Illinois fan favorite Sergio McClain heads to the sidelines

Sergio McClain, a former player on the Illinois basketball team, is now coaching at Parkland College. Wes Anderson

Sergio McClain, a former player on the Illinois basketball team, is now coaching at Parkland College. Wes Anderson

By Jeremy Werner

From the balcony in the Ubben Basketball Complex on a mid-July afternoon, a spectator couldn’t be blamed if he swore a glimpse of the past was running up and down the court. The intensity, the passion and that high-pitched cadence barking direction at his teammates was so similar to a former Illini great.

But after an airballed 3-point attempt, the not-so-trim man with a wrap around his knee labored to stay with the likes of Demetri McCamey and Alex Legion, players 10 years younger.

Then, the elder statesman of the court bumped Legion on a shot attempt, made a no-look pass to stun defenders and leave Calvin Brock wide open for a 15-footer, and, to top it off, drilled two 3-pointers in a row, right in Legion’s face.

The aggression, the attitude. Yep, this must be Sergio McClain.

McClain became a fan favorite for his fiery and cerebral play on the court during his days at Illinois. If a coach could wear a jersey and play with his team, McClain fit the part. It’s no surprise, then, that McClain, 29, took the job as the head basketball coach at Parkland College in April.

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    Coaching is like a gene in the McClain DNA. He and his father, Wayne, helped create a dynasty at Peoria Manual High School in the ’90s. Along with former Illini Marcus Griffin, Jerry Hester and Frank Williams, Sergio won four consecutive state championships at Manual from 1994 to 1997, the last three with his father as head coach. Sergio was named Illinois Mr. Basketball in 1997, while Wayne earned Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1995, ’96 and ’97.

    Wayne, who has been an assistant at Illinois since 2002, said he wasn’t surprised by Sergio’s decision to take the Parkland gig. Sergio was the player/head coach for the Peoria Kings of the American Basketball Association last year. He also volunteered as an assistant at Champaign Central High School during the 2005-06 season.

    “He’s been around coaching throughout his life,” Wayne said. “He was pretty good on the court reading things. It was kind of like having a coach on the court all the time he was out there anyway, so I thought it’d be a natural fit.”

    Sergio said growing up in a “school of basketball” like Manual, you can’t help but get the coaching bug.

    “We’ve been around a good program, back home,” Sergio said. “Peoria is a great place for basketball. … I think more than anything it’s just a love for the game.”

    Sergio will attempt to bring the success he’s had at the high school level and college level – he won two Big Ten titles with Illinois – to another central Illinois campus.

    “That was a situation I thought would benefit me in the future,” Sergio said of taking the Parkland job. “I felt like I could go in and win. It’s a good location, close to the Illinois campus, which kind of gives us an edge over different colleges because we’re next to a legit college campus, so (the players) get that experience even though they’re going to Parkland. It’s just a good city. It’s a basketball city, and if we start winning we can start getting a crowd.”

    With the University campus a few miles away, Sergio doesn’t have to travel far for advice.

    “Dad’s right down the street,” Sergio said. “If I need any help with anything in terms of basketball, I can make a phone call or make a late-night visit home, knowing I have that backup support.”

    But Wayne isn’t about to tell his son what to do. The father knows his son is off to make his own career now.

    “I’m not trying to interfere with him,” Wayne said. “If he wants to talk, I’ll talk to him. Even though I’m a coach, I’m sure he has his own idea of how he wants to do things.”

    Although Sergio said he expects to have a better record than the Cobras’ 12-19 finish last season, he first wants to mold the team attitude to mirror the fire he has inside.

    “That’s one thing I always tell those kids: When you’re playing on the court, you got to work hard every day,” Sergio said. “You got to put in the work because if you’re not in the gym, someone else is.”

    Sergio is still putting his time in at Ubben. He said playing with the Illini allows him to see things he wouldn’t as a coach on the sideline.

    “It’s good that (Sergio) can come in here and run with these guys,” Wayne said. “I think it’s good having a guy like that on the floor because, just like anything, when other people are around I think guys pick up their intensity and they play harder.”

    They better, or Sergio might run right over them.