City-Suburban Showdown has certainly weathered well
A snowstorm sparked a big idea from Bob Rylko and David Kaplan for a big-time high school basketball showcase in the Chicago area.
A deep freeze was a barometer that this was an event which could be even better than envisioned.
And every winter since 1996, the City-Suburban Showdown been a great bridge from the home stretch of the regular season to the start of the postseason and March Madness.
Amid the glut of showdowns, showcases and shootouts on the high school basketball landscape, the City-Suburban Showdown continues to be the standard-setter as it takes place for the 20th time Saturday night at Niles West High School. This year's doubleheader is no exception with the highly anticipated matchup of Stevenson and Villanova-bound Jalen Brunson against six-time state champion Simeon at 8 p.m. and Lake Forest and double-double machine Evan Boudreaux against Highland Park at 6 p.m.
"We wanted to do something nice and different so people wouldn't feel this is just another high school event," said Rylko, who certainly reached that criteria this year with the state's top-three rated Class 4A teams in Stevenson, Simeon and Lake Forest.
The event has showcased 13 of the last 14 Illinois Mr. Basketball winners and nationally ranked teams. Showdown fans got a glimpse of Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Iman Shumpert, Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Shannon Brown, Dee Brown, Shaun Livingston, Frank Williams, Corey Maggette, Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson, Evan Turner and Melvin Ely before they went on to play in the NBA.
And it all started one night when Rylko and Kaplan were stuck in a snowstorm that made their drive from Detroit to Chicago take about twice as long as normal.
Kaplan was producing his Windy City Roundball Review at the time and working with Rylko when they started talking about high school basketball. There was an event in the city that was bringing in top teams from around the country but it wasn't drawing well.
"What came out of the discussion was city teams didn't play suburban teams that often," Rylko said. "We said, 'Why don't we have an event where city teams play suburban teams and we'll call it the City-Suburban Showdown.'"
They wanted to hold it late in the season since a lot of conference championships would be settled. They knew coaches of top teams would be looking for opportunities to play on a big court in front of a big crowd to get a taste for what was ahead in supersectionals and state finals games in Peoria.
Rylko and Kaplan also had connections to people at Northwestern to hold the event at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The first City-Suburban Showdown in February 1996 featured Deerfield against perennial state power King and Glenbrook North against Farragut, which had one of the nation's most electrifying high school players in Ronnie Fields.
And Rylko remembers hearing the weekend weather forecast at a restaurant in Niles with some others involved the Monday before the games.
"I kiddingly took one of the knives and put it to my wrist," Rylko joked of a projected deep freeze that saw game-day wind chills plummet to minus-51.
When Rylko arrived that night he saw a line of people waiting for tickets from the Welsh-Ryan box office and around the football stadium all the way to Central Avenue. A walkup of more than 2,000 pushed the crowd to 7,224 to see Fields put on a show that included a spectacular 360-degree breakaway dunk.
"I thought, 'If people are willing to come out in this type of weather, we may have something,'" Rylko said.
Two years later, their Valentine's Day gift was the first of five sellouts at Welsh-Ryan to see the state's two top-ranked teams in eventual state champion Whitney Young and Richardson face off with Fenwick and Maggette. The media frenzy put the City-Suburban Showdown on the map nationally.
The growing interest led Rylko and Kaplan to start a January event, the High School Hoops Showdown, which was originally held in Rockford and moved to the Chicago area. The City-Suburban Showdown evolved to include teams such as Peoria Manual and Peoria Central and Wisconsin powerhouse Milwaukee Vincent.
That evolution led to one of the most memorable matchups in 2006 at Welsh-Ryan. An assist came from New York-based national prep basketball guru Tom Konchalski, who attended the Maggette-Richardson matchup.
"He asked if we would you ever consider an out-of-state team," Rylko said. "He said, 'You need to have this kid Greg Oden (from Indianapolis Lawrence North.'
"That's how it started and he paved the way. Lawrence North wanted a test for Greg and wanted to play a team with two big kids."
But that team's big men wound up being ineligible before the season started so Rylko had to adjust. Glenbrook North was coming off a state championship and Duke-bound senior Jon Scheyer was drawing big crowds everywhere he played.
So the matchup and another sellout came to fruition to not only see the country's premier big man and eventual No. 1 NBA pick in Oden but also running mate Conley. Both would lead Ohio State to an NCAA tournament runner-up finish as freshmen.
Scheyer, who scored a memorable 21 points in 75 seconds in that season's Proviso West tournament, wound up leading Duke to an NCAA title.
"The buzz about it was unbelievable," Rylko said of Lawrence North's win where none of the stars disappointed. "My wife and I were driving to Welsh-Ryan ... and two guys came up to me showing tickets.
"They said, "We've got two tickets, first-row courtside, do you want them?' I was curious, so I asked how much and they said, '50 bucks each.'"
The City-Suburban Showdown also set a UIC Pavilion attendance record for basketball of 8,184. But in late 2011, an NCAA rule change prohibited events such as these across the country from using arenas on a college campus, or used regularly by college teams, because of perceived recruiting advantages.
That forced the event to move to Proviso West, the House of Hope Church on Chicago's far South Side and now Niles West.
It is all part of the challenge that includes star player injuries, ineligibility or departures or teams not performing as well as expected. Rylko does his best to find out as much as he can about players, teams and a school's fan base and interest to ensure a first-class production year after year.
That is what keeps the City-Suburban Showdown as a must-see event for high school basketball fans in the Chicago area.
"I remember the first one like yesterday," Rylko said. "I had no clue at the time this would last 20 years."