PARK FOREST | As host of the Spartan Nation radio show, Hondo Carpenter doesn't often grant exclusive air time for teams named the "Wolverines."
As far as his Michigan State-following audience in concerned, the folks in Ann Arbor can get their own nation.
But the Wolverines from Forest Trail Middle School — the Illinois Elementary School Association eighth-grade 4A boys basketball champions — were a "feel-good" story Carpenter couldn't resist broadcasting about.
"A lot of people give school sports a bad rap," Carpenter said, "but then you hear about a team just killing it in the classroom as well as on the basketball court. People need to know about these guys ... about a team and a school that are doing it the right way.
"That's why I'm here."
In addition to its host, Carpenter is the owner, president/CEO and editor for the multimedia Spartan Nation, which also consists of a website, television network, podcasts, video clips and a periodical magazine. Based in Portland, Mich., the "Nation" reaches across the nation to keep alumni and life-long MSU fans abreast of all things Spartan.
Dr. Joyce Carmine, superintendent of Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163, is a Michigan State grad. After bumping into Carpenter at a MSU-based function, she dropped mention of the basketball team that was in the midst of a successful season athletically and academically.
"I told him of our stellar program," Carmine said. "He then began mentioning the team on his radio program, and then on the air made a promise to do a radio show from our school if we could win the championship."
The Wolverines did just that, defeating North Ridge 54-49 for the title on Feb. 20. And Carpenter held up his end as he traveled four-and-a-half hours to tape a show at Forest Trail on April 16.
After giving a motivational speech during a pre-show school assembly, Carpenter and his crew set up shop in the school's gym, first interviewing SD 163 board president Walter Mosby.
"This is the first time our district has ever won a state basketball championship," said Mosby, an athlete himself who played tight end for the Chicago Heights Broncos semipro football team. "It's a great accomplishment for our student-athletes, and we do emphasize the 'student' part."
When it was time to interview the team, Carpenter had his work cut out for him. First, he had to pry radio-quality quotes from Wolverines coach George Friel, who had earlier let his emotions spill out when Carmine presented him a championship ring with a "Coach F" inscription during the assembly.
"These guys just refused to lose," Friel said through the tears still lodged in his throat.
When Carpenter got to interview the players, things loosened up a bit as the show's guests proved they could match Carpenter's quick wit.
"This is not Will Smith's hair," Eric Allen said when Carpenter commented on the style. "This is my own hair."
"I can't believe you kept than raggedy blue ribbon all these years," Vashawn Sims said in reference to a race ribbon Carpenter won while he was in fourth grade — he showed it to the crowd during his speech.
"You're not making fun of my ribbon, are you Vashawn?" Carpenter said.
During his speech, Carpenter emphasized the importance of community service, and implored the students in attendance to be regular contributors.
"We can't count on the government to solve all our problems," Carpenter said. "That's why we need to build strong communities among ourselves."