campus, Redbirds coach Jim Collie urged him to come to a tryout.
"As a freshman, anybody could try out," Arends said. "There must have been 70 or 80 try out. Coach cut it down to 20 on the freshman team."
At the time, freshmen were not permitted to play on the varsity. Arends received a break, he said, when "eight or nine of the freshmen didn't come back to school after Thanksgiving break."
As the newcomers played their schedule, Arends' role expanded.
"I moved from the eighth or ninth guy to the starting five," he said. "It takes a break once in a while. I told Jerry McGreal (a fellow freshman, from Rantoul) if all those guys had come back, we might not have gotten to play."
By the time Arends was a sophomore, he was a fixture in the varsity lineup as a forward. He and McGreal were co-captains during their junior and senior seasons.
Arends not only played but also did so well that more than three decades after his graduation, he stands fourth for career rebounds. After he played his final collegiate game, his 885 rebounds were third on the school list.
Only one Redbird in 30-plus years surpassed his performance even though freshmen have been allowed to play on the varsity for more than 25 years.
"I'm happy the coach gave me a chance," Arends said.
The 344 rebounds he grabbed as a junior were a school record and rank third all time.
In his three years, he scored 1,267 points, a total that was sixth when he graduated and is now 20th. He hit 313 free throws, which was fourth when he graduated and is now seventh.
When Arends hears stories about athletes who feel they should have compensation beyond their scholarships, it creates a feeling of wonderment.
"Today's athletes think they're owed something," he said. "I think it's vice versa. I think I should have paid more than the average student because I got to travel."
An agriculture major, Arends returned to his native Ford County and joined the business — Arends & Sons — his father started prior to Steve's birth. His brother, Bill, is now the president, and Steve is the vice president.
His time at Illinois State was rewarding. "A great experience for me," Arends said.
As he approaches his 66th birthday next month, Arends said, "I watch basketball, but I wouldn't call myself a big fan."
The memories he retains are viewed with a bit of irony.
"The first game I played as a varsity member (December 1965) was against Indiana State," he said, "and I happened to score 28 points. The final game of my career (March 1968) was in the College Division Tournament against Indiana State in the regional.
"I also scored 28 points. We lost both games, but the last one was far more painful. That was the end of the career for several of us."
His playing days were over, but one thing remained. That final chapter was written Saturday night with the Hall of Fame induction.
"I'm a little surprised," Arends said, "but I'm pleased that someone recognized me."
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, by phone at 217-351-5232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.