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.”