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The golden era of Peoria hoops

by Nick Vlahos |
Peoria Basketball Feature

For 15 years, Peoria went ‘eye to eye with any basketball town in America,’ says Chicago-area author

About 35 years have passed since the beginning of the greatest era of Peoria high school boys basketball, a period that extended into the mid-2000s. But time doesn’t appear to have dimmed the memories.

Cover Playgrounds to the ProsChicago-based author Jeff Karzen discovered that as he spoke with more than 75 people for his latest book, which was released Feb. 7. Playgrounds to the Pros: Legends of Peoria Basketball tells the triumphs and tragedies that were part of an extraordinary period in Peoria sports history.

Those who relayed their stories to Karzen — on the telephone and in person in Peoria and elsewhere — haven’t tired of telling them, apparently.

“I didn’t get one moment of, ‘Oh, this is boring, why are we talking about this?’ Not one time,” Karzen said recently. “And we were talking about events from 25-30 years ago. People care about this stuff a lot. That was very striking and kind of impressive, that this stuff still matters … to so many people.”

Author, Jeff Karzen
Author, Jeff Karzen

How it came to matter to Karzen might be another example of how Peoria’s tentacles often extend in unlikely ways to unlikely places.

The 43-year-old Karzen, a native of Evanston, works in communications for a Chicago-area health care corporation. A former sports journalist, he worked for newspapers in Michigan and southern Illinois. He also authored a book about a Michigan high school baseball team that set a national record for victories and included plenty of small-town politics behind the scenes.

One of his father’s friends from their University of Illinois days is Sandy Farkash, the former Manual High School principal. Farkash was at Manual when the Rams won four consecutive Class AA boys basketball state titles between 1994 and 1997. Such a feat was unprecedented at the time.

During one Farkash visit almost four years ago, the conversation among he and Ron and Jeff Karzen drifted to sports in general, then to Peoria basketball in particular. Thus ended the younger Karzen’s search for his next book topic.

It didn’t hurt that Karzen attended high school in Evanston during the Manual four-peat, an accomplishment he remembered and appreciated.

“Because of Sandy, we had a special interest in following those Peoria teams,” Karzen said. “It just kind of clicked in my head — so many good players there, and the history, and the people there care so much. Maybe this is what I should do. And I just kind of dove in and started reporting.”

Karzen was put in touch with former Manual coach Derrick Booth. He helped put Karzen in touch with some of Peoria basketball’s major figures.

On his first trip to town, Karzen interviewed former Manual player and coach Willie Coleman. Karzen also talked with “The Godfather” — legendary former Manual coach Dick Van Scyoc, who was 98 when he died last year. Van Scyoc won 825 games in 45 seasons, including 543 in 28 seasons at Manual, and the 1994 big-school state championship.

“I just tried to meet as many people as I could, and one person led to another,” Karzen said. “After a while, it felt like I was part of the community. People started recognizing me.”

From the start, Karzen knew he didn’t want to rehash details of games played decades ago. Wikipedia can handle that. Instead he sought the stories and the histories behind the games.

Sometimes those stories were darker and sadder than Karzen thought they’d be.

The McClains
Former Manual High School coach Wayne McClain and his son, Sergio

There was Howard Nathan, the 1991 Manual graduate who became the first Mr. Basketball of Illinois from Peoria, played briefly in the NBA, then was partially paralyzed in an automobile accident before dying in July 2019 at age 47. There was Wayne McClain, the longtime Van Scyoc aide who coached Manual to three successive state titles, became a college assistant coach and died in October 2014 at 60 from cancer, which caught even his family by surprise.

There was Marshall Dunnigan Jr., son of a police officer, who played for the 1996 Manual state champ but not long thereafter was shot to death in a classic wrong-place, wrong-time moment. And there was the history of real-estate discrimination that helped turn Peoria’s South End into a seat of crime and segregation.

But there also were plenty of positives.

There were A.J. Guyton and his stepfather Dan Ruffin, player and coach who help form what Karzen called the first family of Peoria High School basketball. There was Shaun Livingston, who overcame a rough early career to lead Peoria High to the 2003 and 2004 Class AA titles, went to the NBA right out of high school and overcame a devastating knee injury to play for three NBA champions with the Golden State Warriors.

There was Oscar Mack, who didn’t become the next great player from Peoria as predicted but seems to have settled into a productive life away from basketball. And there was the long line of successful coaches, including Van Scyoc, McClain, Chuck Buescher and Wayne Hammerton. They administered tough love but respected their players and wanted the best for them.

“The gold mine of stories and information was much greater than I ever expected,” Karzen said.

Of course, many locals already knew much of this, all part of the Peoria sports catechism. As for the broader audience Karzen hopes to reach, its members might be familiar with the “Will it play in Peoria?” vaudeville-era bromide, but they might not realize how well high school basketball has been played in this part of central Illinois.

“For the 15 or so years that I wrote about, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Peoria, Illinois, could look eye to eye with any basketball town in America,” Karzen said. “And that’s pretty amazing for a town of 100,000 people.”

Playgrounds to the Pros: Legends of Peoria Basketball is published by 3 Fields Books, a division of the University of Illinois Press. Karzen is to conduct a book signing at 2 p.m. March 19 at the main branch of the Peoria Public Library, 107 NE Monroe St.

Nick Vlahos

Nick Vlahos

is a longtime Peoria print journalist and a regular contributor to Peoria Magazine.