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PONTIAC — As home to the nation's oldest holiday tournament (at 84 years and counting), Pontiac has been in love with basketball for a while now.

Beginning in June 2016, there will be even more for hoops fanatics to enjoy when the Basketball Museum of Illinois opens in Pontiac's Vermillion Plaza.

The museum is the creation of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, which plans to house its Hall of Fame and offices there.

The museum will use 30,000 of a 90,000-square-foot building formerly home to K-Mart. The City of Pontiac is making TIF funds available to renovate the structure, which is owned by a St. Louis company.

"Pontiac has been very generous and we think this is an ideal location," said Bruce Firchau, the IBCA Hall of Fame and Museum Committee Chairman. "There are four museums already there that are established."

They are the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum and Resource Center, the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum, the Livingston County War Museum and the International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum (to re-open in May).

The IBCA hopes each museum creates foot traffic for the others. Ticket packages good for admission to each museum may become available.

"I think stand alone museums, they have a difficult time," Firchau said. "The more people we can get into the museum and make it interactive, I think it improves our chances of this museum being open for a long time."

Also boosting foot traffic is the IBCA's decision to move its all-star games from Shirk Center in Bloomington to Pontiac, which will host all four games, two for boys and two for girls, on June 13. The tentative schedule is: girls 1A-2A, 1 p.m.; girls 3A-4A, 3 p.m.; boys 1A-2A, 5 p.m. and boys 3A-4A, 7 p.m.  

There is room outside the museum for Gus Macker 3-on-3 tournaments.

In 2007, the IBCA chose Danville as home for the museum, but when those plans fell through in 2013, Pontiac edged Champaign from a group of interested cities including Paris, Effingham, Centralia, Collinsville, Quincy and Springfield.

The June 2016 opening was chosen to coincide with Pontiac's Route 66 Convention. The museum will recognize feats by both genders ranging from junior high to professional basketball.

"On January 2nd, 2012, I had over 40 historians come to Redbird Arena," Firchau said. "We started talking about what we wanted to do."

Their ideas included a museum with a theater, a conference room, a library and a gift shop besides exhibits of memorabilia and displays honoring prominent teams, coaches and players.

"When we open the doors, we will still be a work in progress," admits Firchau, noting fundraising for the museum begins in March although pledges for donations are already being accepted.

One company has pledged $250,000, according to Firchau, who is accepting pledges at his email address:

Among the "kickoff" fundraising events will be the Christian Laettner Clinic at Pontiac June 5-7. Another project is a patio where individuals or teams can "buy" a brick adorned with their names.

Much memorabilia has been gathered, including a 1920 state championship game ball, but more is needed. Those wishing to donate items should email Firchau. He also wants to hear from those wishing to become museum volunteers or interns.

Museum goers will be able to watch filmed interviews with notable personalities. Firchau has collected 37 "oral histories" so far. Among them is an interview with George Latham, who coached Quincy when it lost to tiny Hebron in the 1952 state final.

"George was 99 when we did the interview," Firchau said. "His mind is as sharp as a tack. He had instant recall.

"What a shame I did not get (former Michigan coach and Taylorville native) Johnny Orr before he passed away (in 2013). We didn’t get Chuck Rolinski either."

The longtime executive director of the IBCA, Rolinski died last September. Firchau said a display honoring Rolinski will be among the first things museum goers see.

Patrons also will hear famed radio broadcaster Art Kimball call a 1957 conference final between Serena and Harding junior high schools.

The museum hopes to acquire photos of all 740 Illinois high school gyms still in use. More than 100 have been gathered so far.

"When people come to the museum, we want them to be overwhelmed with nostalgia," Firchau said. "They want to hear the shoes squeaking and smell the popcorn."

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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