By Steve Robinson | January 2, 2021 - 1:24 pm

On what should have been semifinal day of the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament, also known to folks in the area as The Classic, Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus should have been bustling with activity: Players and coaches getting ready for or taking part in contests to get one step closer to possibly getting to a championship; Bleachers and the corridors outside the area teaming with fans; Special Olympics basketball players, coaches, and family members at the lower level basketball courts gearing up for another annual Ron Knisley Memorial Tournament.

But no thanks to a pandemic we have all been experiencing since March, the main gym, named in honor of former IWU head men’s basketball coach, Dennie Bridges, although lit, was silent. The practice courts just outside the big gym was silent and dark, one of the courts was even being used to store exercise equipment.

But this year, although the pandemic nixed the basketball action we have all come to anticipate and be thrilled by, if you went to one of the storage areas near the parking lot adjacent to the facility, there was plenty of activity on what would have been the event’s third day. That was because on Tuesday, Dec. 29, in what would have been the midst of the 42nd annual event, Holiday Tournament organizers held a canned food drive to benefit Midwest Food Bank. Basketball fans and residents are encouraged to stop by and bring canned goods and non-perishable food items for donation.

And from the look of the utility room Tournament organizers used for storage during the five-hour afternoon event, the public, including some teams who would normally find themselves on the hardwood that day, came through with plenty of donations. I don’t have a final total for you here, but I will get one and update you in a future column.

“It’s been a steady stream of cars all day,” explained Chris Highland, a member of the tournament’s organizing committee who coordinated the food drive. The food drive was born out of a suggestion one of its board members, Kraig Komnick, proposed the idea for the event to directors of the Midwest Food Bank.

By the time I got to the event, about 90 minutes into it, officials, some teams, and volunteers who would normally spend all or part of the tournament either keeping game scorebooks or doing public address announcing work had come by with donations to, what looked to me, to be a fairly full room to benefit others. “We’ve seen a lot of familiar faces come through and drop off donations,” explained Mike Wilkinson, a volunteer who serves as finance chair for the Tournament.

In August, when it was clear the pandemic was going to prevent The Classic from taking place, Wilkinson said, “When it was clear we weren’t going to have a basketball tournament, Chris reached out to some of us who have been active in helping and asked what we thought about doing something to benefit someone.

From there, the idea came for a canned food drive.” A few meetings in November followed, Wilkinson said. At that point, Wilkinson approached the other schools which host other games within the tournament to also collect canned goods. Those schools were Normal Community High School, Normal Community West High School, and Bloomington High School. He said a subcommittee of seven Tournament Committee members helped set up the event, which included organizing and doing publicity to get the word out about the one-day drive. He said he was aware to expect deliveries from Normal Community High School and Bloomington Central Catholic High School during the drive that day, so the kids didn’t want to be left out of action, even if that action wasn’t on the court.

I wasn’t able to catch up with either Unit 5-based school’s teams at this event. But being local “and wanting to do something with the girls” were motivating factors for Bloomington Central Catholic High School to join the Normal schools in donating to the cause explain Debbie Coffman, head girls’ basketball coach at BCC. Lady Saints team members always try to do a service project during the season, but COVID-19 has prevented that from being done, so donating to the Food Bank via the Tournament was the next best thing, Coffman said.

“The kids and their parents collected all their food on a Friday night and we were able to donate it today,” Coffman said, adding their donations filled an SUV. Coffman’s last two years at The Classic have been memorable, having won the championship two years ago and finishing fifth last year.

I asked Wilkinson if seeking donations for Midwest Food Bank could become a regular feature of the Tournament in the future. “It probably will in some form or fashion,” he said. “We have talked about doing something.” He said “something” in past years led to the Ron Knisley Special Olympics Tournament and the annual silent auction, both of which have become integral components of the larger tourney itself. Discussions concerning the future of the food drive are in early stages, Wilkinson explained.

Wilkinson, when he isn’t working or doing volunteer work for the Tournament, said he also gives of his time to volunteer at the food bank, as well.

Tournament organizers have adapted and added items to the roster of side events during the tournament. Here’s hoping the food drive soon finds itself among those extra features in the future, as it will prove beneficial, not just to those folks Midwest Food Bank serves but to those players, coaches, and fans who give of themselves by donating to it.

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