Inter-Agency Athletic Association returns to Illinois

%22The+Riverside+Resolve+Center+Team%2C%22+which+only+had+five+players%2C+poses+for+a+picture+at+Illinois%27+Activities+and+Recreation+Center+on+March+19+after+earning+their+sportsmanship+medals+at+the+IIAA+Basketball+tournament.+Photo+courtesy+of+Tom+Corr.%26nbsp%3B
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Inter-Agency Athletic Association returns to Illinois

"The Riverside Resolve Center Team," which only had five players, poses for a picture at Illinois' Activities and Recreation Center on March 19 after earning their sportsmanship medals at the IIAA Basketball tournament. Photo courtesy of Tom Corr. 

"The Riverside Resolve Center Team," which only had five players, poses for a picture at Illinois' Activities and Recreation Center on March 19 after earning their sportsmanship medals at the IIAA Basketball tournament. Photo courtesy of Tom Corr. 

"The Riverside Resolve Center Team," which only had five players, poses for a picture at Illinois' Activities and Recreation Center on March 19 after earning their sportsmanship medals at the IIAA Basketball tournament. Photo courtesy of Tom Corr. 

By James Boyd

It’s March and it’s madness. 

This year’s NCAA tournament has already had its fair share of cold-blooded game winners and improbable comebacks, which have busted millions of brackets. But for the Illinois Inter-Agency Athletic Association, this past weekend was simply another opportunity to reward several boys and girls with the opportunity to visit the University of Illinois, and experience a little March Madness of their own.

“We’re the only state that has this,” IIAA executive director Dave Dance said. “(If) these kids would have been in children’s homes in California, Texas, Hawaii, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to play other children’s homes throughout the entire state.”

Making its first visit in December for a volleyball tournament, the IIAA returned to the Activities and Recreation Center on Saturday, and there was no need for a net to separate each court into halves. This time around, the only nets players had to turn their attention to were the ones attached to each rim.

Although the sports were different, one thing remained the same. Fostering good sportsmanship was the main goal of the IIAA and everything else, including winning, was second tier. Just like last time, the IIAA could care less about each participant’s jump shot. It would rather see its players become better people.

Usually when someone walks into gym one of the ARC, their ears are met with bodies hitting the hardwood, squeaking basketball shoes, scattered profanity and the all-but-forgotten “swish” of the net. There are a few light-hearted games, but for the most part, players run up and down the courts, fiercely competing to win games that can garner them nothing more than a few bragging rights. Sportsmanship is an afterthought.

Days before the IIAA arrived on campus, many of these same students were going toe-to-toe to in the campus recreation intramural playoffs. Sportsmanship was something each team had to uphold in order to continue advancing, but except for in a few cases, it was rarely genuine. At the end of the six-week league Campus Recreation, unlike the IIAA, the teams that win only get awards.

“The biggest trophy we give isn’t for first place,” Dance said. “It’s for sportsmanship. And so what I like to say to kids is, ‘What’s sportsmanship to you?’ And you’d be impressed to hear some of the thoughts that come out.”

Dance went on to say that many boys and girls leave an IIAA event with a new found respect for sportsmanship, and he believes that only continued with Saturday’s basketball tournament. Before it even started, Dance pulled the referees aside and made it clear that he wanted them to reciprocate the goals of the IIAA, by using their whistle to ensure a positive sportsmanship environment on their courts.

In a game that featured two of the better teams in the tournament, Mercy Home for Boys and Girls squared off against Abraxas Youth and Family Services. Mercy had just come off a buzzer-beating win against Riverside Resolve Center, and Abraxas entered the game having blown out its previous opponent. At first glance, many may have chosen Abraxas to win because of their length and athleticism, but they were soundly defeated by Mercy — thanks in large part to their point guard Maurice Hurd.

Providing the hot had for his team after struggling against Riverside, Hurd shredded the Abraxas defense with many acrobatic finishes around the rim and a few timely three-pointers.

“I ate some hots chips (in between games). That’s what I needed,” Hurd said with a smile.

Hurd wasn’t too concerned with his individual performance. The IIAA basketball tournament was an opportunity to have some fun and learn how to work with different people. Helping his team get a couple wins was just the icing on the cake.

Mercy head coach Marc Washington was very proud of Hurd calling the 18-year-old, “one of the catalysts on the team.” But reiterated that what he and the rest of the IIAA hope to do for each kid goes far beyond the court.

“We focus a lot on school, behavioral programs, and just life in general because it’s so much bigger than basketball,” Washington said. “They really learn how to balance their emotions and their feelings while they’re out here, so we hope they can use that.”

Washington was one of three Mercy staff member in attendance. Rhonda Murrell was the lone scorekeeper for all of Mercy’s games and Nyah Griffin, cook at the boys’ and girls’ home, served as Mercy’s assistant coach.

On the losing side, Abraxas player Princeton Johnson was not happy with the loss, but found himself looking at the bigger picture. Even though he was held back by a sprained ankle and his team was defeated, the 18-year-old still commended both teams for their efforts and sportsmanship.

“At the end of the day we played hard and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “I would like to do this again and again … I think I will be able to make it back, but that’s if I’m still in rehab. But hopefully I’m not.”

For former executive director Tom Corr, who spent 40 years building the IIAA into what it is today, and his successor Dance, it’s moments like the ones Saturday from kids like Johnson that keep them going. To have a kid understand that their mistakes do not define them, and that they can still go on to do great things is all the two of them could ask for.

“I tell them that we can win a thousand championships and trophies,” Dance said, “But the most important thing is being good people to each other.”

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@RomeovilleKid