We’re heading to Vegas today, and while packing up our stuff in Prescott, Ben calls.
“Hey! Did you see it?”
“Oh man! Seriously?”
“Yeah dude. Last second three by Ohio State. They lost by one.”
“Oh man. That’s brutal.”
“O’well. I’m sure they’d much rather lose now than in the next few weeks.”
There’s a pause. It’s not his pause, or my pause, but just a pause.
“Well, that’s all I got.”
“How’s the trip going?”
“It’s great! We’re going to Vegas today.”
“Vegas, baby. Vegas.”
“Vegas. Las Vegas.”
“Oh awesome. Have fun with that.”
“Will do. Thanks for the update, bro.”
“No problem. Talk to you later.”
“Cool man. Later.”
Despite the fact that Illinois has been the unanimous #1 team in the nation since about January and despite the fact that they were undefeated until today, I haven’t really fully embraced these Illini as MY team. Certainly I’ve been following them and rooting for them…but something is missing. I haven’t really caught “Illini Fever” yet, and since the regular season is over, I’d have to guess that I’m not going to catch it.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, exploring my feelings so that maybe I can understand why I don’t feel strongly about the team, or anyways, as strongly as everyone else feels about them. It’s not that they’re not Chicago guys. Dee Brown and Luther Head are both homers, and Coach Bruce Weber was at Southern before taking the U of I job. And it’s not that they’re not exciting. They run all game and spread the floor beautifully, and Dee, Luther, and Deron Williams make up the best backcourt in the country, and they play with passion and intensity and fun. And it’s not necessarily that they’ve run the table (almost) against a weak Big Ten, because I don’t think that the Big Ten is all that weak. Illinois is just clearly better than every other team in the conference. But something is still holding me back from falling in love with this team, as evidenced by my use of the “not necessarily.” I can’t prove it, but I feel like a lot of people took to this team because they were undefeated, as opposed to because they loved the team. Actually, that’s wrong. Lots of people do legitimately love this team—I like them, I don’t love them, but lots of people do love them—but I don’t think that people would be talking about them in the way that they are if they hadn’t gone unbeaten for so long. Would this team at 26-4 or 25-5 be getting the kind of pub they’ve been getting at 29-1? Would this team at 26-4 or 25-5 be drawing comparisons to the ’89 Flyin’ Illini, the measuring stick for all Illini basketball teams past and present? Would the city and the local media be so interested in giving this team a nickname if they had lost a few games here or there? Maybe so, but I doubt it. And the nickname that seems to have stuck—the Stylin’ Illini—is an obvious play on the Flyin’ Illini, which seems to say to me that they are reaching to put this team up with the ’89 squad, a team that really had a unique flare and style and a team that has been remembered even though they didn’t go undefeated and lost in the Final Four.
The Illini are an awesome team; I know that for sure. They play great team basketball, they spread the floor, they play tough defense, they have a terrific bench, they’ve got great role players, they’ve got great stars, they hustle and rebound and run and shoot…they are a TEAM. But are they hands down better than the Mateen Cleaves and Mo Pete Michigan State teams that went to three straight Final Fours and won a national title? Are they hands down better than the Bobby Jackson Minnesota Final Four team from 1998? Are they hands down better than the Calbert Cheaney, Damon Bailey, Alan Henderson Indiana teams of the early ’90 s? Everybody’s talking about how this team would matchup with the ’89 club, but what about the squad from 2001? Are Dee, Deron, and Luther hands down better than the Frankie Williams, Brian Cook, Peoria-Manual Illini team from four years ago? And the big one, the biggest marker of all: how do they stack up against Michigan’s Fab Five? I’m not saying that this year’s Illini couldn’t compete with those teams—they absolutely could—but by the talk it’s as if they’re one of the greatest Big Ten teams ever. Say it again: one of the greatest Big Ten teams EVER. Does that sound right?
Coming into the season, everybody knew that Illinois was good; there was no question about that. And then on December 1st, they ran over top ranked Wake Forest, and as the undefeated team that knocked off the #1, they in turn became the #1. And as they kept on winning, it felt to me like they were ranked #1 more because of their record than because people really thought they were #1. That sounds weird, I know—it brings to mind the great quote from Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.”—but it makes sense to me. When North Carolina lost early in the year, they didn’t fall too far, because people thought, and still think, that they were an amazing team. Kansas has had a bad stretch lately losing three in a row and four of six, but that hasn’t knocked them out of the top ten. Had the Illini lost a couple of close games this season rather than winning them all, I feel like they would have been hard pressed to ever regain the number one ranking. Illinois reminds me a lot of last year’s St. Joe’s team: a very good team with a flawless record.
In that respect, this Illinois squad reminds me of the 2001 Bears. They went 13-3, but to me they were never a “13-3 team.” They were more like a 9-7 or 10-6 team that got all the bounces all year. A real 13-3 Bears team would not have lost twice to Green Bay. Period.
That’s what I think about this Illinois team. I’m not trying to slam them, but there it is. They are not an “undefeated team.” They are a very good team that has found a way to go undefeated. And yes, they are no longer undefeated, but even if they had beaten Ohio State…we’re talking about a one basket difference. We’re talking about Matt Sylvester’s three rimming out and Illinois breathing a sigh of relief. We’re talking about Roger Powell driving and hitting a runner in the lane instead of panicking and air balling a three. This is not the UNLV squad of ’91 that ran people over before losing to Duke in the Final Four. This is a very good team that has yet to really prove itself.
So the next question is: Can Illinois win it all? Yes, absolutely. They are as good as any other team in the nation. But they’ve got a tough road ahead. The overall field in college basketball is much better than it was last season. UNC, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Duke, Wake, Kentucky and Arizona are all terrific, top flight teams, and the second tier of Boston College, Syracuse, UConn, Michigan State, Washington, and Louisville is pretty damn good as well. Illinois will have to beat two, maybe even four, of these teams to win the title. That’s a tall order. I’m pulling for Illinois to win it all, but if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be heart broken. And that is probably the best indicator as to whether or not a team is YOUR team. This team is not my team, but I wish them the best, and I’ll leave them in the hands of the people who love them the most, the people who, regardless of the outcome, will always carry a place in their hearts for these 2005 Fightin’ Illini.
Out of Prescott on 89, then west on I-40 to 93, and now driving north, up through the desert, on our way to Vegas. Stopping at a car landing to look at the Black Mountains to our west. Taking a picture of the two of us that I’m already in love with, the kind of shot I can imagine looking at in twenty years, the kind that makes you smile while wondering whatever happened to those two, free-headed kids. Even in the early stages, it’s been That Kind of Trip. It feels historic, as if we are knowingly living out a great period in our lives, appreciating it in person and, somehow, in memory. Backward and forward at the same time, an old man thinking back on his adventurous days, asking to live in for one more minute, and then being given that chance again and again. Back on 93 now, a thin highway through the mountains, moving in and out of the deep shadows on the road…
We’re driving through Northern Arizona right now, heading towards the Arizona/Nevada border as we pursue Las Vegas. This has been another beautiful trip, with Meg and I splitting the driving duties, breaking it up when we stopped at a landing to get a better view of the Black Mountains. Pretty cool, but I’ve preferred the mountains along the highway, the ones that we keep dipping in and out of.
As for the music situation, we’ve reached a stumper. Biggie in Brooklyn, and Mellancamp in Bloomington, but what goes with Northern Arizona? Who knows. Maybe Horse with No Name. Why? I have no idea. And so with no Northern Arizona-specific CD to hook us in, we started with a mix that we made last night off of the music from Josh’s computer, a tape of ’90s pop which I’ve appropriately titled “Hey! I Remember That Song!” These are all songs that you’d probably claim to be embarrassed to like, but you really do like them, so why not just make one big kick-ass mix and rock it out completely? And now, since we’re fresh out of adieu, we are proud to present the glorious playlist of “Hey! I Remember That Song!”:
- Rump Shaker by Wreckx-n-Effect
- Whatta Man by Salt-n-Pepa (two for two so far on the “songs with an-n-in the middle” front)
- I’m Too Sexy by Right Said Fred
- Don’t Turn Around by Ace of Base
- Pump Up the Jam by Technotronic
- Jump Around by House of Pain
- Good Vibrations by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
- I Got a Man by Positive K (What’s your man got to do with me?)
- Yo Mama by Pharcyde (Yo Mama got a peg leg with a kickstand!)
- I Can Love You Like That by All-4-One
- Funk That by Saget (A little known delight.)
- Humpty Dance by Digital Underground
- Slam by Onyx (a banger)
- MmmBop by Hanson (Ahhh. Golden.)
- Total Eclipse of the Heart by some annoying chick (Meghan’s pick. I absolutely can’t stand this song. It’s beyond yucky.)
- Red Red Wine by UB40
And the marvelous capper:
- Three Little Pigs by Green Jelly
How can you not dig that mix? It starts big and never slows down. (Except Total Eclipse of the Heart, of course. That’s a dung missile. Totally reprehensible.)
Back through the mountains, and as the final chords on the Green Jelly track fade, I decide to flip in the Tribe CD that Josh’s roommate burned for me this morning. It’s The Anthology, their greatest hits album, and since the only Tribe album I have is The Low End Theory, this gets a nice slice of their best work from their other albums. I put it in. Meg is sitting sideways in shotgun, shooting the mountains through the window, which we’ve kept very clean just for this exact purpose, and she turns to face me and her hair swings across her face like a movie. Meanwhile, I’m grooving to Busta’s crazy verse on Scenario, and we’re about ten miles or so from the border when the traffic just stops.
“What’s going on?” I ask Meg.
We drive slowly, and the traffic moves into two lanes, with police pulling cars off to a side area for what appear to be random inspections for…whatever. At first it looks like it’s just trucks, and then perhaps just “big cars” in general, but a two-door Saturn gets pulled in just ahead of us. Thankfully, we are not pulled in, because if they really did want to do a thorough examination, it would take about forty-five minutes to get my dense car unpacked, searched, and repacked, and frankly, nobody wants to do that, least of all me and Meghan. So we drive past the stop point, and as soon as we begin looping around to our left we spot a sign that reads “HOOVER DAM.”
“Oh cool,” I say. “We’re gonna get to see the Hoover Dam. Did you know this was here?”
“I knew it was here,” she says, dragging out the word “here” and making ambiguous hand motions indicating the general space around us, “but I didn’t realize it was Here.”
As it turns out, there was a lot that we didn’t realize, including the supreme awesomeness of the Hoover Dam. This is a truly incredible sight. You make a strong loop to your left, cutting in and heading a tad south, and then you turn back to your right and take the weaving 93 right towards the water. The whole drive today has been filled with beautiful, awesome natural sights, and then all of a sudden you drive through a canyon and you’re suddenly staring at this massive, man-made structure. Meanwhile, once 93 curves back to the right, the highway is totally along the mountain, and it spins down and then through the dam like a hotel stairwell; you can actually see every bit of this long stretch of curving highway because it’s layered on the mountain, so that while you’re negotiating the curves you’re also slanting downward and moving in that direction as well. It’s crazy.
We stop for a drink and a view at one of the observation/rest areas, and I camp out on a railing overlooking the chasm and take it all in, sketching out a very bad sketch of the whole crazy scene in my poem book to help me remember it all. Then we get back in the car and back onto the winding and descending 93, which is going about six miles an hour through the dam…and that is fine with us, because along with being able to stretch out this view as much as possible, the sounds of so many people walking and driving through this condensed area is very cool…when you’re actually crossing over the dam, it’s all kinds of sensory overload because you’re completely surrounded by these incredibly bold sights of water, highway, concrete, mountain, and sky, and there’s all this interesting noise around you…the whole scene is wild. Driving through with Buggin’ Out bumping on the stereo…Meg leaning all the way out of her window to get some pictures, shooting the clocks of ARIZONA TIME and NEVADA TIME as she sits on the open window groove…picking up little bits of dialogue here and there, conversations floating out of this rough mass of people…One goes: “It’s been a long time; ’82 or ’83 or so…” That’s from these five Harley bikers, and then later, from a mother to her young son in the backseat of their mini-van: “No honey. We’re in the canyon…”
…and then, just like that, we’re on The Strip.
“Vegas baby! VEGAS!” and Meghan joins me in gleeful shouting. Suddenly we’re surrounded by wedding chapels; they’re set up like booths at a carnival or a science fair or something. Everyone has a convertible. A street woman is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that reads “COME AND GET IT.” It is about 80 degrees in the beginning of March and I am in my car with my girl in Las Freakin’ Vegas, which we have reached via car ride from Chicago. This defies logic. We’re getting hungry, and then Meghan spots a Margaritaville, and we find a parking garage and head in for dinner. They tell us that the wait will be 40 minutes, so we get drinks and poke around, but it ends up only being twelve minutes, and a young guy in some kind of fisherman’s outfit seats us at our boat-table. Margaritaville begins playing, as we’re told it does every hour, and the entire place sings along, us included. Never have I liked that song more. We order, and my burger comes perfectly done, everything where it needs to be and nothing more. Terrific fries…mid-thickness, not many potato guts, slightly crisp. Meghan looks beautiful. I am smiling so big, I can feel it the side of my neck. I’m in Las Vegas with the girl I love, on a road trip around my country, and it’s delightfully warm and my burger is great and the drinks are cold and reassuring. Nothing large or meaningful is happening, but a look at Meg’s face tells me otherwise, and for what it’s worth, at this moment, I am as happy as I’ve ever been.