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This season means much, much more

I’m ready for hoops. But this isn’t about me.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

I get it. Not having any Big Ten football right now is pretty weird. Whichever side of the fence you sit on about that particular issue, there’s no doubt that a pretty substantial void exists. Thankfully, the league rolled out an updated, truncated schedule in mid-September, which should help satiate a large portion of the populace. But I’m not here to talk about Lovie Smith’s team. At least not today.

The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly made time stand still while simultaneously blurring days, weeks, and months together. Remember back in March, when Fighting Illini basketball was striding towards the NCAA Tournament? That feels like it was YEARS ago. Even Ayo Dosunmu & Kofi Cockburn announcing their returns to the program feels like a distant memory.

Memory. That’s what I’m choosing to focus on. My father is soon to turn 77. He has plenty of memories about the Illinois Fighting Illini. But there’s a realistic possibility that this is his last best chance to see a championship-caliber team. He has expressed this angst to me multiple times — this could be the best Illinois team of his lifetime, and he doesn’t want to miss it.

He’ll ask me about any Illini news — almost without fail — whenever we talk. The implications of not playing basketball sunk in for fans like my dad, who has far more years behind him than ahead of him. This goes beyond merely feeling bad for current students and players, though the hurt would be very real for them, too. Selfishly, I want this season to happen mostly so my dad and I can revel in it together.

For his birthday a few years ago I surprised him with floor tickets to Illinois’ game against North Carolina Central. It was Brad Underwood’s first season. Mark Smith — not Ayo — was gonna be the “it” guy. Te’Jon Lucas — not Trent Frazier — was the starting point guard. Mark Alstork was the transfer du jour. It was a relatively “meh” game (Illinois won 86-73) in what was a relatively “meh” season (the team finished 14-18). None of this mattered to my dad. He was genuinely glad to be there, even if he was too proud of a guy to actually admit it at the time. It was one of the happiest moments we’d shared together in many years. Just a father and son going to a game.

The first Illini game I attended in person was with my parents in 2001, when Bill Self’s squad beat Gonzaga at Assembly Hall — the “spaceship,” as I lovingly referred to it. I’d grown up an Illini fan, but I’d never really experienced being an Illini fan until that night. That flipped the switch for me, and my obsession with the Orange & Blue likely began on that chilly November night. But I likely wouldn’t have been nearly as passionate about Illinois basketball — and sports in general — were it not for my dad.

When I was growing up, he’d tell me about some of his favorite players to watch, names like Eddie Johnson, Bruce Douglas, Ken Norman, the Flyin’ Illini. Then there were those we’d watched together. Deon. Deron. Dee. There are dozens more that I’m leaving out.

But this ‘20-21 team could eclipse them all: Trent, who’s been ride-or-die since day one. Ayo, the transcendent superstar. Kofi, the game-changer. Da’Monte, the stopper. Giorgi, the mirthful, charismatic role-player. Adam, the successor.

The cynic in me wants to downplay the hype. I’ve seen this movie many times before — my favorite teams tend to stink up the joint as soon as they have any kind of spotlight on them. But something feels different this time. It feels like the right coach, the right roster, the right moment in time. That’s not to say we should expect Illinois to win a national title. But anything less than a Sweet 16 would be a gut punch. Ayo & Kofi came back for a reason. I hope that #UnfinishedBusiness is more of a prophecy and less of a slogan.

Nov. 25 can’t come fast enough. Let’s make some memories, boys. But not just for me.