There is a long path that lines the East entrances of Memorial Stadium, connecting the heart of campus to the parking lot of Assembly Hall. On one side of the path is the Illinois practice field, littered with tackling dummies and blocking sleds. On the other side is the stadium decorated with stone pillars.
It's the path students take to and from Illinois basketball games. The wind blows in both directions here, metaphorically pushing you both towards and away from Assembly Hall, all while spitting the current precipitation directly in your face. The ground always has a tendency to be icier than the rest of campus. It is not an easy walk.
I've walked it for four years. On Saturday, I'll walk that path for the final time because Saturday is my Senior Day too.
Illinois basketball was a deity growing up in Central Illinois with the gods Frankie, Dee, Deron and Luther commanding their Assembly Hall Athena. My eighth grade year coincided with the '04-'05 season and upcoming games were discussed as much as any math or science lesson. I have strong memories of my friends and I rifling through homework towards the end of one December day so we could go home and watch the Illinois-Wake Forest game without distraction. Good time management.
High school held lesser Illinois years, but the team still held its luster. When our school put together a more organized student section, the upper classmen told us to all wear the same color, so, "we would look like the Orange Krush." The Illinois basketball program was a role model. I graduated in 2009, the year Chester Frazier and the Illini scrapped their way to a 5-seed.
D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey graduated that same year.
It was Bruce Weber's first great recruiting class. Brandon Paul was Illinois' Mr. Basketball. D.J. Richardson shined in Peoria and at Findlay Prep, perhaps even brighter than his now-NBA teammates (Cory Joseph, Avery Bradley and Tristan Thompson). Tyler Griffey was the talented, pick n' pop power forward who chose Illinois over Mizzou. All three were Top 100 recruits.
These were the three core guys responsible for bringing Illinois back to the forefront of college hoops, as if the collective idea of "forefront" hadn't been forever distorted by 2005. Looking back, perhaps the expectations were too high.
We know their tale by now. They'll be known as the transition guys. The whipping boys. The scapegoats. They endured boos from the home crowd and missed tournaments. They endured the drama of bad teammates. They experienced the end of one era, and the beginning of the next, neither of which will be defined by them. The Weber era is 2003-2006. Everything else is just titled "collapse". The Groce era is yet undefined, but this senior season for Paul, Richardson and Griffey will be labeled as "a new beginning" or "the rough start" or something along those lines that points to the future, not at the present. It won't be the focus of the completed story. It won't be the focus of any story.
Except for mine.
What a difficult realization that must be--to be unmagnificent. It's not the story you dream up as a youngster watching Illinois basketball. You imagine being a part of something special, something that earns a nickname like "Flying Illini" or starts a nation wide trend, like headbands, high socks and two thumbs in the jersey that lets everyone know just exactly what team you play for.
You don't imagine mediocrity. In that way, I'm unmagnificent as well because I certainly didn't imagine this. Two missed tournaments, never competing for the Big Ten, Bruce Weber fired, tumult, anger and disappointment. That's how the Illinois history book will tell this tale. Disappointment.
The shiny, beautiful luster isn't quite the same as it was eight years ago, but in it's place may be something more valuable--a lasting bond. Bandwagoners prove that it's easy to like the best and the greatest, but when the going gets tough and losses begin to pile up, they're gone. They enjoy the warmth of their living rooms. They don't walk the iced, windy path to Assembly Hall. When they come back in a few years, we have a right to ask, "Where the hell have you been?"
That history book? Those are the people that write it, so what does the history book know anyway? Adages hold far more truth, for example: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
True history is told by the common folk, in this case the students and to me, this senior class is far from unmaginificent. They are two buzzer beaters against Indiana. They are three thrashings of Gonzaga. They are D.J.'s step-back and Tyler's lay-up. They are Brandon Paul's 43, Brandon Paul's 35 and Brandon Paul's freshman year Clemson game. They are College Gameday against Michigan State. They are a dismantling of UNLV in Round One.
They are BP, DJ and TG. They are my class.
When I walk away from Assembly Hall and get through the Memorial Stadium path, I'm expecting an overwhelmingly sad moment. Usually, completing that walk is a relief. It's the end of an icy, wind tunnel. On Saturday, it's the end of an era. Like the senior class, I'll miss it dearly.
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