One Man. Two Words. A Slam Dunk Legacy.
How Big Dreams and Basketball Sparked Extraordinary Victory
These two words describe one man simply known as “Knis."
Meet Ron Knisley, an avid sports fan who spent a majority of his career working with the not-for-profit organization, Special Olympics Illinois. Through the years, he encouraged students with special needs to play sports, work as a team and ultimately achieve victory.
But Knis didn’t stop there. He wanted Special Olympics athletes to receive the same athletic opportunities and recognition as teens attending local high schools.
Big dreams and basketball
An annual event known as the State Farm Holiday Classic (SFHC), made Knis’ vision a reality.
Since its founding in 1975, the SFHC has grown into one of the largest, annual, coed high school holiday basketball tournaments in the nation. Each year, (between Christmas and New Year’s Day) it welcomes 64 varsity teams to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
In 2002, under Knis’ guidance, the SFHC added a Special Olympics Shootout to its schedule. Played on championship day, the Shootout features basketball teams showcasing their skills while playing the game they love. In its first year, the Shootout started small. Just four local teams took the court. Fans weren’t sure what to expect. As the Shootout began, many left to stretch their legs or visit the concession stand.
But those who stayed witnessed something special…
Photo Credit Jeff Findley
They saw Knis’ dream come alive as Special Olympics athletes took center court, just like the other students. Basketballs thudded the ground, sneakers squeaked on the hardwood floor, and then came the sound…
The swoosh of the net as a basketball glided through it. Then another, and another. The crowd cheered! In that moment the spectators witnessed Knis’ passion and dedication reflected in the athletes’ joyful faces.
A holiday tradition
Since 2002, the Shootout has grown in popularity and participation. It now takes place in front of a packed house filled with thousands of people.
But today, an important part is missing.
Just three years after the Shootout began, doctors diagnosed Knis with an aggressive form of colon cancer. He fought hard to beat the disease, but treatments were unsuccessful. Knis passed away in 2005. To honor the man who made this Special Olympics Shootout a reality, the tournament was renamed:
The Ron Knisley Memorial Shootout, presented by the State Farm Holiday Classic and Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (S.O.A.R.), is still making an impact today. With the assistance of the local S.O.A.R. program, the shootout has grown into a two-day event featuring 16 teams from multiple states.
But Knis’ legacy doesn’t stop there
In addition to the shootout, the State Farm Holiday Classic awards scholarships to graduating seniors. Money received helps cover their college tuition. Scholarship winners are also invited back to the SFHC to officiate shootout games.
Nick Patkunas is a scholarship winner who jumped at the chance to return to the basketball tournament.
“The experience officiating the Shootout is one I’ll never forget," said Patkunas. “I hope future scholarship winners will accept this opportunity.”
For Patkunas, it was also an opportunity to reconnect with Special Olympics athletes - especially a player named Kurt Kinley. “I had already built a wonderful friendship with Kurt through another activity,” Patkunas explained. “His high spirits and energy had me smiling the entire time we were together! He's such a great kid.”
Nearly four decades later, the State Farm Holiday Classic continues to give back – providing ALL athletes the opportunity to play, achieve and be recognized for their accomplishments. After all, that was Knis’ passionately dedicated dream. A dream that became a reality.
Since 1990, the El Paso Gridley (EPG) High School boys’ basketball team has participated in the State Farm Holiday Classic. The team also takes part in an annual community service activity.
Last year, EPG assistant coach Justin Kissinger asked his players if they’d like to watch the Special Opportunities Available in Recreation (S.O.A.R.) teams play basketball. They quickly agreed. EPG players kept the scorebook, worked the clock and cheered for the S.O.A.R athletes from the bleachers. Afterwards, they showed the team some of their favorite basketball drills.
“Our players’ reaction was incredibly positive,” said Kissinger. “As a coach, I wanted my guys to step out of their comfort zone and really connect with the S.O.A.R. players. It’s a great way for them to realize they can use basketball to reach out and touch the lives of others in a positive manner. It’s not all about wins and losses, or how well you played. It’s about making a difference in your life and helping someone else.”
Photo Courtesy Nick Patkunas