It’s a good time to be a fan of University of Illinois Football and Basketball. I never used to care all that much, but then I moved to Champaign to work for the newspaper, was handed free tickets to a basketball game and fell in love with the place. One of the first things I bought after moving into town was a white Illinois baseball hat.
Assembly Hall is one of the coolest structures in college basketball. This giant concrete rounded oval looks like a giant UFO. There isn’t a bad view from courtside to the top of C section. The Orange Krush student section is recognized not only as one of the best cheering section in the country, but also one of the best philanthropic student organizations.
I saw Frank Williams and Cory Bradford light it up. I saw Brian Cook showcase NBA level talent and I experienced the craziness of the National Championship run with Deron, Luther and Dee. I was running around my parent’s basement in a dazed, mad state when Illinois beat Arizona in one of the all-time greatest NCAA tournament games and eventually advance to the national championship game.
I was in the stands when Ron Turner’s Illinois football squad took the field and a fan nearby screamed, “Welcome to the first game of Ron Turner’s Farewell Tour” and he was right.
When Cheif Illiniwek performed for the last time, I was moved by the performance as I watched it on TV.
I was saddened at the lack of judgment on the part of several basketball players last year and I laughed after football coach Ron Zook landed the best football player in the country, and he was immediately ranked a few notches down.
So, after watching the Illinois football team go 3-0 in the Big Ten and on the verge of becoming bowl eligible (Rose Bowl all the way, baby) and now Bruce Weber’s Illinois basketball team landing three big time players for the 2009 recruiting class, now more than ever, it’s a great time to be a fan of Illinois athletics.
Friday night was Illini Madness and my daughter and I headed out to Assembly Hall with all the other pink clad peeps. It was a sea of pepto-bismol pink because admission to the pre-season event was a pink Coaches Against Cancer T-Shirt. They raised thousands of dollars with Orange Krush chipping in a few thousand more. It was an extremely successful event.
Unfortunately, Illini Madness itself went on way too long and my daughter was restless and then flat out bored. I had hoped the “opening acts” would be entertaining, but aside from one of the fraternities doing their best “Stomp the Yard,” the IM championship team battling a Harlem Globetrotters-without the zany fun-type team, and a hip-hop/breakdancing team, myself and most of the other fans in attendance were bored out of their skulls.
There was a nice moment when they turned off all the lights and asked everyone to take out their cell phones. That produced a starry-night effect that everyone around me thought was cool.
Finally, the team took the court and they were greeted by the fans like they were going to win the National Championship. When new assistant coach and former player Jerrance Howard was introduced he received easily the biggest pop from the crowd. Joining the staff as the lead recruiter and then getting three incredible verbal commitments certainly helped.
I mentioned earlier the poor choices of players last year. In the middle of last season, sophomore Jamar Smith and freshman Brian Carwell, were injured in a car crash resulting from Smith having too much to drink and driving. It was one of many low points of a difficult and trying season. Smith, was suspended, Carwell was out due to a massive concussion and, ultimately, Smith was disciplined into taking a red shirt this year to see if he can get and keep his act together.
Carwell, to his credit stood by his friend when he was at a very low point. From my observations, the crash weighed heavily on Smith and I hope with the help of his teammates and his coach he will return to the squad next year a man on a mission.
This background is essential because when Brian Carwell was introduced to the Assembly Hall crowd, he was wearing a Jamar Smith jersey and the crowd ate it up. I saw it as a show of solidarity with his teammate and provided the only way Smith could participate in the Madness festivities.
In the end, who won the dunk contest or who showed the most athleticism didn’t really matter. It was all for a good cause. I hope the product on the floor is just as good.