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New book offers a closer look into legendary era of Peoria basketball

In his new book "Playgrounds to the Pros: Legends of Peoria Basketball," author Jeff Karzen tells behind-the-scenes stories of the players, coaches, families and friendships that shaped the city's era of excellence dating back to the 1980s.
Joe Deacon
In his new book "Playgrounds to the Pros: Legends of Peoria Basketball," author Jeff Karzen tells behind-the-scenes stories of the players, coaches, families and friendships that shaped the city's era of excellence dating back to the 1980s.

Peoria sports fans know what an important role basketball has played in the community.

A hotbed of talent since the 1980s, Peoria has produced several standout players, such as Shaun Livingston, A.J. Guyton, Marcus Griffin, and Sergio McClain – just to name a few.

The city captured six high school state championships – including Manual High’s run of four straight IHSA Class 2A titles from 1994-97 – and boasted four Illinois Mr. Basketball winners.

Jeff Karzen
Jeff Karzen

Author Jeff Karzen felt the River City’s legendary basketball era was worthy of a closer look, prompting his new book “Playgrounds to the Pros.”

“Hearing these names and these legends in the town, it just kind of popped in my head that there might be some great stories to tell here that haven't been told before,” said Karzen. “That was my aim all along, was to tell interesting stories that hadn't been told before and kind of pull the curtain back on some of these great players and coaches and humanize them and tell the behind-the-scenes stuff that the average fan didn't know.”

Karzen said the reason Peoria’s basketball stories resonate with so many people is because the sport is embedded in the community and the culture.

“Beyond it being important in Peoria, there were things that kind of cultivated the excellence and the winning and the made it more part of the culture. One interesting thing, I thought, was (that) no matter what high school the players were at, they all knew each other, because they got together in the summers,” said Karzen.

“This was pre-internet, so there wasn't like a Facebook post or something like that, but they just knew, ‘we're going to meet at Carver Center at this time,’ or ‘we're going to meet at Proctor Center after that.’ They kind of rode their bikes around to the different venues and sought out the best competition. I think that was really important for cultivating these players into becoming awesome and becoming really good college players and beyond – how they strove to face that top competition in town all day, every day in the summer.”

In his opening chapter, Karzen sets the tone with an account from 1987, when a 6-foot-7 sophomore at Peoria Central named Tom Wilson decided to transfer to Manual in the middle of the season.

“His story, I think, symbolized what Peoria basketball means in town,” said Karzen. “When you talk about a high school player going from one high school to another, and that riles up hundreds of adults, that kind of tells you all you need to know about how important the sport is in this town, that so many people cared about this and had had strong opinions on both sides of it.”

Karzen said the story that stood out to him the most was that of Oscar Mack, a Manual freshman in the fall of 2003.

“He only played one year of high school basketball, but for those that knew basketball in town – including David Booth, who is now one of the top ranking officers for the NBA – they knew that this kid Oscar Mack was going to be the next one,” said Karzen, noting family issues and academic struggles preventing Mack from reaching that potential.

“It's just an interesting (story) to me of how perilous that line is between becoming someone we know who plays for the University of Illinois, for example, and becoming someone who barely played high school basketball,” said Karzen. “I think that that line can be so thin if you grew up in an impoverished community and maybe you don't have the inherent advantages that others do.”

Karzen said one of the players at the forefront of Peoria’s basketball legacy is Howard Nathan Jr., who excelled in two single-season college stints at DePaul and Northeast Louisiana (now Louisiana-Monroe) and had a brief NBA stint with the Atlanta Hawks. Nathan died in July of 2019 at the age of 47.

“When I began this project, it was just a few months after Howard had passed away, so that was a bummer that I didn't get to meet him. But I was in his parents’ living room I think about four months after he died and you could still feel that emotion and like grief; it was really sad,” said Karzen.

“But he's such an important part of, when you talk about Peoria basketball you kind of start that list with Howard Nathan. Even Shaun Livingston, who's spent 15 years in the NBA and won three NBA titles, when he's asked who's the best player to come out of Peoria, he says Howard Nathan still. So that kind of tells you all you need to know about what Howard's name means in your town.”

Karzen said he spent three years on the project, about half the time conducting more than 100 interviews. He said he developed a bond with Peoria’s basketball scene over that time.

“It was such a joy to work on and I really have such a fondness for the community now,” said Karzen. “Seeing the faces multiple times and getting to know the families, it was really special for me.”

Karzen will be in Peoria to sign copies of his book at Friday night's Manual game against Urbana, and next Tuesday's rivalry matchup between Manual and Peoria High.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.