Vikes at home in big-time setting
The look on the players' faces were priceless.
There he was, Chicago Bulls 6-foot-7 forward Andres Nocioni, walking by the group of Geneva boys basketball players in the hallways of the United Center. The Vikings had just got done beating Western Sun Conference rival Kaneland 58-39 early in the morning on New Year's Eve, and they looked star-struck after taking center stage themselves.
As I interviewed Geneva's Jeremy D'Amico, who led all players with 32 points and 8 rebounds, former Bull and current color commentator Bill Wennington walked by. Kaneland junior Dave Dudzinski said he saw Tyrus Thomas and said it was "incredible." The Bulls were preparing to play the Orlando Magic just mere hours after the Vikings and Knights played, and both teams stuck around to see the game.
The Bulls ended up losing 113-94, but there was no doubt this was one of the most amazing opportunities for these players.
"This is one of the coolest things I have ever done," Geneva's Rob Tauscher said.
"It's just a great experience for us and a huge thing for our program," Dudzinski added.
The game, which was part of a Preps to Pros program, took the place of a home game for Geneva, which hosted the event. New Vikings coach Phil Ralston extended the offer to several different schools, but Kaneland grabbed the opportunity first.
The reaction was obvious when the players found out about their chance to play in Chicago.
"I couldn't wait," Kaneland's Ryley Bailey said.
Even Kaneland coach Dennis Hansen was thrilled to be a part of this.
"I was excited and thinking about the game (the night before)," he said. "We were ready."
To prepare for the 8:45 a.m. game, the Knights ran practice at 6 a.m. for several days prior. Traffic nearly derailed the Vikings' plans, thanks to pothole repairs on I-88 the morning of the game.
"We weren't going to be late for something like this," Ralston said. "If traffic had been any worse, we might have been late. The kids wanted to claw out the windows to get in here."
Once the pregame warmups began and the crowd started to fill in, reality sank in. The size of the court was something neither side exactly prepared for, but turned out in the Vikings' favor.
"The way we run our offense, playing on a bigger floor was to our advantage, not disadvantage," Ralston said.
"When you first go out there, it doesn't look that much bigger, but it takes a lot longer to run down the court, and you notice that when you come down on defense," Tauscher said.
Without a doubt, the game went way too fast. Everyone agreed it didn't even feel like a conference game. Tauscher said it felt more like a tournament championship. To give everyone a fair opportunity to play, the bench and JV players were treated to an extra five-minute period after the game. Kaneland won that 8-4.
The players then stuck around before watching the Bulls and Magic play. That's when some were treated to catching a glimpse of famous people roaming the halls.
Will this opportunity ever come about again? Ralston sure hopes so.
"If the stars align, I guess I would love to have this happen every year," Ralston said. "But there are a lot of things you need to work into, including an NBA schedule to make it happen."
Even if this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, the kids were thankful.
"It was pretty amazing," D'Amico said.