After 30 years of tricks, central Minnesota’s performance basketball team dazzling its final crowds
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. - The Alexandria Aces were coming off the Williams Arena floor at the University of Minnesota on Dec. 11 to a standing ovation from the Gophers crowd.
The Aces have become household names at The Barn by performing 50 halftime shows there over the course of 27 consecutive years. This one, though, held special significance due to the fact that run was coming to an end during that men’s game against North Florida.
The Aces, a performance basketball team from Alexandria comprised of boys and girls ages 5-12, are in their 30th season, but this will be their last. The program is in the midst of its farewell tour as it once again travels all over the country to some of the biggest men’s and women’s basketball venues on the college and professional levels.
“After this long, it’s OK for me to be done with it,” Aces founder and head coach Larry Novotny said. “As far as the program itself, I hate to see the kids not experience these incredible things they’ve been able to see and do. On the other hand, they’re so busy that you don’t want to burn them out and take away their love of the game. With the numbers down, it’s just something that can’t sustain itself anymore.”
Novotny writes a script that he reads to the crowd at their performances. He admits that the words he wrote to speak to the Gophers crowd carried some extra emotions. He had about 30 different people approach him that night telling him the Aces can’t end.
“We’ve been there a lot and hopefully been a part of Williams Arena’s history to a degree,” he said. “The crowds there are always so awesome to us.”
As the kids came off the raised court for the last time, Novotny was pulled aside for a short surprise ceremony where he was brought to center court and given a Gophers basketball inscribed from coach Richard Pitino thanking the Aces for a great career.
“That was nice,” Novotny said. “Definitely not necessary because it’s the kids who bring the crowds to their feet. At the same time, it’s something I’ll always cherish.”
The Aces got their start by performing at smaller venues around central Minnesota.
At that point, Novotny was starting from scratch with the skills that the kids would eventually learn. It started with being able to spin a basketball on their finger. Soon, they were performing ball-handling feats that have since left millions of fans shaking their heads in amazement.
As the Aces grew in notoriety on a national level, so too did their interest among kids who wanted to be part of the program. They had to limit the kids on the team to about 15 each season. More than that would often try out each fall, which led to the toughest part of Novotny’s job in having to cut some who were talented enough in their own right. In recent years, that hasn’t been as much of an issue with the dwindling number of kids trying out.
“Three years ago, we had 38 try out,” Novotny said. “Two years ago we had 12, the last two years we’ve had one and zero try out.”
This year’s team is comprised of seven kids total who are back for the final season. Novotny believes the drop in numbers is a product of the increasingly busy lifestyles that young families have now with traveling basketball teams taking shape at younger ages.
“When we started this, there were no traveling teams in elementary,” he said. “Now, they’re starting in third grade with traveling teams. They play weekends and parents are busy with the kids doing that. If you have more than one kid, it’s busier yet.”
Novotny said all the kids who came through this program are the ones who made the Aces reach such huge heights.
They have performed for millions of fans at some of the most popular sporting venues in the country. Stops have included NBA playoff and NCAA Tournament games. Their basketball tricks have included spinning up to 12 basketballs at once, doing somersaults or cartwheels while spinning the ball, along with synchronized dribbling of multiple balls at once.
Novotny said the Aces were never all about basketball. His goal for each child who came through the program was to build self confidence, to achieve things they might have thought impossible at the start.
“They learn to set goals and achieve them without putting barriers in their way,” Novotny said. “They can see things that are nearly impossible to other people and really accomplish it.”
Alexandria’s Brady Swedberg, now an assistant pro at the Geneva Golf Club and head coach for the Alexandria boys golf team, said that building of self confidence with the Aces is something he still remembers. Performing in front of thousands of fans would seem intimidating for many young athletes. For the Aces, that was their reward.
“You learn a lot from the performances and you just kind of develop that self confidence to perform like that,” Swedberg said. “Then it’s just being around a team and traveling, you learn the team aspect, like you do in a lot of other sports. You learn it’s not always about yourself.”
Going out with a bang
This year’s version of the Aces might be small, but they are still wowing crowds at big venues during their final act.
Stops this season include men’s basketball games between once top-ranked Kansas at Iowa State and third-ranked Tennessee at Florida.
There are two more shows in Alexandria. The Aces will perform at the girls basketball game against Willmar on Jan. 22. Then on March 1, they will entertain local fans for the last time at the Alexandria boys basketball game against Willmar. That night is billed as the Aces Extravaganza, where fans will also see the high-flying Fargo-Moorhead Acro Team, along with the Timberwolves Trampoline Dunk Team. The goal is to go out with a bang in front of the community that supported the Aces from the get-go.
“I think it’s a huge sense of pride for Alexandria, the community and the area in general,” Swedberg said. “Anyone who follows sports, specifically basketball, they know who the Aces are and what they do and represent. That’s a huge sense of pride knowing that one of the best, if not the best halftime act in the country, comes from this small town of Alexandria.”
Novotny is hopeful that the Aces can help pack Alexandria Area High School one last time. After so much support over 30 years, it will be a performance that will hold special meaning for many.
“That’s going to be tough for me,” Novotny said. “I’ve been realizing as people have been finding out this is our last year that there’s probably a little more meaning to this community than I understood. It's going to be tough for sure. I mean it to be a celebration, but I’m kind of an emotional guy.”