Growing up in Moline, Acie Earl remembers tagging along with his father to Stephens Park to watch some pick-up basketball games.
He'd watch intensely as Quad-City area high school legends of the time played.
"All of the best players were there. A couple of times, the Quincy guys, Michael Payne, Bruce Douglas, they came up and it was great just to stand there and watch," Earl said. "It gave a kid a chance to dream."
Earl's dream came true.
Joining Bret Bielema and Thom Cornelis in the 2011 induction class of the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame on May 4, Earl grew from an eager fourth-grader watching his heroes to playing in those pick-up games while working on his own all-state career at Moline High School.
He recalls being challenged by former Rock Island preps Blake Wortham and Devon Binion, who were wrapping up college careers of their own at the time.
"They'd come back and play at Lincoln Park in Rock Island and for me, just getting going in high school, to have a chance to play with those guys was unbelievable," Earl said. "If you wanted to be good, you had to learn when you'd play against guys like that. I'd drive all over the Quad-Cities, playing ball every chance I had."
Basketball led Earl to Iowa, where he was recognized as the Big Ten defensive player of the year, established a league record for blocks and remains the second-leading scorer in Hawkeyes history.
"When I first signed with Iowa, it was a stretch in a lot of people's minds," Earl said. "I wasn't part of the AAU scene, and a lot of people questioned whether I could go there and play, but I fell in love with the campus and the coaches right away."
In 1993, he began a 12-year career in professional basketball as a first-round selection of the Boston Celtics in the NBA Draft.
He played four seasons in the NBA before heading overseas, where his accolades included being named the most valuable player in the Turkish professional league during the 2001-02 season.
A torn Achilles tendon ended Earl's professional career in 2004. Currently living in Iowa City, the father of five instructs personal basketball training sessions through his Venom Sports skills program.
He coaches the freshman boys basketball team at Solon High School and Venom Sports travel teams in the Iowa City area. Earl coached the Venom Sports Girls program to the 2010 national AAU 10U fifth-grade championship.
"I enjoy my time working with kids," Earl said. "I enjoy teaching them the skills it takes to play the game and watching them develop. I guess you could say that I've come full circle. I'm encouraging them to work hard and dream, just like I did."
The Earl family moved to Moline from the south suburbs of Chicago when Acie was in elementary school.
He recalls his father, Acie Earl Sr., talking to the family about the quality of the schools and the good neighborhoods of their new home.
Long before he grew to 6-foot-11, basketball was important.
Every summer, attending basketball camp became a ritual for Earl. In addition to attending camp at Moline, Earl was a regular at the camps run by Cliff Talley at United Township and Duncan Reid at Rock Island.
"I'd go from one camp to the next, from one week to the next, all over town. My dad made sure I could get to as many camps as possible. My dad worked with me and helped me a lot. I couldn't get enough basketball," Earl said.
"I loved being in the gym, and looking back, the instruction I got there was important. I learned a lot at all those camps. I remember going to Talley's camp and Reid's camp and by fifth or sixth grade, those guys knew me and people were starting to ask me where I was going to play in high school."
In Earl's mind, there was never a question.
"I was from Moline, and that was where I was always going to play," he said.
Earl split his time between two coaches during his high school career at Moline, playing on teams coached by Cal Hubbard and Jack DeVilder.
One game into his sophomore season, Earl found himself on the Maroons' varsity roster, and by then the lanky big man already was demonstrating his abilities as a shot blocker.
Earl said Hubbard worked hard to get him invitations to some of the top national summer camps, an opportunity for him to not only further refine his skills but also to compete against players his own size.
"He worked hard to get me into things like the B/C Camp, and from a developmental standpoint, it was what I needed," Earl said. "It helped me become a player."
Hubbard said that development helped prepare Earl well for the future.
"Acie was growing into his body early in his high school career," said Hubbard, who coached Earl through his junior season. "He had some skill. By going to the national camps, it not only showed him areas of his game he needed to work on, but it also gave him confidence in the areas where he could have success."
DeVilder took over the Maroons program in the 1987-88 school year and guided Moline to a 23-4 record during Earl's senior season. Part of an all-senior lineup that included future NFL Draft first-round pick Brad Hopkins in the front court and a backcourt of Keir Bennett, Pat Burke and Paul Rouse, Earl led the Maroons to some memorable feats.
"Coach DeVilder was more of a technician," Earl said. "He held us to a high standard in practice and in games. If we traveled or made a bad pass in a practice, we stopped and worked on it again. He taught me how important the little things were."
A victory over Rock Island and a regular-season sweep of Quincy were among the rewards for that attention to detail.
"When I come home to Moline, people still talk about those games," Earl said. "We played against great competition at Rock Island and United Township and Quincy. We played against some legendary coaches in coach Reid, coach (Jerry) Leggett (at Quincy) and coach (Dick) Van Scyoc (at Peoria Manual). Our senior year ended too soon, but it was a good team and a memorable season."
Worth the wait
Earl signed a letter of intent to continue his career at Iowa, but throughout his recruitment he made one thing perfectly clear to his primary recruiter, then-Hawkeyes assistant Bruce Pearl, and to head coach Tom Davis.
"I wanted to come in and redshirt that first year," Earl said. "Coach Davis thought about it and in the end, we all agreed it was the best thing for me."
Earl was a good fit for the up-tempo, pressing style favored by Davis-coached teams. He played the slot at the back of the press and on offense, he was comfortable in a fast-breaking scheme that allowed him to run the floor and handle the ball at times.
"It was the best possible situation for me," Earl said.
He also found himself surrounded by talent.
During the 1988-89 season, a redshirting Earl shared the practice court with B.J. Armstrong, Roy Marble, Ed Horton, Les Jepsen and Matt Bullard on a daily basis.
"Best possible thing for me. It really allowed me to develop and grow and prepare myself to contribute right away when I stepped on the court the following season," Earl said.
Earl averaged 6.0 points per game as a redshirt freshman as a reserve, then posted scoring averages of 16.3, 19.5 and 16.9 points over the rest of a career that included three NCAA Tournament appearances and a third-place finish in the Big Ten his senior season.
He led the Big Ten in blocks his first three seasons at Iowa and finished his career as the league's career leader with 365 rejections.
Earl blocked 136 more shots than any player to compete for Iowa, and only Marble has finished with more than the 1,779 points Earl scored while wearing an Iowa uniform.
"Ace had the kind of career you hope that every player could have. He put up some nice numbers and was a terrific shot blocker," Davis said. "He impacted the way teams played us, and he improved from one year to the next."
Earl said his time at Iowa taught him to how to train and the value of being a well-rounded, team-oriented player, something he tries to convey to the young players he works with today.
With one eye on his future, there were times when Earl wondered if he should have been more assertive later in his college career.
"Should I have tried to be a more dominant, traditional center or should I continue to be the versatile player I had become? I wrestled with that, but in the end I think being a team-oriented guy helped me," Earl said.
It gave him a chance to continue his career in the NBA, selected with the 19th pick of the 1993 draft by a team that was a rival of his favorite team.
"I grew up a Lakers fan, but I had an uncle (Glen Earl) who was a huge Celtics fan, and he predicted it all along that Boston was going to take me," Earl said. "He was right, but the irony of the situation was that it was at a time when they were in a rebuilding stage, and I'm not sure they ever really knew what type of a center they wanted me to be. It was frustrating."
The sixth Quad-Citian to be selected in the NBA Draft, Earl was selected by Toronto in the 1995 expansion draft, and he welcomed the change.
"Coach Davis' system was predicated on things that I could do, where the people at Boston wanted me to do things I wasn't capable of doing," Earl said. "They did teach me professionalism, though, and that gave me the chance to have a good, long career in pro basketball. I'll always be grateful for that."
Earl's greatest game in the NBA came for the Raptors on April 12, 1996, when he scored 40 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a loss to the Celtics.
He was traded to the Bucks in 1997 and after being waived by that organization late that year, Earl found success overseas.
Over the next eight years, he played professionally in France, Spain, Australia, China, Turkey, Russia, Austria, Serbia/Montenegro and Croatia. He was named as the top foreign player in 1999 in China, earned league MVP honors in Turkey in 2001 and was a playoff MVP in Kosovo in 2003.
"I've been blessed to have the experiences I have had. Basketball has taken me around the world," Earl said.
To the bench
Although a torn Achilles tendon suffered during the first week of the 2004 season in Croatia effectively ended Earl's playing career, it also opened up other opportunities.
He has worked as both a head coach and assistant for multiple minor-league basketball organizations, assignments that have taken him to places such as Tijuana, Mexico; Rockford, Ill., and Cleveland, and regionally, he has hosted camps and worked as a personal trainer for young boys and girls.
Since the fall of 2006, he has coached the freshman boys basketball team at Solon High School near Iowa City, and through his Venom Sports program, he organizes and operates traveling basketball teams for youths in the Iowa City area.
"I've enjoyed my time at Solon. We've had a number of great athletes come through there - Division I football, basketball and baseball players - and I've really liked working with those young men," Earl said. "It's been a great experience for me."
His Venom Sports program has introduced the travel team concept to youth players in the Iowa City area, beginning with girls teams and evolving recently to boys teams.
As the father of five children - ranging from current Iowa junior Kendra to sixth-grader Kenya and three under the age of 8, Keonna, Kacie and Kareem - Earl works to make the travel team experience affordable.
"A lot of teams will charge $800 to $1,500 while we're charging $400 to make it affordable for people. The money covers gear and expenses. I don't draw a salary out of it. I just enjoy working with the kids, teaching them the lessons of life," Earl said.
"We teach more than basketball. We teach them to be on time, to be accountable to their teammates, those types of things. It's been a good way for me to give back."