By way of background, I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, in the 1980s. Naturally, I rooted for the hometown Hurricanes. I then went to University of Florida for college in the early 2000s and became a die hard Gator fan (I still am). When I moved to Chicago for law school in August of 2004, I was an outsider having little to no connection to the midwest.
Luckily, my random roommate graduated from Illinois a few months earlier. We quickly bonded, and I also became friends with his friends from UIUC. At the same time, the Illini were about to go on a historic rampage through the college basketball season.
From the moment Illinois outclassed a top-ranked Chris Paul-led Wake Forest team in the Big Ten-ACC challenge, the Illini became the talk of college basketball.
The Illini were a fun distraction from the rigors of law school. As the winter/spring semester started in January 2005, everyone knew Illinois was up to something special.
That season, the Illini frequented the marquee Tuesday night Big Ten matchup on ESPN. My new Illini family and I would gather for the tense home win against Iowa, the crucial Tuesday night win at Wisconsin followed by another crucial Tuesday night win at Michigan State.
When the Illini entered the NCAA Tournament, my adopted Illini family took me took me to an Illini bar in Chicago to watch the epic Elite Eight game against Arizona. We jumped for joy as Illinois came back from the depths of despair to make an epic comeback over Arizona to clinch a final four spot.
The next weekend, we traveled to Champaign for the Semifinal Saturday Final Four game against Louisville. The campus erupted as the Illini pulled away from Louisville for the win. We rushed Green Street and celebrated on the quad.
A few days later, I felt the collective heart break of Illini Nation after the gut wrenching National Title game loss to UNC. That Illini run to the final forged friendships that are still strong and active in my life, thereby cementing the Illini with a special place in my sports fan heart.