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I’m trying to remember the last time that I felt this good as a sports fan, and I’m really struggling to come up with it. The Illini have just come back from a fifteen point deficit to defeat the Arizona Wildcats in overtime and advance to the Final Four, and I’m so excited that I can’t even feel the bump on my knee that I got when I banged it on the glass coffee table in front of me while bouncing up and down during Illinois’ comeback. It’ll probably bruise by tomorrow, but GODDAMN-is-this-exciting! I really haven’t been able to figure it out yet—the “as excited as” comparison—and the best I can come up with is a comparison of opposite emotions: my current level of happiness against my level of sadness after the Cubs lost Game 7 to the Marlins. That’s the best I can do, and honestly, right now, while still very much in the moment, I’m not sure what my answer would be.
I’ve always said that victory is sweeter after you’ve tasted defeat, and today’s game was a perfect example of that. Meghan and I arrived in San Jose last night to stay at her parents’ good friends Bunny and Alf’s house, and we left this morning to go down to Monterey Bay and the 17 Mile Drive. We went down to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, and then to the beach, and the scenery was beautiful. I sat on a rock at the beach and wrote some poetry, and Meghan went down to the sand and photographed some seashells. Monterey is a nice little seaside town with friendly people and a great landscape, and the 17 Mile Drive is a long and winding road, so to speak, through a forest and past the golf course and then next to the water anytime there’s a clearing. And Nana pretty much demanded that I go there an enjoy the beautiful sights, and so I did, calling her from there to say hello, and we’re driving around, and we’re driving around, and we’re driving around, and then all of a sudden…
“Meg! It’s 4:00!”
“Illini go on at 4:15!”
And with that we’re off, frantically speeding back to San Jose while cursing the radio for not having a good feed of the game.
“I don’t understand. I can hear the preacher babbling on 1530, and I can hear the Spanish guy babbling on 1550, but I can’t hear the announcers babbling on 1540. Hasn’t San Jose heard of AM radio?”
“Baby, watch the road.”
“I am watching the road. This idiot in front of me won’t speed up.”
“Which idiot?” She’s very supportive.
“Ha ha. The idiot in front of me in the blue car.”
“Ah, I see. And what is the blue car doing wrong exactly?”
But I’m not listening. Instead I’m playing with the dial, hoping that something I do will make the game come in clearly, as if constant volume adjustment has ever had an effect on a radio signal.
“What did he just say? Illinois up three or down three?”
“I’m not really listening. It’s way to scratchy. My mom called earlier, so I’m gonna call her back. Why don’t we turn this down for a little bit and when we get to a TV you can…”
“Hey! Moron in the blue car! The sign clearly says ‘slower traffic stay to right.’ This means you! You are slower traffic!”
“Baby, the speed limit is 50.”
“He’s going 50.”
“And I’m going 70. That makes him slower traffic.”
“OK. I’m calling my mom. Try not to kill us.”
“Fine.” I reluctantly agree. “I’ll try not to kill us.”
Finally we get back to Bunny and Alf’s house, and by the time I figure out how to use their TV…and by the time I find CBS, the Illini are up two at halftime. I grab the two-liter bottle of Coke that they have in the fridge, grab a glass and throw three ice cubes in it, and stake out my position on a couch of a family I’ve known for less than 24 hours.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, (which consists of any area of the house not within my direct line of vision), people are getting ready for dinner. Bunny and Alf have three daughters, and the oldest one has two young kids of her own—one two-years-old, the other an infant—and Meghan is happily holding the baby and helping everyone get ready for dinner. Of course, I don’t know any of this from experience, because even as the Coke builds up inside my bladder making me desperate to quickly escape to the bathroom I do not leave the room even for a moment, the fullness of my being focused entirely on a sixteen-by-twenty inch box that contains within the pixels of its screen the source of my emotions.
As the second half begins, Arizona seems to be playing with a bit more of a sense of purpose than are the Illini, and yet Illinois stays with them. Back-to-back threes by Ivan Radenovic and Salim Stoudamire put the Wildcats up six 47-41, but a James Augustine dunk ties it up at 49. Channing Frye’s layup puts Arizona up three, but Augustine’s free throw cuts it to two. Jawann McClellan’s dunk makes it 62-57, but Deron Williams’ free throw cuts it to four. Then Hassan Adams gets a layup, and Mustafa Shakur hits a three, and Frye hits a three, and they’re down twelve with under six to go…
“This isn’t good,” I say to no one in particular. “This isn’t good.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see Alf walk in and sit down on the other couch.
“How’s it going?”
“Hey not good we’re down I can’t talk now sorry.”
He sits quietly as I fall to pieces. After a full season of lackadaisically watching the Illini, a team that embodies everything I love about team sports, only now am I fully involved in this team and it dawns on me that I may have run out of chances to embrace them. This is a great team, and to have it end like this…it can’t. We can’t have another team go down like this, without a chance to show what they’re about on the biggest stage. Here, in Chicago, at the former Rosemont Horizon, on Ray Meyer Court, the Illini are about to lose without a fight in front of a sea of heartbroken orange. Dee dribbles right side and stumbles, losing the ball out of bounds, and the crowd is shocked. Stoudamire drives the lane and gets a block foul on Augustine, and then calmly hits both free throws.
“Come on Illini! Dig in here! Come on guys!”
But it continues, and when McClellan drives and is fouled by Roger Powell, Jr., I see a look of desperation in Powell’s eyes as if the senior can see the end of his career. You can see the determination in the faces of the Arizona players, like they know they have Illinois for the kill and all they have to do is finish them off. The Arizona lead is fifteen, 75-60, with 4:02 to play. Certainly enough time for a comeback—I watched Reggie Miller score eight points in 8.9 seconds to beat the Knicks in the playoffs in ’95, and I watched Duke erase a ten point Maryland lead with under a minute to go in 2001—but something has to be done—NOW.
As I’m thinking this, Deron squares up and hits a three, and the lead is down to twelve. I clap my hands, but Alf is not impressed.
“Well, they’re still far behind.”
“Yeah, but you gotta get something going.”
“Well, I know what I’m gonna get going,” and with that he heads into the bathroom.
McClellan goes back to the line and gets two more, but the next time down the floor the Illini kick it to Luther Head, who calmly nails a three of his own, and it’s down to eleven points with under three to go.
“Yes! Here we go! Now keep it going guys!”
And just like that, the game is changed. It is still eleven points, but you can tell that Illinois understands exactly what they need to do to win and exactly how they are going to do it, and like they’ve done all season, it starts with defense. While Arizona is fantasizing about cutting down the nets, Illinois turns on the ‘d’ and begins attacking the ball with relentless fury, knocking down Arizona passes and turning them into fast break baskets. Dee gets a bucket to cut the lead to nine, Luther gets a dunk to cut it to seven. After another McClellan free throw, Deron hits a jumper to cut the lead to six, and after two free throws from Shakur, the game sits at 80-72 with a minute to play. But the tide has turned and the momentum has swung, and I know that Illinois has one more push in them. I feel it.
“Alright now! Come on! One more push!”
“What’s that?” Alf asks, as he walks out of the bathroom and takes a seat back on the couch.
“NO!” I yell in protest. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell, but you have to go back into the bathroom. We’re coming back, and we’ve got it to eight, and I would hate it if we sat down to dinner in a few minutes and I was pissed off at you for ruining this game. So if you wouldn’t mind…”
“Nope. I’ve got a friend just like you. I totally understand.” And with that he casually walks back into the bathroom.
Now it is serious, and the Illini and the crowd at DePaul know that it is their game to win or lose. Luther comes down and hits a three, cutting the lead to five. Illinois forces another steal, and with the gym shaking and the fans going absolutely loco, they kick it up to Dee on the break and his layup gets it to three.
“Yes! Oh hell yes! We got this game! We got it!” We got it. I know this now, and the crowd knows it, and everybody is going totally nuts. Arizona takes a full timeout, and as the Wildcats slink back over to their bench, the Illini run to theirs and are greeted by their teammates who embrace them with high fives, chest bumps, and hugs. I’m jumping up and down with the fans at the Allstate, and on the way down on one of the jumps I clock my knee on the glass coffee table.
“Yes! Yes! Ahhh! Ow! Oh, son of a bitch!”
“Baby,” I hear from the other room, “you alright?”
“Fine! Yes! It’s down to three points! Three points!”
“What was that bang?” a voice asks from the bathroom.
“I hit my knee on your table,” I yell back.
“How’s the table?”
“Fine. Don’t worry.”
“OK good. Is the game over yet?”
“OK. I’ll be in here then.”
“Yeah.” I say flatly, waiting for play to resume. It does, and after a stop by the Illini they get the ball over to Deron, who dribbles at the top of the key, steps around a screen, and then let’s fly on a three pointer. “There it is!” I yell in anticipation. It drops right through, nothing but net, and with that we’ve come all the way back. 80-80, half a minute left, and I smile, because it is obvious: this is now my team.
Illinois snuffs out Arizona’s last shot of regulation, and as we head into overtime, the Illini clearly have the momentum. Deron hits another three to get things going, but Arizona responds with two Channing Frye buckets. Roger Powell gets a layup to put the Illini back up one, and then Deron hits yet another triple, and Luther’s layup off of another forced turnover runs the Illini lead to 90-84. The Allstate Arena is about to erupt. But this is a strong-willed Arizona team, and led by Hassan Adams the Wildcats storm back. Adams gets a layup and a foul, and completes the three point play. Deron misses a pair of shots on Illinois’ next possession, and then Adams gets the ball back and gets another bucket. 90-89, Illinois timeout.
“Alright, big possession now, just get two.”
The Illini bring the ball up, swing it around, and look for the open shot.
“Two points now. Two points.”
The clock ticks down, and the fans at the Allstate come to a fevered pitch.
“Two points. Two points.”
25, 24, 23, and Luther Head pulls up for a jumper and misses. Rebound Arizona. Timeout.
As Arizona sets up their play, everybody in the gym knows where the ball is going: Arizona sharpshooting senior Salim Stoudamire. The guy has had a miserable night shooting the ball—nine points on 2 of 13—but every shooter has slumps. There’s no doubt that he will have a shot to win the game. This is the guy who has led Arizona all season, the All-American who just two days earlier had confidently beaten Oklahoma State with a jumper as time wound down. If Illinois was going to the Final Four, they would need one last defensive stop, and they would need to stop Salim Stoudamire.
The ball comes in to Adams, and he takes it to the top of the key. Deron stays on him, and I watch Stoudamire on the near side, waiting for him to make his move towards the ball as the clock runs down.
“Oh man, they’re not gonna get it!” I say to myself as I watch it all unfold. Stoudamire finally runs towards Adams, but our defense is too tight. Suddenly desperation sinks in for Arizona, as they realize that their designed play is broken and all they are going to get is a panicked shot, and the Illini clamp down and the clock ticks away and the fans prepare to leap right out of their seats, and all Stoudamire can do is watch as Adams’ three-point heave falls harmlessly to the floor. Game over.
“Yes! Yes! Hell yes! Ahhh ha ha ha! Oh my god! Yes!” I attack Meghan with jumping hugs, nearly shouldering her in the jaw in the process, and finding no one else in the house who is anywhere near as excited as I am, I call my dad and just start yelling as soon as he picks up.
“Wow! Wasn’t that exciting?” he asks.
But I’m yelling too loud, hardly able to complete a sentence. Illinois is going to the Final Four, and I am going with them.
And…because you deserve it…