RANTOUL — James Aaron worked for the Los Angeles Lakers when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were starting with the team.  Aarron is no Bryant or O’Neal, but he has enjoyed playing basketball as it showed on Saturday when he won the 40-and-over three-point contest at the 2019 Underdog Classic.

“By 1997 I worked for the Lakers for three years,” Aaron said. “I know a lot of people in the league still. It’s basketball, which I’ve done all my life. I moved back to Rantoul because I missed my family.”

Contestants of all ages showed their basketball skills in the 2019 Underdog Classic held at Rantoul Township High School.

The shooting contests were separated into age and gender groups. The youngest category started from third-grade, and the oldest category were contestants who were 40-plus years old.

The event was free, but there was a $5 donation request for those who played.  Twenty-five participants pre-registered for the event. At the end of the event, about $200 had been donated.

Kevin Williams sponsored the classic.

“The $5 is just to help offset the cost of the referees, the trainers, the athletic trainers and the janitors that we have to pay for out here,” Williams said.

The event also featured a Round Robin basketball tournament that included four local teams: the Champaign Heat, the Academy of Champaign, First Level Underdogs and Harvey Angels.

Williams is the coach of the Underdogs, which consists of nine Rantoul freshmen, one Rantoul sophomore and one freshman from Fisher.

“This was my first time ever time putting a team together,” Williams said. “We just wanted to come home and let everybody see us do something.”

 TITLE GAME

The contests started at 8 a.m. Those who advanced to the finals in their category competed during the halftime of the Round Robin basketball championship game between the Champaign Heat and The Academy later in the evening. Those who won in the finals were awarded medals.

Talon Hardin was the winner of the after-school division of the contest after making 8 out of 12 shots. Hardin plays college basketball at Rockford University. 

For Hardin, the event was an opportunity to have fun while he came back to Rantoul during the summer.

“I think it’s good for the community,” Hardin said.  “It’s good for people to support the Rantoul kids and to see them play.”

The Champaign Heat beat the Academy of Champaign 61-39 in the Round Robin championship. All players on the Champaign Heat were given medals.

The team is mostly made up of freshmen students from the central Illinois area.

“My players are spread out all the way from as far south as Mattoon and as far as north as Rantoul,” Champaign Heat coach Kharis Gordon said. “We have Jimmy Nixon, who is one of the starring players. He’s been with me since sixth grade. He’s a stud athlete and a great student in class.”

Participating in the Underdog Classic means a lot to Gordon as it gives his team a chance to contribute to the community and support Rantoul. Gordon has coaqched in the community since 2005. He has a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Illinois.

“Around here in central Illinois it can be hard to get access to gyms and do things for the community,” Gordon said. “When they asked me to do this and they were able to get Rantoul, I definitely had to come out and support the city.”

Contact Ben Theobald at btheobald@rantoulpress.