Returning home: Why the state finals belong in Champaign

After 25 years in Peoria — and two canceled state finals the past two years due to Covid — the boys’ state basketball tournament returns to Champaign this weekend.

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Winthrop players stand on the court during the national anthem before an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois in Champaign.

Winthrop players stand on the court during the national anthem before an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois in Champaign.

Rick Danzl/AP

After 25 years in Peoria — and two canceled state finals the past two years due to Covid — the boys’ state basketball tournament returns to Champaign this weekend.

Theoretically, this is where the IHSA state finals should be played.

All four classes, big and small, from across the state will converge in a new three-day format starting Thursday. They will play at the major flagship state university and in a historic but state-of-the-art arena that’s easily identifiable. 

There are deep, deep roots and historical basketball significance in Champaign, even if maybe today’s youth doesn’t realize it just yet. 

Aside from the United Center in Chicago, the State Farm Center (formerly Assembly Hall) is the most recognizable basketball facility in the state. Nationally ranked Big Ten teams, including this year’s Big Ten co-champion Fighting Illini, take the floor there each week during the basketball season to play on national television and in front of raucous crowds. 

The more that scene is actually played out and seen the more it resonates with kids and becomes a bigger goal in coming years. At least that’s how it was for decades in this state. Kids grew up dreaming of taking their teams “downstate” and playing in what was then, to any young basketball obsessed kid in Illinois, an iconic Assembly Hall.

I started heading to Champaign as a 9-year-old with my mom and dad and family friends. I’ve missed maybe one here and one there since that first state tournament trip in 1982. But looking back I think this will be 35 or 36 of the last 40 IHSA State Finals I will have attended. But it was always the big school state tournament and a rare old school Class A State Finals here and there mixed in. 

It’s odd for this rabid high school basketball fan to say, but I seem to have more fond, specific memories of the State Finals as a kid back in the 1980s — in Champaign and in Assembly Hall — than what I have as an adult while actually covering the event for the City/Suburban Hoops Report and Chicago Sun-Times. 

Maybe it was the whole missing school thing on Friday as a grade schooler and junior high kid, thus taking it all in as if it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done. I still think it’s the only day of school I missed while growing up. 

It was the thrill as a kid of packing up the car with mom’s homemade treats and junk food, anxiously waiting to leave with my parents on Thursday right after school to set up shop in the hotel and our annual pilgrimage to the Class AA State Tournament. 

Then there were the developing traditions. You would always see the same fans every year, either in the hotel, at breakfast or in the seats of Assembly Hall, the ones you would get to know by first name only and see for three days a year and that was plenty enough. You knew you had one thing in common, one topic of conversation that weekend, and that’s all that mattered. 

You always stayed in the same hotel (For us it was the Jumer’s Castle Lodge which I don’t even think exists anymore?) — at least until they started jacking up the prices — and looked forward to eating the same pizza every year (the old Jolly Roger, that I know is now gone, and its ultra-thin pizza).

And you would read up on the Elite Eight teams in the newspapers. And getting your hands on that State Finals program as soon as you could was a must. 

Oh, the program. 

The program used to have a short but descriptive write-up on each team. Remember, there was no Internet, Twitter, social media, streamed games or teams crossing the state to play one another. You would hear about these players and teams, read up on them in the newspapers and in the State Finals program. 

Fans would salivate over that program, seeing the scores listed and the stats of the players. 

The likes of Michael Payne, Bruce Douglas and Quincy, LaPhonso Ellis and East St. Louis, Ed Horton and Springfield Lanphier and many others almost became mythical figures before actually seeing them run out of the tunnel of Assembly Hall. Back then, in the 1980s, you just didn’t get to see them until then. 

The moments are still so vivid. I was mesmerized, in particular, by that great Quincy team in 1981 that I watched on TV. When my dad returned from Champaign that year, I demanded I was going with him from now on. Mom and dad obliged. 


AP Photos

Those East St. Louis Lincoln teams of the 1980s? Right now I can rattle off the names of a dozen East St. Louis Lincoln players from that decade. (Maybe that’s sad rather than impressive, I know, but you can understand the impact on a grade-schooler and later as a teen). 

I still clearly remember Ben Wilson, Kenny Battle and Everette Stephens all in the same Elite Eight in 1984, Derek Boyd’s buzzer-beating shot that lifted Mount Carmel to a state title in double overtime in 1985, the arrival of Kendall Gill in 1986, Marcus Liberty’s 143 points in four games in 1987, the 1989 triple overtime game between East St. Louis Lincoln and Peoria that I remember not wanting to end. 

Mendel Catholic’s stunning upset of Quincy. Mike Lipnisky’s 43-point state quarterfinal game. The contrasting styles of legendary coaches Landon Cox and Bennie Lewis on the sidelines. LaPhonso Ellis vs. Eric Anderson. Those dominating King teams full of bravado we’ve never seen before. 

While in Champaign as a kid, you would adopt one of the Elite Eight teams as “your team” and then idolize a player who, now thinking back, was literally like five or six years older than you at the time. 

Then as a basketball-playing kid you started dreaming yourself of playing in Assembly Hall with your whole town and community following you down to Champaign. You envisioned that roar from your hometown crowd that would be tucked into one of the four corners of Assembly Hall and rise up from the old “C Section” and be cheering you on. 

You know the trick — at least back then. You and your friends would play out that moment in driveways and gyms. 

But just when we had our best team in school history and broke the single-season win total my junior year, we were bumped from Class A to Class AA for the first time ever — by six students. We were devastated. (Where was the four-class system when I needed it!)

All the teams we rolled over all summer and during the season were left in Class A while we went to AA. We lost in heartbreaking fashion in the regional final.

After our unfortunate, badly-timed one-year trip to Class AA, we returned to Class A for my senior year. A good team, but not as good as the year before, lost an even more heartbreaking game, 67-66, in the final three seconds of the sectional championship. 

But I digress. Individual soapbox is over. But there is a point here. 

Yes, we all wanted to get “downstate” but with that came the importance of being able to play in Assembly Hall. 

There were so many driving forces back then. But absolutely one of them was getting to Champaign and specifically playing in Assembly Hall. I remember many teams with high hopes and big expectations would have a slogan or theme on t-shirts with a screen print of Assembly Hall on it. The place was symbolic. 

No high school basketball team was ever going to put a photo of Peoria’s Civic Center entertainment complex on a T-shirt and wear it around all summer before their season started. 

There is now a generation of kids and fans who only know state tournament history through what’s transpired in Peoria and Carver Arena. Some truly great and memorable moments were captured there that will last forever. But there has never been a mystique or aura about playing in Peoria or Carver Arena, which was the case over the many decades the state tournament was played in Champaign. 

No disrespect to all the great folks who did a terrific job hosting the State Finals in Peoria the past 25 years — there was some serious civic pride there — but Carver Arena was always just blah. There just wasn’t a whole lot of juice in the idea of playing there. It didn’t feel like a big-time venue. 

The arena, perfectly fine and maybe even outstanding for a Missouri Valley Conference basketball school, was almost a hindrance to the overall great experience that Peoria initially pumped back into the state tournament in the early years of moving to the River City. 

The old Assembly Hall, as unique and eye-catching as it was and remains from the outside, did seem at times a little cavernous, especially in the latter years there when crowds dwindled.

But the completely renovated, whopping $170 million overhaul of the interior of the State Farm Center has changed everything. It’s completely modernized, the interior is warmer and more quaint, and the fans were brought closer to the floor. 

Simply put, it’s a completely different arena, feel and environment for those high school basketball fans who haven’t returned to Champaign since the IHSA moved the State Finals from Champaign to Peoria in 1996. 

Even more important, for all the participating teams — players, coaches and their fans — the experience will be enhanced playing in the State Farm Center. 

Look, two-class basketball is never coming back. It’s not worth arguing or lamenting about it anymore. While fans were disgruntled and disappointed, the move to placate a certain number of coaches and schools in the state and to award more trophies and championships was made. The “super fans” in high school basketball have clearly dwindled since the hey-day of high school hoops. 

So, no, the state tournament is never going to be what it used to be. And a splashy new venue in Champaign isn’t going to fix all the woes. 

But at this moment, at this time, this move to Champaign and the State Farm Center was necessary and hopefully will pump some life back into a state tournament that was on life support in its final years in Peoria. 

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