I’ve played basketball in almost every state in America. I’ve played against some of the best players in the world and I’ve played on some of the biggest stages there is to play.
But nothing compares to the feeling of a Central vs. Centennial basketball game.
Let me start off by saying that high school sports in our area just aren’t the same anymore. It seems to be a lack of interest in sports, which results in a lack of talent because kids are not working on their craft.
When I was coming up, we had players who are all legends in my eyes, such as Verdell Jones III, Ducky Stewart, James Kinney Jr. and Rayvonte Rice, who set the standard on what a committed athlete was.
The youth nowadays don’t have that luxury.
I remember being in middle school and coming up with excuses to leave practice early so that we could make our way to see the Central vs. Centennial game and we knew that if we weren’t there by at least halftime of the JV game, then there was no way we’d have a seat for the varsity game.
Those guys put on a show every single time, and the energy in the gym was always through the roof.
I was a young sponge soaking it all up, imagining myself out there doing things that would make the crowd go crazy.
When it was finally my time to represent for Champaign Central, I was ready to roll, and I started my high school career off with a bang while earning a Big Ten scholarship before my sophomore season even started.
I’ve never beaten Centennial, but I always played exceptionally well against them.
The rivalry was serious business back then — there was no buddy-buddy stuff going on the week of the game.
If you had friends that went to the opposite school, the friendship was put on pause during game week. That’s just how it had to be back then, and I loved it. It made things seem real.
The student sections got hold of any information they can get to throw the opposing players off.
Those kids didn’t have a filter and would say some harsh things about people’s personal life.
I knew not to let it get to my head, because when I got to college, the things they would say would be a lot more vulgar, to say the least.
I wish the high school hoopers could experience the rivalries from my time and the times before me.
It would be a reality check for sure, because we took things a lot more seriously back then.
It really mattered to us — especially me, because I was the star player who’d never won against the crosstown rivalry.
I miss those days. They molded a lot of kids into the men we are today.
Jay Simpson writes for The News-Gazette. His column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.