And it was good: the tale of the 2005 Illini

The 2005 National Championship Game: Illinois vs. North Carolina

April 4, 2005

After beating Louisville in the national semifinal, Roger Powell and the Illini set their sights on UNC.

After beating Louisville in the national semifinal, Roger Powell and the Illini set their sights on UNC.

There are some days for a sports fan that are special. Days that you know you’ll not be forgetting for many years to come. Days in which the stars are aligned and the sports gods are smiling and you are blessed with two or more major sporting events on the same day. Today was one of those days. Baseball’s Opening Day in the afternoon, and the Illinois-North Carolina title game at night. The end of one season, and the beginning of another. As a fan, you can’t really ask for more than that.

The day began with a trip to the Space Needle, and a walk around downtown Seattle. It’s a fine city, doable, nothing spectacular, though to be fair I wasn’t really paying that much attention to the sights. My mind was focused squarely on the task ahead: beat the Tar Heels. The Cubs game was important too—it’s Opening Day, so you’d like to get a win and start the season on a good note—but really, you’re talking about the first of 162 games. If we lose, no big deal. But with a championship on the line in the Illinois game, my attitude was different. All morning I had visions in my head of the Illini hoisting the trophy, of Dee and Deron and Luther running the break and blitzing Carolina with their speed and athleticism, of this team showing basketball fans around the country what we in Illinois already knew. In St. Louis, some 2100 miles away, the Illini were preparing for the most important basketball game of their lives, with Glickman right in the thick. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Meghan and I were getting ready for a great day of sports.

There was no shortage of big TVs (and little TVs) at Sport.

There was no shortage of big TVs (and little TVs) at Seattle's fantastic joint Sport.

If a diehard’s actions and emotions mimic those of the players he is watching during a game, the same can be said for his actions and emotions leading up to a game. With 162 baseball games in a season, the importance of each individual game is minimal. Due to the length of the season, players must keep their emotions on an even keel. It is the same for fans. The atmosphere at a Cubs game is always different than the atmosphere at a Bears game, because each Bears game is ten times more important to the team’s success than each Cubs game. Fans know this, and act accordingly.

Likewise, a fan’s pre-game focus for a playoff game is much more intense than is his focus for a regular season game. There are certain activities that remain constant—players must stretch, dress, get taped up and iced down, study film and prepare—but the importance placed on these actions is heightened due to the importance of the game. The same can be said for a fan. Every diehard has pre-game rituals, whether they help him prepare for a game at a stadium or one in front of a TV. When watching a game at home, a diehard must have everything set up before the game begins. This generally includes the food, drinks, seating, and access to a telephone. If the game is a random baseball game in the middle of July, the preparation is quick and sparse. If the game is the Super Bowl, the preparation is detailed and time-consuming, down to the details of chip and dip placement on the small tables in front of the couch and the loading of the fridge with extra beer, just in case. And like most aspects of sports fandom, game preparation is a mindset. Before that random July ballgame begins, there will be a normal day, and that day will continue after the last out has been made. In the middle will be three hours of entertainment and relaxation, in which the fan will simply revel in the joys of watching his team.

However, on Super Bowl Sunday, all events and activities will be filtered through the Big Game Mindset, and from those first blinking moments when you open your eyes in the morning until your last waking moments before you fall asleep, you will know that today is Super Bowl Sunday, and all else is second.

Just as we had in Eugene, our first order of business in Seattle was to locate the perfect venue, one that would suit our entertainment and sustenance requirements. We asked the concierge at our hotel, and though he seemed hazy as to the location of the Top Spot In Town, he was aware of a new sports bar/restaurant that had opened recently. He told us it was across the street from the Space Needle, and that he was pretty sure it was just called “Sport.” This sounded like an odd name for a restaurant; not the Sports Palace or the Sports Place or the Good Sport…just Sport. But we checked it out on our way to the Space Needle.

It's fair to say that on April 4, 2005, I was just about as excited for the day ahead as Junior was after he scored the run that beat the Yankees in '95.

It's fair to say that on April 4, 2005, I was just about as excited as Junior after he scored from first to beat the Yankees in '95.

Needless to say, it was the perfect—PERFECT—location. What a dream. Although we stayed in Phoenix, Irvine, and San Jose for too long and bricked on heading south after leaving Kansas, I am glad that the trip has developed as it had, because had we left any of those cities earlier we probably would not have been in Seattle on this day, and thus would have spent our day in a lesser establishment. In fact, if I could have altered space and watched those games anywhere in the country, I would have picked this joint over my house, Sven’s house…even Mustards, provided that they had a TV in there. This spot in Seattle…this was the spot.

That said, my immediate first impression of the joint was, well, odd. The restaurant is located on a corner, with an awning that swoops around in a half circle from one side to the other. It is adorned with many anonymous sports figures “in the act” as it were: the baseball player swinging, the basketball player dunking, the football player throwing, the hockey player shooting… the kinds of pictures that are usually found on folders for school or Old Navy children’s clothing. Not a put-off, but also not the most obvious sign of an epic sports bar. Once inside, I was struck by the framed jerseys in the front lobby: LeBron James, Todd MacCulloch, and Jamal Crawford’s New York Knicks jersey. Odd choices in Seattle, with the latter two not even big names in their own cities.

“Why are these jerseys framed?” I asked the girl at the front desk.

“Primary investors.”

An obvious answer, and one I should have picked up on immediately, but the sight of a Jamal Crawford Knicks jersey in a frame hanging from the wall of a Seattle sports bar is enough to make any Bulls fan turn his head in confusion. But that first reaction was brief, and as soon as we walked into the seating area, any amount of befuddlement was wiped away and quickly replaced by complete awe.

My homemade Dee Brown t-shirt jersey.

The writer shows off his homemade Dee Brown t-shirt jersey in a Eugene, Oregon hotel room, two nights before the championship.

I’ll say it again: this place was an absolute dream! In describing Sport in all of its glory, perhaps there is no need to mention anything beyond this simple and astounding fact: along with an unprecedented number of televisions all around the bar and restaurant, there are flat-screen high-def mini TVs implanted in each individual booth. Do you realize how many televisions that is? I didn’t take the time to count, but it’s a ton. And to have one in each booth, to give the customer such power and choice…simply incredible. Perhaps there are places like this all over the country, or perhaps it is just as groundbreaking as it seems to be. Either way, I dug it.

We checked the place out shortly after our visit to the Space Needle—which, incidentally, we did not ascend, as it cost money to do so, and I couldn’t see paying to go to the top of a structure that was shorter than the Sears Tower in order to look down upon a city that was not Chicago—and after immediately deeming it totally awesome for our purposes, we went back to the hotel to change. Meghan put on her Cubs jersey (it’s a generic jersey with no name or number, though I’m planning on getting her one for her birthday in two weeks), and I put on my SANTO jersey with my homemade DEE BROWN t-shirt “jersey” on underneath. We dressed quickly, and then turned back to head over to Sport. It was imperative that we arrive early; we both felt that there was no point in finding a great place for Important Sports Viewing if we did not have good seats.

I was so jazzed up and filled with adrenaline that I probably could have run the whole way back without getting tired, but Meghan was enjoying her stroll through a new city on a beautiful day, so I bounced along with her as we went. Somewhere in St. Louis, the Illinois Fightin’ Illini were preparing to play for that national title. The team that had won the love of Chicago’s basketball fans were getting ready to show a national audience why they were a truly special team. Carolina was a great team; there’s no doubt about that. But they were just a collection of talent; Illinois was a team. Illinois was special, had been since Day One, had been since they ran over Wake, had been well before I realized why. This team was going to be remembered, and they were going to win a championship as well.

The Cubs game began at 2:10 PST, with the Illini game set to tip at 5 PM. Meg and I arrived at Sport promptly at quarter to two. We got a booth in the restaurant section, and got ready for baseball.

On opening day 2005, Corey Patterson was a star.

On opening day 2005, Corey Patterson was a star.

Shortly after arriving, we were joined by a friend of mine from camp, Adam Heldman. Adam is the younger cousin of my camp friend (and Cincinnati native) Alex Heldman, and has lived in Seattle for nine years. In that time, he grew to love the Seahawks more than the Bengals, and though he has strong roots in “the ‘Nati”, he is now truly a Seattle man through and through. It was Adam’s first trip to Sport, and like us, he was impressed.

What a day! As Corey Patterson prepared to open the Cubs’ 2005 season, I was filled with a feeling of connection to fans all across the country. There we were, a couple of Chicago kids in the midst of a cross-country road trip, sitting in a restaurant in Seattle and watching our Chicago Cubs playing the Diamondbacks in Phoenix while the White Sox opened their season at the Cell against the Cleveland Indians. Twenty-five minutes north of there—forty-five with game day traffic—my parents were watching Opening Day in Wilmette while Don and Bonnie sat in Rogers Park. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Glick was among the thousands of basketball fans who were getting ready to watch the Illinois Fighting Illini battle the North Carolina Tar Heels for college hoops’ National Championship, with fans in Champaign and Chapel Hill eagerly awaiting the matchup.

The Cubs came out swinging against the D-Backs, scoring two runs in the first and five more in the second. It was 7-zip after our half of the second; by the middle of the seventh it was 14-3. At approximately the same time, the Sox and the Tribe were scoreless heading into the bottom half of the seventh, but not for long. Paul Konerko led off the inning with a double, new White Sox right fielder Jermaine Dye moved him to third on a sacrifice fly, and Aaron Rowand brought him in on a fielder’s choice to short. The Sox held on for a 1-0 win behind eight innings of two hit/shutout pitching from Mark Buehrle and a one-two-three save from closer Shingo Takatsu. The Cubs were victorious as well, ripping off a 16-6 victory behind the bats of Aramis, Corey, and new right fielder Jeromy Burnitz. Carlos Zambrano was imposing yet erratic; he was pulled with two outs in the fifth after giving up a bases loaded walk to pull Arizona within a 9-3 margin… Zambrano’s final line: 4.2 innings, seven hits, three earned runs, four walks, eight strikeouts, no decision. Needless to say, he was not pleased…but we got the win, and that’s what matters.

Life without Sammy Sosa had begun, and so far, it was good.

Luke was quite confident in the abilities of Shingo.

Luke was quite confident in the abilities of Shingo.

I called Luke shortly after the conclusion of both games.

“Did you see those bats?”

“Did you see Mark Buehrle?”

“But how ‘bout Zambrano striking out eight guys in four and two thirds innings?”

“Buehrle pitched eight and got the win.”

“Where was your offense?”

“It’ll be there. Where was your pitching?”

“We got the job done.”

“Did you see Shingo closing it out? He’s gonna be a stud this year.”

“We’ll see.”

“White Sox are going all the way this year. You watch.”

I laughed. He says that every year. “You say that every year.”

“And I mean it every year. But I SERIOUSLY mean it this year.”

“You say that every year too.”

“Just watch.” Very confident indeed.

“Moving on,” and I paused, smiling as I transitioned, “you ready for basketball?”

“Meh.”

“Meh?”

“M-e-h. Meh.”

“Very funny. Seriously though, why meh?”

“They’re not the Hoosiers. I really don’t care.”

“Illinois baby! State pride!”

“Like I said, meh.”

“Fine then. We’ll do it without you.”

He laughed.

“I gotta piss,” I said.

“Cool. Later bud.”

I used the bathroom, and when I returned Meghan was on the phone with her father. She was laughing.

“Here,” she said, motioning to me with her phone, “he wants to talk to you.”

Ol' Z was hit and miss in the Cubs' 2005 opener.

Ol' Z was hit and miss in the Cubs' 2005 opener.

I picked up, and he launched into it.

That’s how you win. Pitching. 1-0. Wasn’t it beautiful?”

“Terrific.”

“If only the Cubs could find pitchers like that…”

I laughed and rolled my eyes. “If only.”

Don was relentless. “You’d think they’d eventually be able to put together a staff that can pitch into the fifth. I guess if you want to see pitching like that this year, you’ll have to go to Comiskey.”

“I’m sorry, Don, I can’t hear you. There’s too much bullshit on the phone.”

He cracked up at that, and I handed the phone back to Meghan. It had been a good start to the day, and all kidding aside with Luke and Don, I was very excited that both the Cubs and the Sox had won. The more positive Chicago sports karma we had going into the Illini game, the better. This, I felt, was vital. We couldn’t have any Illini fans grumbling even a little bit about either the Cubs or the Sox losing. With both teams turning in W’s, it was as if they said, “All right, our job is done, and we did it right. Now you go do yours.”

Adam split after the conclusion of the baseball games, heading home to do homework and to watch basketball with his family. The transition from Opening Day baseball to the last game of the college hoops season was a smooth one; I took off my Santo jersey to reveal my homemade Dee jersey while Meghan ordered a pizza for the two of us to share, and that was that. In all of the excitement surrounding baseball, I hadn’t had a chance to fully note just how good the food was at this place. We had a nice stream of appetizers during the Cubs game, moving from mozzarella sticks to chicken fingers to buffalo wings between the three of us. Everything there was good. Rare is the place that combines top notch food with great game access; I’ve always felt that the grub at Buffalo Wild Wings is vastly overrated.

When the Bulls used it as their marketing slogan in 2004, they went 30-52. When the Illini used it a year later, they tied a record for most wins in a season. Go figure.

When the Bulls used it as their marketing slogan in 2004, they went 23-59. When the Illini used it a year later, they tied a record for most wins in a season. Go figure.

It wasn’t long after the baseball games had ended that the basketball crowd began filing in, and to our surprise there was a good number of Illini fans in attendance. As we got closer and closer to tip-off, I kept thinking back to the night three years earlier when we sat at Luke’s frat house and watched IU play Maryland. I remembered the feeling of disconnect, the feeling of being an inside observer rather than a full-fledged participant. Now was my chance to experience what so many of my schoolmates had experienced that night, and this time there was a good chance that victory would be the end result.

While Illinois had a terrific trio of guards, all three of which will probably end up in the NBA, the UNC trio of PG Raymond Felton, SG Rashad McCants, and F/C Sean May was as dominant of a collegiate trio as I’d seen in a long time. I struggle to think of one better…the first that comes to mind is Laettner, Hurley, and Hill, though Grant Hill was a freshman when Duke won their first national title. Carolina is rolling with three All-America candidates, and they’re all juniors. That’s damn impressive.

The game started well. Deron Williams hit a jumper to open things up, but before the Illini had scored again the UNC Three were all on the board. May made a layup to establish his inside position, McCants knocked down a three and got another hoop, and Felton put in a pair of free throws on a James Augustine foul. 9-2 Heels…early…

Back came Illinois, bang-bang-bang, with a trey and a lay from Dee followed by a layup from bench standout and cult favorite Jack Ingram. Tied at nine.

Sean May turned in a powerfully efficient performance in the title game.

Sean May turned in a powerfully efficient performance in the title game with 24 points and 10 boards...

And back and forth it went. The Heels would make a run, and the Illini would come right back, never really getting ahead, but never falling back without coming back. Carolina went up 23-17 on a Felton three, but Luther got one to pull it back to three, and then more of Ingram, with a trey of his own and a pair of freebies to pull the score to 27-25. Still behind, but feeling pretty good. Not moving ahead, but hanging right there. Not delighted, but not nervous. And then…

Bang-bang-bang.

Carolina got it going, and when a layup from McCants put the Heels up ten with three and a half to play, I began to get nervous. It was well due. Carolina closed out the first half on a 13-2 run and headed into the locker room with a 40-27 lead. The wheels were coming off. Time for a turn around.

Like football, basketball is a game of matchups. The ’90s Bulls were proof of this. They are the only NBA team of the modern era to have won a championship without an All-Star center, focusing instead on MJ’s post game for their interior scoring. But what really put the Bulls over the top was their versatility. Michael, Scottie, and Toni could all play inside and outside offensively, and Pippen could guard anyone from point to power. Our “point guard” was really an off-guard, our small forward ran the point, our center was usually our fourth offensive option on the floor, and at any given time we had at least two and sometimes four guys on the floor who could play multiple positions. Their lineup was so malleable, that when Longley got hurt they could slide Dennis into the center spot and keep on rolling.

...while poor James Augustine fouled out in just nine minutes.

...while poor James Augustine fouled out in just nine minutes.

An inside game is crucial in basketball, because it does the same thing that a solid running game does in football. Both are low risk/high reward offensive attacks, and both wear out the defense in ways that jump shots and the passing attack never will. Coming into the game, everybody knew that the inside matchup of Sean May against James Augustine would be crucial, and perhaps it was this matchup that led to Carolina’s 13 point half time lead. May shot four of five from the field in the first half for eight points; Augustine was relegated to bench status for much of the half when he was hit with his second personal at the 11:30 mark. Not good. Augustine had been a stud during the first three games of the tourney (11 and 15 against Fairleigh Dickenson, 23 and 10 against Nevada, and 11 and 10 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee), and after a weak regional final in which he fouled out on four points and six boards, he had rebounded with 11 boards and solid interior D against Louisville. Augustine was the unheralded key to the Illini’s ascent during the 2004-05 season, and if he was unable to turn things around for the second half, the Illini would have to learn to cope without him.

As fate would have it, Augustine opened the second half with a missed jumper, followed by a May bucket inside. Carolina’s lead was fifteen, which was nervous, but with the Arizona comeback still freshly in mind, the Illini and their faithful knew that the game was far from over. Luther Head knocked down a jumper…but then…yuck. Back-to-back cheapo fouls on the beleaguered Augustine knocked him out of the game; four fouls, and he hadn’t even played ten minutes. Carolina got a layup from May, followed by the classic “Deeeeeeee for threeeeeeee” and after Felton and Head matched treys, May went inside for another dunk. The big fella now had fourteen in the game with three buckets in the first minute and a half of the second half, and the Carolina lead was fourteen.

But basketball is a game of momentum, and a game of runs, and with seventeen and a half minutes remaining in the national title game, the Illini made their move. Deron hit a jumper, Luther bagged a layup and followed it up with a three, and Deron answered with a three of his own. The 10-0 Illini run had cut the lead to four with fifteen and a half to play. The crowd at Sport swelled with applause when Williams hit his three; it seemed like the whole place was orange and navy, with but a few baby blue Heels fans sprinkled in for dramatic effect. Illinois then traded a Marvin Williams dunk for another Deron Williams trey, and a single David Noel foul shot for a Roger Powell layup, and with that the Carolina lead was cut to 52-50.

The Tar Heels did indeed have plenty o'star power, including freshman Marvin Williams coming off the bench to provide hellacious dunks like this one.

The Tar Heels did indeed have plenty o'star power, including freshman Marvin Williams coming off the bench to provide hellacious dunks like this one.

The Illini had outscored the Heels 23-12 in the second half, and at that point I had the same exact thought that every other Illini fan in the country must have had: Here Comes Illinois.

“Alright,” I said to Meghan. “Here comes the push. Time to takeover.”

And it was…for Sean May.

Felton is a wonderful point guard, and looks like he’ll be the best pro of the three. And McCants is a terrific scorer, even if he is a little streaky. But during this tournament, particularly in this championship game, May had the look of a man who knew exactly what he could accomplish and knew exactly how he was going to accomplish it. Again and again, Carolina went inside to May, and it seemed that every time he touched the ball, he scored. It was this element of Carolina’s offense that was so demoralizing; May wasn’t just a powerful offensive weapon, but also a constant reminder that the Heels possessed an option more consistent than anything Illinois could bring.

52-50 as the streaking Illini came back, and then Sean May…a layup and a free throw, followed by another inside basket. Seven quick points for the nimble big man; 59-50 UNC. Deron and Jawad Williams traded treys, and after Roger Powell’s bucket cut the lead to five, May went back to work, getting a jumper and going three of five from the line. The lead was now back to ten, 65-55, and though the game was far from over—Come on Illinois! Knock down those treys! Run the floor! Come on Dee! Get it going. (Show fans across the country why you were the best team all year)—it had been made abundantly clear that UNC would be able to ride Sean May to the title, if they wanted to. In five minutes, May had outscored the Illini 10-5 on three baskets and four free throws.

8:51 to play. UNC 65, Illinois 55.

Uh oh. This is getting out of control. We need a run…

Driving layup for Dee, ‘J’s’ from Ingram and Luther and then Ingram again, who was providing a great spark off the bench in place of Augustine; the long, slender inside man fouled out at the seven minute mark with his Illini trailing by six. A sad end to a sad game for a gutsy and talented player who had a wonderful season…Augustine’s final line for the game: nine minutes played, 0-3 from the field, two rebounds, no points, and five fouls. We shook our heads sadly when he left the floor, and every Illini fan in the gym or watching on TV felt for the guy. Fouled out in the final game, barely even leaving his mark except as a trivia question…

But no!

With Dee and Deron running the show, the Illini and their fans always felt confident.

With Dee and Deron running the show, the Illini and their fans always felt confident.

No time for sadness or malaise! We’ve got a game to win and a comeback to finish. A missed jumper from McCants, and then a foul on Felton against the speedy high-socked human fast-break headbanded blur of a point guard, Dee Brown, who calmly knocked down a pair.

5:34 to play. UNC 65, Illinois 65. Beautiful.

“YES! YES! YES!” we shouted in unison as Dee knocked down the second free throw and backed into his defensive stance. “DEEeeeeeeeeeeee!”

Felton hit a three, Deron hit a two, and then May, always May, back inside to May who was fouled by Ingram and converted both free throws.

4:21 to play. UNC 70, Illinois 67, and after a missed trey by Deron there was a timeout on the floor. Bathroom time.

My personal benchmark for memorable trips to a public bathroom is the well-documented post-game trip following the Bears-Eagles playoff game in January of 2002, and until this day, no other bathroom trip could rival it. Not anymore. Without saying a word to Meghan, I stood, turned towards the exit, and set out for the bathroom. Four other Illini fans stood at the same moment and walked with me, and we quickly and naturally formed a single-file line and marched into the bathroom like a basketball team exiting out of the tunnel. We did not say a word to each other, nor did we ever make eye contact, yet there we were, five strangers brought together in a Seattle sports bar to watch a college basketball team from Illinois, and the manner with which we walked was exactly the same. It was obvious to anyone involved that the five of us were in sync, both in body and mind: I have to pee quickly and efficiently in order to get back to the game before the commercial break is over, but at the same time I have to remain focused on the task at hand, which is helping Illinois defeat North Carolina.

The 2005 Tar Heels were a wicked good squad.

The 2005 Tar Heels were a wicked good squad.

At that point, with four minutes to play, I had no doubt that the Illini would win. It was within their sights, so simply, so clearly, and the proof was in the five of us, the five strangers who marched into the bathroom with a shared single-mindedness and determination that can only be brought out by the act of supporting a team—YOUR team—in the biggest game of their career.

But something was wrong.

Like the odd details placed in murder scenes in the Godfather movies, details like a faulty hallway light or open blinds or a toll booth opperater dropping a coin and then ducking out of sight, Illinois’ return from the timeout felt, well, odd. Lots of time remaining—if any team knew the value of the final four minutes of a tourney game, it was Illinois—and yet Dee came out of the timeout and missed a three. Melvin Scott missed a jumper, and then it was Luther Head confidently knocking down a triple.

3:00 to play, UNC 70, Illinois 70. Illinois fans screaming wildly, me and Meghan included, leading me to believe that the determination of the Bathroom Five was paying off. And yet…

…things still felt, well, odd.

Marvin Williams missed a shot, and with loads of time on the clock, Deron fired and missed a three. McCants missed a layup, but Williams tipped it in to give the Heels a two point lead with a buck forty-one remaining. And then…a missed trey from Luther. Timeout Illinois after the miss, and then, after the break, still trailing by just two, Deron took and missed another three.

Did the Illini have one last push in them?

Did the Illini have one last push in them?

What I’d been afraid of was finally happening: the Illini were shooting themselves out of the game. Live by the Three, Die by the Three, and that’s exactly how it went down. After erasing UNC’s ten point lead and tying the game at 65 and later at 70, the Illini had failed to adjust their mentality from Comeback Mode to Crucial Late Game Possession Mode. They had specialized in clutch three-point shooting all season—their biggest Heart Of A Champion moment came in the comeback against Arizona, which was sparked and puncuated by key threes—and yet in this critical sequence, with the title on the line, they were playing themselves out of a championship. Five missed threes in four minutes, and two of those came at 72-70, when a two was all they needed. A two puts you in overtime, a three makes you a hero, and the heroic Illini were overthinking themselves, setting aside their trademark combination of speed and brains in the name of One Big Shot. Not now. Come on guys. Not now. My heart sunk. Foul on Deron, 26 seconds left. Now we could feel it slipping away. Felton split a pair. 73-70 UNC, oh please no, not now and now they felt as if they had to get a three, even though a quick deuce would suffice. Luther missed from the arc, foul on Deron, and this time Felton hit both. 75-70 UNC, ten seconds left, and now they needed a miracle.

Luther missed a three.

Heels gained control.

Clock ticked to zero.

Game over.

And that was that.

The 2004-2005 Fightin’ Illini had come to an end.

******

I sat in shock.

As always, sports gives us the elated victor...

As always, sports gives us the elated...

Not once had I considered this as an outcome. Illinois lose? I suppose it was possible, but it seemed so incredibly unlikely that before the game I was ready to anoint them among the greatest teams in Illinois state history, regardless of sport or rank. This team was quite clearly one of the most beloved squads to represent for the I-L-L, and it seemed obvious that they were going to take home a title. This was a championship team. That was clear. Undefeated until the final game of the season, a streak that ended at the hands of a last second trey, and then straight through the Big Ten tourney before blasting through the first three rounds of the NCAA’s. Then Arizona, the breakdown, the comeback, the madness, the kind of game that builds towards a championship. The dismantling of Louisville…on to the final…one game away…

I felt…what? Not cheated, because even in my post-game dismay I was aware of the gift that we’d all been given, a gift in the form of a basketball team. No…it was shock and sadness that I felt. The end of this story was inconceivable. It was an intensified version of my feelings at the end of The Bad News Bears; never, NEVER, could I have imagined the Bears losing on a play at the plate. The good guys are supposed to win, right? This was a fairy-tale, and we know how those end.

But not this time.

...and the dejected.

...and the dejected. But even with the title loss...

As I sat there in, well, shock, CBS ran a promo for their hit show Amazing Race as the first commercial of their first post-game commercial break. How could they do that? Didn’t they know that the Illini’s magical run had just come to an end? Who could possibly care about Amazing Race at that point? You’ve just had your heart ripped out while watching your Illini lose in the NCAA Championship Game, right here on CBS. Next up: Amazing Race. It was as if the game was just another CBS show, just another program in the lineup, and now that it was over it was time to move on to the next one.

But this wasn’t just anther show, and it wasn’t just another game. This was the end of something special, something beautiful, and it ended with the death of the hero. Hans Gruber killed John MacClaine, and as Bruce Willis lay dead, Alan Rickman ran off with Holly MacClaine, the villain walking off into the sunset. How could it happen like this? Sure the Heels were excited, as were their fans, but did they really care? I mean, did they really care? These 2005 North Carolina Tar Heels were a terrific team, and had earned the title. I’m not trying to knock them or their accomplishments, but what did it mean to them? Wasn’t it Just Another Title? Would this team be remembered ahead of the ’93 squad or the ’82 squad? And what about Roy Williams? So the great coach finally won a title. Would he be remembered ahead of Dean Smith? Now, with a title, the ’05 Heels were a “great team,” but what would they have been without a title? This was supposed to be Illinois’ championship. That was supposed to be Dee and Deron and Luther up on the stage, dancing around in championship shirts. That was supposed to be Bruce Weber cutting down the nets, and Roger Powell exiting with a championship to cap off his senior year. This team would always be remembered, title or not, in a way that Carolina would not be…

...isn't this what you think of when you think of Dee Brown?

...isn't this what you think of when you think of Dee Brown?

…and as I’m saying all of this to Meghan in a stream of undoing while walking back to our hotel, I realized the significance of my words: the title didn’t matter. It would have been great, but it didn’t matter. Even without the trophy, the 2005 Fightin’ Illini were a great team. UNC was fabulous, but they needed a title to validate them in a way that Illinois did not. Felton, McCants, and May were a fabulous trio, and they had earned the national title. But while each season is assured to produce one champion, each season is not assured to produce one classic team. And that’s what these Illini were for us. A classic team. They were ours, and if I was feeling this, I could only imagine how Glick and the other fans who had been there the whole season were feeling. Maybe they were still too upset to have the epiphany that I was having, but it would come, and when it did they would realize that they didn’t need a title like they thought they would. It would have been great—it would have been GREAT—but this Illinois team will live on just as strong without one. They were eternal in a way that a trophy never could be. They were ours. The 2004-2005 Illinois Fightin’ Illini.

The Cubs will play again tomorrow, as will the White Sox, with each team suiting up for Game 2 of 162. By the time those teams take the field tomorrow, the ’05 Illini will officially be a memory, one that will live on with us as long as basketball is played.

One season ends as another begins.

And it was good.

Copyright 2005, jm silverstein

For more on the 2005 Stylin’ Illini from readjack.com, read Storming Back

It began like this…


…and went down like this:


Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s