Yesterday I drove from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana to see my first Fighting Illini basketball game since I had graduated from the University of Illinois. I wanted to write it like that to make it sound official.
I drove slower than usual on I-57 towards Champaign. I'd been back to the campus since. First, to see the football team MIRACULOUSLY beat Cincinnati in a game I am convinced was Point No. 1 on Timmy Beck's, "Why you should keep me for another year" list. It was a three point list: No. 1 Cincinnati, No. 2 Purdue, No. 3 "I'll shave my head like Groce, Mr. Thomas, I swear." My second time back was for Homecoming, in which I did not watch the football game (2-for-2 on football decisions this year ) but instead, participated in one of the greater hook and ladder plays in tailgate-pickup-football history.
As I drove, cars whizzed by and Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" played on repeat in my car. It was a Christmas present from my dad, who, with my brother, was meeting me down in Champaign for the game. My iPod cord was acting funny, and with ice slowly breaking off my car and flying back at the faster cars behind me--like the guy as the sports flag mayhem in the Allstate commercial--I decided I shouldn't be intermittently taking my eyes off the road to get the music working, especially as "DISTRACTED DRIVING IS DANGEROUS DRIVING" signs flashed above me every 30 miles or so.
Even though I drove slow, I arrived early. I was meeting my brother and father at the Subway on Gregory St. in Urbana. I parked and walked into Cafe Paradiso, where I had studied and met professors throughout my senior year. I ordered a cappuccino to go, got back in my car, and drove aimlessly for a few minutes, waiting for my brother to call when him and my father had arrived and for me to answer "hands-free." I started off down Lincoln Avenue, drove past the Sorority Houses, past PAR and FAR, and into what I've always assumed to be the Agricultural Sciences area on the outskirts of campus, and finally came to the conclusion of Lincoln, a T-intersection. At that moment, my brother called. I said I'd be there in a few minutes and pulled a U-Turn.
As I drove back down Lincoln, I glanced over to my left and saw the USS Assembly Hall Farm Center in the distance, home of my favorite sports team in the whole world. If you've ever been to Assembly Hall, you know it is a strange structure that sticks out from the campus' more traditional, red brick buildings. I like to believe it was the first real project that an indoor golf bubble engineer was assigned to plan, and he couldn't get the sci-fi epics his 16-year-old son was constantly asking him to read out of his head. In the foreground of my view were about 100 stationary cows.
The three of us chowed down in a corner booth. My dad had a tuna sandwich, I ate an Italian B.M.T., and I'm not quite sure what my brother had. Talk turned from, "What's new?" to the game that lay ahead. Three generations of Illini fans. My dad was on campus some 35 years before, the seasoned veteran who had lived through The Slush Fund, the Flyin' Illini, Deon Thomas, Bruce Pearl, and the 2005 Final Four Team. My brother is in his first year at Illinois, and has found his Illini passion after some college allegiance doubt (he at one time owned a Fairly Dickinson t-shirt).
For me, beating Penn State 75-55 was as much about looking ahead to the future of Illinois Basketball with John Groce, as it was looking into the past and conquering the demons of anxiety that basketball games against Penn State seem to quell up. While at the game, the first half left a thin film of sweat on my arms and forehead. Penn State hadn't scored for 8 minutes, but some time later, the score was 28-26. The halftime buzzer sounded, and I leaned forward, resting my head in my hands, feeling the thin film of sweat mix with the oils of my fingers.
My coat dropped from my lap (free invention: some kind of super efficient coat check/place to put your coat while you attend an indoor sporting event). I went through my usual stages of blame. I blamed the officials. I blamed the 19 year old kids who were having an off day shooting. I blamed myself. I thought about Talor Battle, about Trent Meacham, about watching my Illini trudge through the offensive soul-sucking muck that is playing against Penn State. When doing the small amount of research evident in this post, I found that Illinois hadn't really struggled much against Penn State during my tenure at the University. More than they should have, but in my four years, it seemed the team would lose one game in the 50s and then win another in the 60s. However, in 2009, six months before I arrived on campus, the Illini lost 38-33, at home to Penn State. Talor Battle led all scorers with 11 points.
That loss in 2009 spanned longer than two-and-a-half hours. Every year I worry about Penn State, knowing I'll be frustrated with the result and only barely breathing of sigh of relief if we escape with a victory; knowing how sad the word "escape" truly is when said in conjunction with Nittany Lion basketball. And with each loss, new scabs on the those old Talor Battle Scars.
As the players left the court, the halftime show commenced. It was the 25th Anniversary of the Flyin' Illini.
First came some of the support staff, then the managers (we got our tickets from an Illini Basketball Manger, so we "whooped" pretty loudly), then the coaches, and then the players.
It was fun. After all the players present were announced, I could feel tension had lifted a bit in the arena. My dad was visibly happier. I was visibly happier. The players and coaches I had pretended to be as I dunked and shot fade-aways on my basement Fisher Price Hoop were in front of me, smiling and enjoying the cheers from the crowd that I was a part of. Almost like a little kid, I asked my dad about certain players I couldn't remember from the YouTube clips. I looked over as my brother screamed, "AH YEAH JIMMY," when Jimmy Collins waived to the crowd. Sometimes you have to beat memories with memories.
About half way through the second half, Kendrick Nunn showed some passion, some fight and some heart that had been missing from the game. I launched out of my seat, yelled, screamed, cheered him on, and began texting my friends, "Kendrick for PREZ."
What happened next felt good. I enjoyed beating Penn State by 20.
My brother is going to be living across the street from where I lived in Urbana. I'm excited for his time as an Illini basketball fan. I'm excited for the next game.