Saturday, January 07, 2006

University of Illinois Basketball

In my life I've have obsessively followed only two college basketball teams as a fan. I do watch other teams, but I've only been emotionally invested in two teams. The first, back in the day, was the Indiana State University basketball team which began with the 1977 NCAA Championship Runner-up team with Larry Bird. That magical season with Larry Bird (who has never really gotten the credit he deserves for his talent, in my opinion) ended in a crushing disappointment. I've also had a lifelong grudge against Magic Johnson since. Still, I went on to follow the team for the rest of my college-life in spite of their subsequent poor performance. I confess I was motivated in part by the crush I had on point guard Steve Reed at the time. I learned a lot about basketball though.

My second committment to a team came when I moved to Champaign/Urbana Illinois, the home of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. After Lou Henson left I began to follow the team. The coaching carousel caused some problems. We (note the use of the possessive here, I'm fully invested in mental ownership of the team) hired Lon Kruger but he left after two? years to go to the NBA. That didn't work out too well for him, but we did great out of the deal because we got Bill Self.

Things were looking up. Our team was developing into a nationally ranked and respected team. Our recruiting was competitive. Bill Self is and was a very successful recruiter. Then, diasaster as Bill decides to jump ship for Kansas. Hmm, a pattern is developing..that hasn't worked out too well for Bill Self so far. Since he's been at Kansas things haven't been great for him. I'd be lying if I suggested that I feel badly about that. I hold a grudge. Being a fan of a team is comparable to partisan politics after all. Somethings you just don't get over, forget or change your mind about.

But the good news...we got Bruce Weber. Ron Gunther, the U of I AD is brilliant. Bruce Weber is an extremely talented coach and a man of character. What follows next is a steadily improving program which culminates in a number one ranking and a nearly perfect season. The disappointment of our loss to North Carolina in the NCAA 2005 Championship cannot be understated. Like all partisans, I can only look at the loss from our perspective. Sean May cheated. ;oP His under- the -basket bumping with that massive body should have been called as fouls. I'm not required to be objective about this. (I was so saddened by the loss I had a serious case of hives for a week after, it was awful.) Still--what a team, what a season. It could have ended better but wow, what a ride. I'll forever love that team. Deron Williams, Dee Brown, James Augustine, Luther Head, Roger Powell, Nick Smith, Jack Ingram--they were the best.

This year's team is off to a great start 15-0, which is something nobody imagined in a rebuilding year. As I post this, I hear the away game at Iowa is turning into a loss. That's disappointing, but maybe not a terrible thing. Last year all anyone could talk about was our perfect record until when we finally lost at Ohio, it had assumed a huge significance. An early loss will shut up all the comparisons and allow this team to create its own story. I-L-L-I-N-I! Go Illini!

Basketball like politics is entirely partisan.

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