Museum piece: Soldiering on toward an IBCA hall of fame

A couple weeks ago we reported on the annual Fox Valley Basketball Reunion retired Batavia boys basketball coach Jim Roberts puts together.

In the crowd was Bob Ward, the former Wheaton North and St. Francis coach who still does a little bit of coaching with the Wheaton North girls, and Bruce Firchau, retired from Westminster Christian with coaching experience at several other schools including Dundee-Crown.

Respectively, they’re the executive director and the president of the Basketball Museum of Illinois, located in the Wintrust Sports Complex at Bedford Park, about a mile from Midway Airport.

The museum is coming along.

On April 30, 2021, Bedford Park officials signed an agreement for the Basketball Museum, a subsidiary of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, to be at the 125,000-square foot space. The building was a $36 million construction.

“It’s been an unbelievable last two years,” said Ward, who says the museum is in its Phase I of branding and hosting events like a “Rivalry Night” last October with “old Catholic League guys” from Weber and Gordon Tech, and a video message from Weber graduate Mike Krzyzewski, the retired Duke coach.

Between November 2021-22 the museum had 240,000 visitors, Firchau said. Ward said the 2023 number was similar.

The museum enjoys a more promising position than a few years ago when funding fell short for a space in an old Kmart in Pontiac. People north of Interstate 80 weren’t interested in funding it, Firchau said.

Danville initially was proposed for its home. Centralia, Champaign, Collinsville, Paris, and Quincy also were considered.

The Bedford Park building houses two conference rooms, rooms for laser tag and other gaming options, a grill, and a huge gymnasium that contains nine basketball courts that can also be used for other sports and events.

Ward said a youth volleyball tournament just last weekend had 100 teams there playing on 17 courts.

So far museum exhibits in the Wintrust space include ones highlighting the 1952 Hebron boys state champions, the 1963 Loyola University Ramblers, IBCA organizer Chuck Rolinski and a three-section display on Title IX that features former Fremd girls coach Carol Plodzien.

A display featuring Fremd's first girls basketball coach, Carol Plodzien, who led Fremd to third place in the first girls state series in 1977, is part of a Title IX exhibit at the Basketball Museum. Courtesy of Bannerville

Over the past two years the museum has offered special events both in-house and “satellite” displays around the state — and one in Cape Coral, Florida, which Firchau said attracted former Chicago White Sox manager Gene Lamont.

Phase II would be a further indoor buildout, which Ward hopes will happen within the next six months. A capital campaign would follow.

Goals for the future include a theater, an event center, memorabilia displays, workshops and seminars. The “cathedral” of it all would be the IBCA Hall of Fame, Ward said, quoting Firchau’s description.

When that time comes, Firchau can unveil some of the 90 oral histories he’s recorded, including interviews with Plodzien, Mary Fendley (Hersey), Ann Penstone (Buffalo Grove) and Jean Walker (Prospect).

“Some of those first oral histories we did were with some of the pioneering ladies after Title IX came into effect,” Firchau said.

Like the Basketball Museum itself, the ladies are still fighting that good fight.

“This museum has been a dream of the coaches, players and fans in Illinois for many years and we feel it coming to fruition,” Ward said.

West Chicago girls basketball coach Mark Fitzgerald flexes his new Wildcat tattoo, the deal he made with his team if they won 20 games last season. Artist Josh Albers, left, of Noodles Tattoo Studio in Warrenville, did the work. Courtesy of Mark Fitzgerald

A deal is a deal

Mark Fitzgerald is a man of his word.

Before the 2022-23 girls basketball season the West Chicago coach told his team he’d get a tattoo if they won 20 games.

That didn’t happen. The Wildcats were a few wins short, finishing 17-15.

Fitzgerald repeated his bargain before this season. He happily was on pins and needles as the Wildcats finished 23-8, the program’s first 20-win season since Kim Wallner’s 2006-07 squad went 23-7.

“You make a promise, you’ve got to deliver,” Fitzgerald said.

On March 22, bringing his wife Mary for support, Fitzgerald visited Noodles Tattoo Studio in Warrenville, where tattoo artist Josh Albers tattooed West Chicago’s official Wildcat logo on Fitzgerald’s right shoulder.

“It was surreal, to be honest with you. But it’s done now,” Fitzgerald said.

The 66-year-old is not a tattoo person. Though he’s got three children all with tattoos, the Wildcat was his first and probably his last.

Noodles came on recommendation by Gabbie Pawlowski, a player on Fitzgerald’s Class 1A fourth-place 2011-12 Aurora Central Catholic team.

Still, in an email prior to the job, Fitzgerald noted that his mother would be “turning in her grave.”

He likes that the tattoo represents a coaching retrospective. His first coaching job was with the eighth-grade boys basketball team at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Winfield, also the Wildcats.

The moral?

“Be careful what you ask for,” Fitzgerald said.

“No, I’m just super-proud of the kids, that they accomplished what they did. It’s worth it to me to do that.”

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