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Know Your Neighbors: Danny McLarty, the Basketball Whisperer

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To anyone who’s met this sage of basketball wisdom, it’s little surprise that he’s made a successful living from a sport he just can’t get enough of – and enjoys sharing with anyone interested in upping their game.

Danny McLarty at his MVP Training facility in Roscoe, Ill.

Danny McLarty at his MVP Training facility in Roscoe, Ill.

Sandwiched between a gas station and a row of storage units along Illinois Route 251 in Roscoe, Ill., sits a nondescript warehouse that is home to Danny McLarty’s MVP Training facility.

On one side of his two-room space, McLarty is a fitness instructor, training clients of all ages, shapes and fitness goals. Pass through a small door and you’ll find his basketball court, where McLarty helps basketball players, from elementary school to college ages, hone their ball handling and shooting skills. McLarty has parlayed his love of fitness and basketball into a successful business. In fact, there’s a waiting list for both his fitness and basketball services.

For anyone who knows McLarty, the business path he took comes as no surprise. The Rockton, Ill., resident has always been a fitness fanatic. His interest in living a healthy lifestyle dates back to elementary school. Exercise and smart food choices have always been priorities in his life. In fact, the last time he consumed a soda beverage was in the 1980s.

“It’s who I am,” says McLarty, sitting on a training tire inside his gym. He’s wearing his customary T-shirt and shorts. At 41, his physique remains chiseled, thanks to a rigorous six-day a week training regimen. “As I got older, I read more and talked to people about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. I realized that it could benefit me in the long run.”

McLarty carried his commitment to excellence onto the basketball court as a youngster. The support came from his parents, Sue and Ray, the latter a high school track and cross country coach for 33 years, and his three brothers and sister. He and his brothers and their friends spent countless hours in the backyard shooting hoops. When they finished, the other boys wanted to watch movies or play another sport. Not McLarty.

“He would spend hours just doing the drills over and over again by himself to improve,” says his brother, Brad. “Then, he would beg us to come back out to guard him one-on-one to practice those moves in game-like situations. I played against a lot of Division I players in high school and Rock Valley, and Danny was by far the hardest player I’ve ever had to guard.”

In the early 1990s, McLarty was a hot-shooting high school guard at Hononegah High School. During his senior season in 1994, he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds a game for the Indians on the way to a league-MVP season. He followed that up by being named MVP of a postseason all-star game. In 1997, McLarty was named to the Illinois High School Hall of Fame.

Jay Bryant was the Hononegah coach during McLarty’s senior season. He hasn’t coached McLarty for 23 years, but he ticks off memorable games like they were played yesterday. He remembers a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win a playoff game, and he calls McLarty’s 30-point, 16-assist game against Boylan the best individual performance he’s seen in 37 years of coaching.

“Danny had that drive,” Bryant says. “His work ethic was second to none. He was a gym rat and he outworked everybody.”

What’s most impressive is that McLarty was never some 6-foot-5 bruising forward who could outmuscle his opponents. At just 5-foot-7, he always had to prove himself to others on the basketball court, no matter how many points he scored.

“I remember playing middle school basketball. Someone came up to my dad and said it was a pleasure watching me play and it was a shame it had to end,” McClarty recalls. “He thought I wouldn’t be able to play high school basketball. That’s when the chip on my shoulder developed. My goal was to get a scholarship playing college basketball. And this guy thought I couldn’t even play freshmen basketball. I was ticked.”

With very little interest shown from college coaches, McLarty decided to play basketball at Rock Valley College after high school. His strong play continued when he was named conference MVP following his sophomore year. Despite his steady performance in junior college, he still wasn’t overwhelmed with Division I offers to play basketball. He mulled over a few opportunities, ultimately deciding to play at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He started and was named team captain in his two years there. “I had aspirations to play professionally,” he says. “But I opted to go to work instead. I wish I would have pursued basketball, but it’s all worked out.”

McLarty spent two years as an elementary school physical education teacher, but longed to work as a trainer. He kicked around at a couple of gyms in Omaha and the Chicago suburbs before packing his bags and moving to California, where he opened a gym with a partner.

“I had no business savvy at all,” he says. “I didn’t even know what to charge customers.” McLarty spent eight years out west, learning his craft, before moving his family back to Rockton to be closer to his parents and to open MVP Training. McLarty and wife Shondra have four children: Carson, Dane and 6-year-old twins, Capri and Daxton.

The most valuable lesson McLarty learned was that he didn’t need prime real estate to run a successful fitness/basketball facility. Instead, it was word-of-mouth that was paramount to reaching new customers. Social media has also given his business a boost.

His gym is conveniently located for clients who come from Roscoe, Rockford, Belvidere and beyond. McLarty has fitness and basketball regulars who travel 90 minutes just to train under his watchful eye. He preaches the same lessons to his fitness clients and basketball trainees that he once preached to himself. “It’s not always about hard work, but smart work,” he says. “When I was on the court I was serious. I was smart about getting better.”

He enjoys working with kids, especially those who lack physical stature.

Ann Hart of South Beloit remembers hearing McLarty speak at a basketball camp that her son, Owen, attended.

“I was wowed by his message,” says Hart. “I knew he was legit.” A few weeks later, she ran into McLarty at a grocery store and asked for his business card. Owen, a middle school student, has now trained with McLarty for three years and it shows in his game.

“Danny is the best in the stateline area,” Hart says. “There’s no messing around during his training sessions. We’ve seen progress in Owen’s game. While he hasn’t hit his growth spurt, Owen can handle the ball and is a great 3-point shooter. Danny is working with him on creating space to get his shot off.”

“He has a good rapport with the kids,” Jay Bryant adds. “He knows what he’s talking about and he has a special way of getting through to them.”

McLarty has simple goals for his clients. “I like that they’re getting better. Some want to be all-conference or all-state. I hope I’m a positive influence, whether they want to go to college or do something else. I’m not just teaching basketball. I’m teaching them professionalism, hard work and life lessons.”

There are plenty of demands running a small business. His days are hectic, between juggling family life and work. Most weeks he works seven days, often until 9 p.m., running between weight loss clients and basketball players working on dribbling skills. He once logged 60 straight days of work before taking a break. McLarty has finally hired some staff to help, but has no interest in adding a second location. “I’m overwhelmed, but it’s a good problem to have,” he says.

One might think a basketball sage gets enough shooting and dribbling at work, especially when it’s his job to teach others. Not so. Recently, McLarty installed a new cement court in his backyard. With his young son Daxton chasing down rebounds, McLarty still works tirelessly on perfecting his shot, just like he did 25 years ago. For some, old habits die hard.

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