It was a once in a generation moment. The Erie Red Devils were playing Sterling High School in the Kansas 2A state high school basketball playoffs, their first appearance since 1993.
Erie’s sophomore post player Eric Dillinger grabbed an offensive rebound after teammate Dawson Lehman missed a free throw. Dillinger muscled up the board and scored a basket in the first quarter of the state playoff game, as the underclassman scored his sixth point midway through the contest.
An uproarious cheer followed from a throng of Erie basketball fanatics who had traveled about 200 miles to watch this part of history at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan on March 12. Participating in the ovation in the stands was Dillinger’s father, Wade, who exchanged high-fives with Ryan Duling, the father of Erie junior shooting guard Tyler Duling.
Never mind the Red Devils were struggling to score consistently in the paint early on due to 6’6” All-Heart-of-America post player Tyus Wilson using his long arms to prevent good looks at the rim. Never mind Wilson had all of Sterling’s six blocks in the first half.
One of those perceptible moments in life was transpiring. Wade Dillinger was looking at his son as a proud father watching one of his children make it. What made the moment that much sweeter, though, was the fact that before this year, Wade was on the last Erie basketball team that advanced to the 2A state playoffs in 1993.
In essence, Wade, 44, watching his son was a direct reflection of the 1994 Erie High grad playing basketball in the 90s.
“On my behalf, that’s kind of more of what I was,” Wade said. “I got a lot of offensive rebounds and put-backs like that when I played. That was kind of my forte: the dirty old rebounder.”
Growing up in Erie, Wade first dirtied up his Jordans and Reebok Pumps on the concrete slab as a fifth-grader playing some of his peers at Doc Bryan’s house, as he mimicked some of the all-time greatest NBA players on the court.
“Back in the day, of course when I was growing up, everybody wanted to be Magic, you wanted to be Bird, or you wanted to be Jordan,” Wade recalled. “There was a lot of one-on-ones when it was Jordan versus Magic.”
The love of the game led Wade to play basketball at Erie High School. As a 5’7” sophomore guard, he played sparingly, subbing in for players who were in foul trouble. By junior year, Wade had grown to 6’4” and played center. He didn’t start, but his minutes significantly increased, spiking his production, which assisted in the Red Devils making a state playoff run in 1993. Erie, an eighth seed, would go on to lose in the first round versus Wellsville High School, a one seed, and a team that would win the state championship in 1987 and 1994.
Ironically, Erie lost in ‘93 due to a 6’8’’ student-athlete ruling every facet of the game, the same way Wilson dominated weeks ago.
“It was similar because they were two big kids, they could shoot outside, they could shoot in the paint as well,” Wade continued. “He (Wilson) could shoot it inside and could shoot from the outside as well.”
During his senior year, Wade started several games or came off the bench, but the increase in playing time led to averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds his last year as a Red Devil.
Wade, who attended Pittsburg State before becoming the owner of Parsons Livestock Auction, would later meet Kristi, who he married in 2003. A year later, their son Eric was born.
Wade introduced Eric to the game in just the first grade. And he had the honor to coach his own son through sixth grade in an Erie recreation league that competed with teams from area towns. His rec squad won season and postseason titles from third to sixth grade.
“We were always at the top,” Wade said. “You know it was just fun. I think there was like seven of those boys in his class that were on that team and they played all the way until sixth grade. There’s not as many as them that play now in high school due to wrestling and some other stuff. But they kind of stayed together and stayed with it. They made big improvements from year to year and got to where they were pretty good, shared the ball well and scored it well, and were hard to beat.”
Eric took this type of fortitude onto the high school level. In the 2018-19 season, Erie advanced to the sub-state semifinal, finishing the year at 14-7, two wins better than the 2017-18 season. Over the last four years, the Red Devils have won 42 games.
As Dillinger continued to develop, Wade caught eye of how much his own flesh and blood reminded him of himself as a basketball player.
“He does a lot of the same stuff that I did,” Wade said. “He does a lot the same, but better at it than I was, already as a sophomore.”
This year, Dillinger, 15, averaged 8.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1 assist per game, which led to a Sports in Kansas Honorable Mention nod.
He took this production into the state playoff game, too, putting up nine points, two blocks and eight rebounds.
The left-handed basketball player hearkens back to some of the life lessons his father taught him, on and off the basketball court.
“Use the right hand, use the backboard, never quit, always try your hardest,” Dillinger recited.
These lessons were on his mind on the basketball floor, and Wade has been able to see it through, as he has attended all of his son’s games. A proud moment leading up to the Erie basketball season was Dillinger’s first 3 last summer in Wichita as a member of the Kansas Force, a traveling basketball team.
This kind of magic was contagious for the Red Devils all year, though Erie would lose 64-54 to Sterling in the first round of the state playoffs. But it turned out that no score really mattered, as the KSHSAA state playoffs were canceled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Still, Dillinger, who will be a junior next year, said he wants to continue following his father’s principles and augment his talents as a basketball player, despite the current circumstances.
“I want to make more shots if I use my right hand more, and use the backboard,” Dillinger said.