Maybe you could say the Illini fandom was something I was born into. And I guess that would be true, but I didn’t start to actually bleed orange and blue until one night over 13 years ago.
I was only five when Dee, Deron, Luther and the rest of the Illini made one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA Tournament history. I was sitting at my grandma’s house with my parents, uncle and my grandparents finally starting to comprehend what I was seeing.
Down 15 with four minutes to go it seemed like all hope was lost for the greatest team in Illinois Basketball history. That was it. After a nearly undefeated season, the team was going to run into a buzzsaw disguised as Channing Frye and the Arizona Wildcats. But as you can all recall, something crazy started to happen, Illinois started to chip away at the lead. A Deron Williams three, then a Luther Head trey of his own, a couple fast-break layups, then another three, then a steal, and suddenly the Illini were down just three. After a stolen inbounds pass, Deron would go on to hit ‘The Shot’, cementing the silhouette of his game-tying triple in Illini lore forever.
The rest is history. Illinois would go on to win in overtime, make easy work of Louisville in the Final Four before dropping the title game to Raymond Felton and Sean May. I still remember the score 13 years later, and it’s a loss that still stings my first-grade self.
It was in that moment where my passion for the school was born. For the next 10 years I think the only thing on my Christmas list was “Illinois tickets” — and for 10 years I always got that wish.
The Illinois spring scrimmage always happened to fall right around my birthday, and that’s how I chose to celebrate it. My parents would load up a car full of me and my closest buddies and we would make the trek to Champaign for my “birthday party.” I always hung around afterwards for autographs. I remember craning my neck to see guys like J Leman, Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall wish me happy birthday.
I always enjoyed going to watch the football team. My family and I would usually catch a couple games each year, despite living over an hour away. But I’ve always favored basketball, and my favorite Illini memory came at Midnight Madness, just a couple months after the team made their NCAA Championship run.
My dad, my mom, my sister and I made the trip down. I was excited for basketball to start back up again. I mean, I was fresh off a title appearance, my juices were flowing, and I couldn’t wait to get the season underway.
As usual, my mom and I lingered around the court after in hopes to get some autographs. There were only a handful of people left. I was sporting my Dee Brown jersey with a Sharpie in one hand and a Chief pennant in the other. It looked as if everyone was wrapping up when one of the assistants, the late Wayne McClain, noticed me. He asked my mom to bring me down to the floor. I figured he was offering his autograph for me before he dipped out, but what he did next made a young boy’s dream come true.
McClain leaned over and said something to my mom that I couldn’t make out. She replied with an enthuisiastic “YES!” and told me to follow the coach. Wayne led me back through a corridor where I noticed some familiar figures: James Augustine, Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt, etc. I was ecstatic. The whole team was going to sign my pennant!
I was just missing one signature from a player I couldn’t seem to find: Dee. Wayne, being the coolest guy on planet Earth noticed, asked me to wait just a second, and popped into a room. When he walked back out, he was followed by my idol. I’m not even sure if I got out any words, but Dee introduced himself to his biggest fan, leaned over and signed my jersey just above the numbers. I was six at the time, and to this day it’s still my fondest memory from my childhood.
Ever since that day almost 13 years ago, I’ve never loved another college fanbase. I was an Illini for life now, and not even some of the worst seasons of all time, a Mike Thomas tenure, or five consecutive missed tournaments could change that. But I only have three more opportunities to witness an Illinois NCAA Tournament game in my college career.
Eight missed tournaments in a row might be enough to start thinking about finding a new team, though.