GRAND RAPIDS, MINN. - Four thousand hockey fans stuffed into IRA Civic Center on Thursday night didn’t think twice about what they were missing in the sparsely populated gym up the hill.
Alex Illikainen offered 150 or so leftover Grand Rapids High School fans a glimpse at something rare in a town traditionally known for producing exceptional hockey talent: a high-profile basketball recruit.
Illikainen doesn’t own a pair of ice skates. The hockey sticks scattered around his house belong to siblings. The 6-9, 215-pound Class of 2015 basketball standout outgrew hockey at a young age.
In his first varsity basketball game as an eighth-grader, he stole the ball and broke away for a two-handed dunk. In his first start, he recorded a double-double — 22 points, 18 rebounds — against Class 4A Duluth East.
Since then, he’s surpassed 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds — he’s averaging 26 points and 17 rebounds this season — and is on track for school records in both categories.
Breaking traditions and records is attracting national attention to Grand Rapids. High-profile college basketball coaches from around the country are visiting. The family mailbox is full of even more inquiries. The four-star nationally rated power forward has 12 Division I offers, including from Big Ten programs Indiana, Nebraska and the Gophers.
But in some circles, though, Illikainen still would be considered relatively unknown.
“I know hockey had a packed house and we had a modest crowd [Thursday]. It’s hard not to think, ‘Wow, this kid is something special and I wish more people were here to see him,’ ” Grand Rapids basketball coach Dan Elhard said. “I think the regular sports fans don’t know who he is. … But he has something the rest of us don’t.”
‘Big Al,’ everybody’s friend
Seventh hour on Illikainen’s handwritten schedule says “TA for my dad.” Darin Illikainen is a physical education teacher and assistant girls’ hockey coach at Grand Rapids.
But instead of student helping the teacher, it’s dad assisting son on a busy afternoon shootaround, retrieving the ball up to 500 times.
It’s the Illikainens’ hour, and everybody in the school knows center court belongs to them. Father and son don’t talk much. Darin Illikainen instead uses his 6-5 frame and long arms to guard his son while he’s shooting jump shots. The aging knees of the former Minnesota Duluth hockey player, however — who was also a prep football standout at Hermantown — limit how much he defends against his son’s two-handed dunks.
Eighth hour — “study hall” on the schedule — is often spent in the weight room. The extra training has added 10 pounds to Illikainen’s frame this season.
He finds time to study and maintains a 3.4 grade-point average. During Thursday’s advanced algebra class, he was as sharp solving radicals as he is hitting jump shots on the basketball court.
Math teacher Dave Avenson calls Illikainen “Ike,” a nickname adopted from his father. But most people at the school know the guy that ducks under door frames as “Big Al.”
Athletic director Anne Campbell is like many of the students and faculty at Grand Rapids, having rallied around Illikainen’s humble, easygoing, respectful character. On hero day at school, she wore Illikainen’s No. 25 jersey instead of the usual popular Thunderhawks hockey sweater.
“He is everybody’s friend,” Campbell said. “He’s a talented basketball player, but a far better person.”
The first wider glimpse of this talent came in the 2011 Class 3A tournament, when he played as an eighth-grader against Waconia big man and Vanderbilt recruit Shelby Moats at Williams Arena. Illikainen outplayed Moats, a senior at the time. Within months, Illikainen had his first Division I offer from Northern Iowa.
Next summer, Illikainen will get a chance to reach beyond his mostly exclusive Grand Rapids development and training. He is set to play for Minneapolis-based Howard Pulley and travel the country playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League.
“I feel isolated sometimes,” Illikainen said. “A lot of schools still haven’t seen me. But I’m content with what I have. … I go out there every night trying to prove northern Minnesota [basketball] is big and competitive. This summer will be big for me.”
Family’s dual love
One of the memories of Darin Illikainen’s youth consists of his dad taking the kids’ basketballs and puncturing them behind the garage. Hockey was the only sport allowed in their Hermantown home.
The same could have happened to Darin’s own family in Grand Rapids. He converted his basketball-loving wife, Mary, into a hockey fan. Their two oldest daughters play Division I hockey, at Providence and Dartmouth. Their youngest daughter plays for Grand Rapids.
Then there’s Alex. The rapidly growing child played hockey until third grade. A summer basketball camp identified his true love.
“He spent one day at Elhard’s camp and liked it better than a week of hockey camp. I knew then basketball would be his thing,” said Darin, wearing Grand Rapids hockey gear. “I’ve grown to love basketball through him.”
That’s hard for some to believe in Grand Rapids, where the Illikainens are known as a hockey family. It’s even Mary Illikainen’s favorite. At 6 feet, the former Mary Zgonc played college basketball at Minnesota Duluth after starring as a power forward on the 1984 Chisholm Class 1A champions. She coached Alex in sixth-grade basketball, but she still prefers a puck over a ball.
She also likes to remind her son that she’s scored more points in a game. Mary’s highest game was 43. Alex’s is 40.
Illikainen scored 18 points on a quiet night against Pequot Lakes on Thursday. Grand Rapids took advantage of the extra attention Illikainen always attracts and his willingness to pass for an 83-62 victory. The Thunderhawks are 10-4 and seeking a seventh consecutive trip to the state tournament.
“I told Darin, you gotta get the skates off him and get him into basketball shoes,” said Grand Rapids principal Jim Smokrovich, who coached Illikainen for four years of youth basketball. “He’s one of the top recruits to ever come from Grand Rapids. It’s rare to have a top national recruit coming from a hockey town. I wish the community would support him more.”