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The State Farm Holiday Classic began its four-day, 128-game blitz Tuesday, testing the resolve of the most crazed basketball fan. By the time it ends Friday night, we will have witnessed blowouts, frantic finishes and everything in between.

Traditionally, the highs overshadow the lows, but getting there can be a grind. Billed as "The Best Basketball This Side of March," there is a moment “ normally on the final day “ when you wonder if the tournament will end by March.

Or April, or ¦

Yet, just as the eyes reach a full blur, and the games become a jumbled mess, there is a heart-warming renewal, reminding us why we once played, why so many still do.

The past three years, the championship games at Shirk Center have been enhanced by basketball at its purest, courtesy of athletes who take none of it for granted “ the uniforms, teammates, coaches, officials and, most of all, the large crowd.

Halftimes of three title games feature area Special Olympic teams playing eight-minute exhibitions, each filled with energy, enthusiasm and inspiration.

It is routine to see a basket rewarded with a smile and a high-five ¦ from an opponent. Players dance up the court in celebration of a 2-0 lead, delighting 2,500-plus fans suddenly in no hurry for a bag of popcorn, or a trip to the restroom.

They love the spirit, joy and camaraderie before them.

Ron Knisley loved it, too, arguably more than anyone.

He loved it enough to make his living as Director of Sports and Competition for Normal-based Special Olympics Illinois.

Knisley loved it so much, he convinced his fellow Classic Tournament, Inc., Committee members to add Special Olympians to the event, sought out the participating teams each year, and scheduled when each would get to experience "center court."

The logistics are being handled by someone else this year, but the games will go on. Consider it a well-deserved victory for Knisley, who died of cancer on Oct. 13 at age 52.

Six area teams will continue to participate each year in what has been renamed the Ron Knisley Memorial Special Olympics Shootout.

"(The Special Olympics exhibitions) always bring a tear to my eye. I'm sure this year will be even more emotional," said Dan Highland, president of Classic Tournament, Inc. "To know Ron's not there will be difficult. He was a close friend and he was such an advocate for Special Olympians and their games."

Members of Knisley's family and some of his former co-workers will be in attendance.

Tracy Hilliard, Special Olympics Illinois vice president of Sports Training & Competition, said renaming the event "would be very humbling" to Knisley, calling it "a testament to how well-respected Ron was within the Bloomington-Normal sports arena and to his dedication to Special Olympics."

His impact is a reminder not all heroes make the final shot, or catch the winning touchdown pass. Some provide opportunities for others and step away from the spotlight, smiling on the inside.

Classic Tournament, Inc., vice president Dave Oloffson expects to feel Knisley's presence Friday when Special Olympians play during halftime of the girls Class A (4:30 p.m. tipoff), boys Class A (6 p.m.) and girls Class AA (7:30 p.m.) championship games.

"He's going to be up there watching and smiling, and he'll know we're doing this because of him," Oloffson said. "People stay (in their seats) because they know it is coming and they want to watch it. That's the best feeling.

"A lot of us never had a chance to play on a court in front of so many people. These kids are getting that chance."

Knisley made sure of it, creating a legacy to be enjoyed by players, fans, tournament officials ¦ even drained and jaded sportswriters.



Randy Kindred is a Pantagraph columnist. To leave him a voice mail, call 820-3402, By e-mail: rkindredyayaypantagraph .


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