Evanston’s basketball team hopes to have the biggest presence — and the biggest trophy — when the Class 4A Illinois High School Association state tournament is held this weekend in Peoria.

But Wildkit fans who are unable to make the trip to Central Illinois can still make an “Evanston connection” if they watch the television broadcast of the semifinal and final round games Friday and Saturday.

Evanston coaches Mike Ellis and Brittanny Johnson, along with Louis Lesmond and his sister Lola, are prominently featured in a Country Financial 30-second commercial spot put together by the insurance company that partners in sponsoring the tournament with the IHSA.

Country Financial officials thought the story of the move to Evanston from France by the Lesmond family would closely follow their “Simple Steps” theme in promoting the company and the tournament. They began the school year looking for stories to tell of athletes who take the simple steps to overcome an injury, or a coach’s simple steps to turn a losing program into a winning program.

The fact that the two Lesmond siblings were moving in from a foreign country to play varsity basketball, dealing with a new school, a different language and a new basketball program caught the company’s eye and the commercial began filming back in November. The teenagers’ parents, David and Vanessa, were part of the on-air story originally until the commercial was cut down to 30 seconds.

It showed in a regular rotation of TV ads during the 1A-2A, 3A-4A state girls tournament championships and was also on air during the 1A-2A boys tourney last weekend. Both Ellis, the ETHS boys head coach and Johnson, who coaches the ETHS girls, are featured on camera and in voiceover mode. A crew also taped a practice session for the Wildkit boys.

“It’s a well-produced commercial and it was a unique story line for what they were looking for, because typically the stories are about 1 student-athlete, and this story had 2,” Ellis said. “It’s really beyond rare.

“Both Louis and Lola are genuine student-athletes with great parents who have good values and level heads. I think it’s really helped our school having both of them come here, not just for basketball. I think it’s a great experience for Louis’ teammates because it helps them develop the habit of putting others first. You have to be aware of the challenges facing a teammate like Louis, and you have to have some empathy for him. In the 7 months he’s been here I’ve seen him evolve. He’s much more confident now.

“This is a unique story in the state of Illinois. The family was very nervous about how this would turn out — and rightfully so — because they really don’t speak English that well yet. But the TV crew did a great job of portraying them as students, like they’ve lived here for years.”

Louis, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, and Lola, a 6-foot freshman, were top reserves for their respective teams in their first year wearing a Wildkit uniform but will be counted on in even bigger roles next season.

And it wasn’t the first on-screen experience for Louis. A member of the Under 16 national basketball team when he played in France, he was part of a promotional film for the school he attended as a freshman, INSEP Academy (National Institute of Sport, Exercise and Performance). Located on the outskirts of Paris, the academy trains youths in 26 different sports and produced NBA star Tony Parker among its alumni.

Louis Lesmond said he was among a group that included a boxer, a baseball player and a track athlete that was featured in the French promotional effort at age 15. “They followed us around the school, they spent 2 days at my home in France, and they filmed our practices, too,” he recalled.

“I was very stressed about this commercial because it was in English, and I didn’t know what to say or do. But the crew was really cool and it was a great experience for me. My sister was really stressed – she didn’t move at all — but I liked the way it came out. I know one or two of my teammates  have already seen it, and I think one of my teachers has, too.”

The Lesmond’s move was prompted last summer when their father, David, was relocated to the Chicago area for his job in the wine industry.

That’s where a Purdue connection came in. David Lesmond played his collegiate basketball at Purdue University and contacted a former teammate, Brandon Brantley, about finding the appropriate programs for his son and daughter.

Brantley, now an assistant coach at Purdue, was one of the lead recruiters in pursuit of former ETHS star Nojel Eastern and recommended Evanston as a landing spot for the entire Lesmond family.

“I think our approach was just to give Louis the strongest foundation this year so he can grow the most,” Ellis added. “We wanted him to stay confident, and we wanted him to understand that this is just the beginning of his career. I think he’ll have even more opportunities (as a potential starter) next year.”    

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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