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Earliest memories are the best

To borrow a phrase from ADA Jack McCoy from one of my favorite episodes of “Law & Order,” life is a funny old dog.
That sentiment applies to so many different aspects of my life these days, not the least of which is the fact that I’m writing these very words, sitting at the same desk in the NewsTribune office in La Salle that I occupied 30 years ago. My journalistic travels have brought me full circle professionally, and as it turns out at an extremely interesting time for me personally.
My alma mater, La Salle-Peru High School, not long ago announced its Hall of Honor Class of 2020. The list of those to be introduced before L-P’s game with Ottawa this Friday and be inducted at a ceremony in the auditorium on Saturday includes a lot of athletes that I have long admired greatly and consider friends.
There’s Sue Edgcomb Marshall, one of the first Lady Cavaliers sports stars from the year ahead of my own class of 1976; football and basketball star brothers Gary Windy and Robert “Bo” Windy; the 2008 volleyball club coached by another friend Mark Haberkorn; and the 1978 football team, a squad that boasts many of my longtime friends and schoolmates. Congratulations to you all.
But the name that really leapt out at me was Dr. Gary Novak.
Some of the details have gone hazy on me over the years, but I do know that growing up in Peru, with two older sisters attending L-P, Cavaliers sports were the be-all, end-all for my pre-teen self.
I think it started with the exploits of Gary Windy and company in football around 1967, before he and teammates carried that onto the hardwood. Led by coach Don Stanton, defeated Danville Schlarman to reach the IHSA state basketball finals at the Assembly Hall in Champaign for the first time in school history.
I also remember watching on our old black-and-white set turned to Channel 13 (the station usually reserved for a stationary camera gliding back and forth to show the time, temperature and barometric pressure in the area. Sadly, the Cavs lost to DeKalb in the quarterfinals.
But then came Novak. I learned his Cinderella story of rising from a B team player as a freshman to starter as a sophomore to, thanks to a growth spurt that would leave him at 6-foot-7, all-state honors his senior year.
His experience was a beacon to me and those like me. There was nothing in my genetic code that suggested I might grow to that size, but still it was hope. If he could do it, maybe I could, too.
I would hound my sisters daily wanting to know if they’d seen him in the halls between classes, looking for any tidbit of information about the biggest celebrity in my small world that I could repeat and be more like him.
And what a senior year it was for Novak. The Cavaliers, now under head coach Jack Margenthaler (who would later by my PE teacher and tennis coach), went to Champaign again after beating Danville in the supersectional.
There was a parade through both towns organized to send the team off before their Friday quarterfinal game and, because we lived on Fifth Street in Peru just off Peoria Street, it passed very near our house.
Being a budding artist as well, I had managed to draw a portrait of Novak and on that day, ran up to the convertible he was riding in and handed it to him.
I was on Cloud Nine.
Again, sadly, the Cavs lost to East Moline, 68-66, in their next game, but it was clinched that basketball would be my passion for years to come and the Cavaliers would remain my heroes, particularly Novak. I watched ojn national television as he and his Notre Dame teammate ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak in South Bend. And instead of pursuing a career in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he opted for medicine and is to this day a very successful internist in the Chicago area.
From that time on, I reveled in the days that those state stars would come back and in the summer play pickup games on the asphalt courts outside Washington School. When I got to L-P myself, my closest friends were always the hoops players and we spent countless nights playing at the Washington courts or at a basketball hoop hanging in the alley behind Shea’s Cleaners in La Salle.
And they retained my admiration for them when I became a sports writer. As the newbie at the News Trib, I was never allowed to cover L-P home games, but eventually when I gained experience, I was granted that privilege and it’s one I’ve cherish to this very day.
Sure, I’ve encountered many great athletes in my lengthy time as a sports writer, some local legends, some statewide heroes and even some professional Hall of Famers.
But those memories, the ones ingrained in me as an optimistic youth, are the ones that will stay in this graying head, fuzzy details or not, for the rest of my days.

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