Former Libertyville coach Sanders recalls good memories in Champaign
There may be no "I" in team.
But years ago, high school basketball teams in Illinois used to get pretty jacked up when they would see the big "I" on the hardwood that welcomed them to the IHSA state basketball championships.
That was when the boys state basketball championships were at Illinois' flagship school, the University of Illinois, and the big letter "I" in the middle of the floor at the old Assembly Hall beckoned.
The IHSA announced last week that, after a long absence, the boys state basketball finals will return to the University of Illinois starting with the 2021 tournament.
The event was previously held at the University of Illinois from 1919 to 1995 before moving in 1996 to the Peoria Civic Center, home of Bradley University men's basketball.
"When you were downstate and you ran out of that tunnel to play and you saw that big "I" on the floor, there was just something about that," Max Sanders said. "Our boys thought that was quite a thrill."
Sanders was the boys basketball coach at Libertyville High School from 1979 to 1999. Now 78, he still has razor sharp memories of the two times he guided the Wildcats to the state finals at Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois.
Libertyville finished fourth in 1991 and made the quarterfinals in 1994, back when the top eight teams would advance to the state finals.
"I think it's a great move to go back to U of I for the state finals," Sanders said. "And I'm a Bradley guy. I went to college at Bradley, played basketball there.
"But to have the home state major university host an event like this, at a place that a lot of kids see (on TV) when they're growing up, it really is the pinnacle of your high school career. Kids have aspirations of going there and playing there. I know I did."
Sanders was a standout basketball player at Libertyville High School in the 1950s. His dad was a high school basketball coach, and each year, from the time he was in sixth grade, Sanders went with his dad to the IHSA state basketball finals.
"I saw every state finals from 1953 to 1999 except for the four years I was in college at Bradley from 1960 to 1963," Sanders said. "I started going with my dad and the first year we went in 1953, the state finals were in the old Huff Gym (on the University of Illinois campus).
"Then by 1963, the state finals were in Assembly Hall. It was an ideal place to play. Every seat is a good seat, there's not a bad seat in the place. What an exciting place to play and watch a game.
"By the time I got there with Libertyville in 1991, there was also so much tradition of going to Assembly Hall."
In 1991, the Wildcats played three elite teams downstate, and were knocked from title contention in the semifinals by Proviso East, which had three future NBA players, including Michael Finley.
Libertyville was led by 6-foot-4 shooting guard Matt Williams and 6-foot-5 twins John and Andy Bauer.
"We had a really nice team that year, a very tall team with four of our starters over 6-foot-4," Sanders said. "We were a smart team. I could draw up new plays in the huddle, change the entire offense and that team would execute it.
"We just ran into a really good Proviso East team. But what a run. It was our school's first time at state and I remember how excited the town was, how crazy it was. There were so many busloads of kids down there. When we came out of that tunnel, all we saw in the stands across from us was orange. Nothing but orange."
In 1994, the Wildcats were again led to the state finals by one of their greatest players in program history, the late Matt Heldman, who went on to play at Illinois and was the point guard of the Illini's Big Ten championship team in 1998. He was then killed in a car accident in 1999 at age 23.
"That 1994 team had some really great wins leading to state," Sanders said. "Probably the greatest game ever played in Lake County happened in our sectional at Waukegan when we won on a big shot in triple overtime against Mundelein and Kyle Kessel. I love that gym at Waukegan. It has a lot of nostalgia, just like Assembly Hall."
The former Assembly Hall, now called the State Farm Center, will host the boys state finals at least through 2023 under the new deal. The facility is fresh off a $170 million state-of-the art renovation that was completed in 2016.
"I think people will be hyped up again to go to Champaign," Sanders said. "It's a great arena, you've got the campus right there and people like walking around campus, and there's also all the history of the tournament in Champaign.
"I never thought the tournament should have moved in the first place. I'm really glad it's back in Champaign."