How Elk Grove firm's basketball courts made it to NCAA tournament
Players in Saturday's Final Four in Indianapolis may very well be re-creating the scene in the classic sports film "Hoosiers," where an underdog Indiana high school basketball team walks onto the state championship court, overcome by the enormity of the empty stadium that will be filled hours later by thousands of screaming fans.
Their coach, played by Gene Hackman, pulls out a tape measure and assures his players that the court's measurements are the same as those of their small high school gym.
How the Final Four court is madeSeptember 2014: Students from Forest Park School District in Michigan's Upper Peninsula watch as the first maple tree for the court is cut down. Other trees from Menomonee tribal and Timber Products Co. forests are also cut down.
Fall 2014: Workers at a saw mill remove bark from the trees, cut them into 6-foot planks, and send the product to Connor Sports' manufacturing plant in Amasa, Michigan.
Winter 2014-2015: The boards are processed into flooring, with shock-absorbing subfloor padding attached. The boards are cut into 4-by-7-foot and 4-by-4-foot panels, supported by steel channels that can be locked together in final assembly.
February: The panels are stacked and shipped to United Services in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where the floor is stained and logos painted.
March 16: The floor departs by truck on a cross-country trip, making promotional stops along the way at schools and businesses.
March 27: It arrives in Indianapolis and is installed at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Source: Connor Sports
The NCAA men's national semifinals Saturday and championship game Monday are similarly being played in a much bigger venue than players are used to: Lucas Oil Stadium, which in fact, is a football stadium with room for 70,000 fans.
But crews from Elk Grove Village-based Connor Sports, the maple hardwood court's manufacturer, had out tape measures of their own last week as they installed the court in advance of this weekend's big games.
Connor Sports has been making basketball courts for the NCAA men's and women's Final Four and regional round sites since 2005. This year, the company supplied about 20 courts for all rounds of the men's and women's tournaments, except the first round of the women's tournament, when host school home courts were used.
"March Madness gets everybody excited around here," said Jon Isaacs, Connor's vice president and general manager. "It makes us feel like we're on top of the world."
More than six months' worth of preparation goes into the creation and manufacture of the Final Four court, starting with the selection of just the right maple trees from the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. That occurred last summer, with dozens of trees purchased from at least three different forests.
While the design and sale of the courts takes place at Connor's Elk Grove office, the floor is made at the company's plant in Amasa, Michigan. The firm contracts with other manufacturers to stain the courts and paint logos.
Before the Final Four court was installed at Lucas Oil Stadium, it made its way across the country in stacked 4-by-7-foot and 4-by-4-foot panel pieces, from a Connor dealer plant in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where it was stained and painted. One court is made up of 250 panels, weighing a total of 60,000 pounds. It took a large semitrailer truck and a smaller truck to haul them from Idaho to Indiana.
An average basketball court at Connor sells for $100,000; indeed, most of the company's business is with schools, park districts and churches. But the NCAA Final Four court is $50,000 more because it is larger, with extra room on the sidelines and baselines for NCAA branding and logos.
Crews also had to install the floor on a 3-foot raised platform, designed in such a way as to have better sight lines in what otherwise is a football stadium. It took 10 people about two hours to install the court.
"It interlocks like a puzzle, but it plays like a permanent court," Isaacs said.
This year's court features a black and red color scheme and a large Final Four center court logo meant to resemble the lanes of the Indianapolis 500, Isaacs said. Much of the court has a darker brown stain than the basic stain found inside the two three-point circles. The NCAA's original design proposed a largely gray court, until officials decided to go with the more traditional look, Isaacs said.
Appearance can become a major consideration. For example, Connor manufactured the University of Oregon's court, known for its pattern of tall fir trees surrounding center court -- meant to give Oregon players a home court advantage. "The floor painting was so elaborate, it cost more than the court itself," Isaacs said.
And because of use of unique courts in the professional and college basketball ranks -- and the national television exposure they receive -- more and more high schools are asking for similar stain patterns on their courts.
"It was standard (courts), and now people are getting creative," Isaacs said.
Prospective clients come to the company's Elk Grove design and performance center, where they can dribble basketballs to test various floor products. Locally, Connor has installed courts for Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, Hoffman Estates and West Chicago park districts, and DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern and Illinois. The firm also manufactures synthetic surfaces for field houses and running tracks, such as the one at North Central College in Naperville.
Isaacs said the company produces some 700 courts a year -- from colleges to the NBA, and is increasingly doing business around the world, selling in China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Connor made courts for the 2004 Olympic Games, and Isaacs hopes they'll get a chance to bid for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
After the championship game Monday night, the winning team gets to cut down the nets, but they'll also get the chance to take home the court. Under Connor's deal with the NCAA, the winning school has the right of first refusal to purchase the court. Often, schools will sell pieces to fans and alumni as mementos, Isaacs said.
The only winning school in the last 10 years not to do that was the University of Connecticut last year, he said.
About 15 employees from the Elk Grove office plan to head down to Indianapolis to watch this weekend's games on the court they helped design and sell.
"It's about building (the NCAA's) brand, while we're also building our brand," Isaacs said.