Reporting Mike Binkley
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. (WCCO) — While many kids spend hours practicing for sports, music or drama teams, one young Minnesota group has a different assignment.
They need to practice spinning a ball on their finger, while doing somersaults — or riding a skateboard.
The Alexandria Aces are grade school-aged kids who bring crowds of basketball fans to their feet. In the past 21 years, they’ve become one of the most popular halftime acts in the nation.
“In 1990, we grabbed 15 kids and started teaching them a few ball handling fundamentals — spinning included — and ended up with this,” said the group’s coach, Dr. Larry Novotny.
The Aces have traveled the country, from sold out NBA arenas like Chicago, Denver and Detroit to some of the top college basketball courts, including Kansas, Maryland and Virginia.
They even made an appearance on the nationally-syndicated Bonnie Hunt TV show.
Basically everything they’ve learned has come from Novotny, who’s a local chiropractor. He was a great ball-handler himself in college (Montana State), and now he leads the Aces in his spare time.
“We don’t let them use the word can’t,” he said, “because it puts up a mental wall of negativity. We want them just to think of positive goals.”
The Aces are kids in fourth to sixth grade, except for Lucas Harstad, 8, who’s there to steal the show. His big moment comes when he stands atop a human pyramid, performing three tricks at once.
“I’m hula hooping, spinning two balls and standing on five people,” said Lucas, proudly.
One of the Aces’ first big breaks came a few years ago when they were performing for the Timberwolves at Target Center. The NBA front office happened to be on hand, and some of the executives were so impressed with the show, they circulated a DVD of the Aces across the league.
“It’s nice to know there’s something really special in this town that’s known, like all over the nation,” said Kendall Kohler, 12, who’s in her third year with the Aces.
The group’s travel expenses are covered by the teams that invite them. Their next big performance is Jan. 31 in Connecticut. They will be the halftime performers at a sold-out game between two of the top three women’s teams: UConn and Duke.
The Aces have turned down overseas invitations from Hong Kong, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, but they’re still considering whether to accept an invitation from the TV show “America’s Got Talent.”
“The kids don’t really understand at this age what’s happening to them, all the places they get to go,” said Novotny. “But when they get to be juniors, seniors in high school — or out of high school — they come back and say ‘I just can’t believe we did that. It was the greatest experience of my life.’”
One former member of the Aces, Kali Peschel, just signed a letter of intent to play basketball for the Iowa Hawkeyes.