Awesome Aces: The start of something special
This is part one of a two-part series on how the Alexandria Aces have turned into one of the best halftime basketball shows of any group in the country. See Friday’s issue of the Echo Press for part two of the series.
Alexandria’s Larry Novotny was a star-struck 18-year-old at Golden Valley Lutheran College with a pretty good handle on the basketball court when Flip Saunders first approached him.
Saunders, a guy with 638 wins as an NBA head coach and now the president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, got his first head coaching job at the small school in 1977. He was looking for guys who could help his team in any way possible when he asked Novotny if he was interested in trying out.
“I said, ‘You have so many all-state guys, I don’t think I will. I’m not that good,’ ” Novotny recalled. “He saw me doing some basketball handling, a little bit of trickery and he said, ‘Why don’t you be on the team and really be our ball handling specialist, not so much for games, but we’ll do a pregame show like we used to do at the [University of Minnesota] under Bill Musselman.’ "
That was a role Novotny was excited to accept. Saunders worked with him to hone his skills, and Novotny worked relentlessly to perfect them. Before he knew it, he was entertaining crowds all across the country with his basketball trickery.
“Through a lot of practice and a lot of prayer, I became pretty good at it,” he said. “That’s how it all started.”
MAKING OF THE ACES
Novotny had no way of knowing how that meeting with Saunders would be the spark that led to a fire for what has become one of the best halftime basketball shows in the country.
The Alexandria Aces, which consists of boys and girls in 4th through 6th grade who wow crowds with their ball-handling skills and trickery, are entering their 24th season this winter under the guidance of Novotny as their coach. The kids have dazzled more than 3 million fans at some of the greatest college and professional venues around the United States and Canada. And all of it stemmed from the simple goal of trying to get local kids to keep a basketball in their hands during the off-season.
Alexandria coaches John Holsten and Tom Vickerman came to Novotny with the hope that he could help do that by teaching young players in the area some of the fun ball-handling skills that he had mastered over the years.
Novotny agreed and the Aces got their start. At that time, he had no idea the kids he was working with could accomplish the kinds of tricks that would be thrown their way.
“I never had a clue it would get this size,” Novotny said. “Not in my wildest dreams. After three years, I was getting a little tired of it actually. Then the kids just got better and better and started doing more things.”
Alexandria’s Derek Swedberg was a part of that inaugural team in 1990. Not one of them had any clue how to spin a basketball on their finger.
“Larry was starting literally from scratch,” Swedberg said. “I remember the first time one kid actually spun it for a minute and that was a huge deal. Now the kids come to tryouts and they have tricks already.”
THE BIG BREAK
By the time Derek’s younger brothers, Brett and Brady, were on the Aces as a 6th grader and a 4th grader a few years later, the program was starting to gain an identity. The Aces were still limited to performing at smaller venues around Central Minnesota, but the kids were getting progressively better as they became more and more excited about the program.
Brady Swedberg was in 1st grade when his brother, Derek, and the Aces got their start. Like a lot of kids who like basketball, it didn’t take him long to fall in love with the idea of someday following in the footsteps of his older brother.
“Honestly, my down time when I was young, I was always in the garage with a basketball in my hands,” Brady said. “Whether I was shooting on the short hoop in the garage or dribbling or spinning the ball. I started when I was in first grade so when I got to be an actual Ace, I was pretty prepared. I really just couldn’t put the basketball down.”
That dedication by many of the kids after the first few years helped the program grow in popularity. By the time the Aces reached their fourth year, they felt ready for a bigger stage. All they needed was a break. It came in the form of a written letter from a confident youngster to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“One of our kids, I remember it being Andrew Sieve, went to a Timberwolves game and said the halftime was horrible,” Novotny said. “So he wrote them a letter and said it stunk and that we can do a much better job. They called me and invited us. We did it, and they got a standing ovation from the crowd.”
NOTHING OUT OF REACH
That letter is a testament to the kind of confidence that grows in the kids from being a member of the Aces. Novotny doesn’t let them use the word “can’t.” If anyone does, the whole team has to run. The end result is a group that believes any trick is possible.
“What’s unique about Larry and the whole program is he brings a confidence level out in these kids that they don’t even know they have,” Alexandria’s Kevin Gorghuber said after having three of his kids go through the program and working closely with the Aces for years “He brings that out in them. I think that’s what is just so fascinating about the whole thing.”
The self-confidence helps to replace fear with focus before each performance. Novotny grades the kids after every show on a scale of 1-10. A ten means a perfect run, something he has awarded only a handful of times over the years.
That’s what they shoot for every night. That and the thrill that comes with working a crowd into a frenzy.
“There was just something about the 15-20 kids in the Aces,” Brady Swedberg said. “It was just so much fun and then to perform in front of sometimes 20,000 people. It’s a rush like you can’t even imagine, having that many people on their feet.”
There was a time when the thought of performing in front of crowds that big would have seemed unimaginable. Now it’s become the norm for a group of kids who continue to defy the logic of what’s possible to do with a basketball in their hands.