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Healing and Legacy

An old, familiar spirit made a tragic week feel a little more normal.

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

It’s been a week.

Nine days ago we learned that former Illini Robert Archibald passed away at 39. Three days later the world lost Kobe Bryant at 41.

Shook. That’s the only word I have. I don’t have the life experience or the personal relationships to adequately articulate the emotions this last week has carried for so many of us. It’s been a long week of memorializing, storytelling and tributes. I don’t want to pile on top of that. But it’s the only lens I can experience Illinois Basketball through right now.

So I apologize in advance if the rest of this post lacks some cohesiveness or clarity. But perhaps that’s fitting given the week we’ve had.

I was seven years old in 2001.

The first sports team I ever loved were those Bill Self Fighting Illini Big Ten Championship teams. My first favorite player was Frank Williams. My first jersey was a blue, Brian Cook #34 jersey with that slick black side paneling.

During this same time, the Shaq and Kobe Lakers were in the midst of their three-peat. Shaq and Kobe are my first real NBA memory. When I was introduced to the NBA, I thought the Shaq and Kobe Lakers were the standard for greatness, for basketball immortality. I even had a Lakers 3-peat shirt. I would grow into being a Bulls fan and I will get online and call Michael Jordan the greatest player of all time until I’m sore in the thumbs. But I have no memory of seeing him play for the Bulls. But I got to see Kobe Bryant’s entire career.

This has been the first time it felt like pieces from my sports Rolodex had been ripped out and thrown to the wind. Something that uniquely belonged to the foundation of my sports consciousness.... was just gone. The news of Archibald and Kobe was tragic. Similar in some ways, different in others. But in the end, just tragic. They’ve both caused me to return to my basketball fandom infancy at the turn of the century, and remember why I loved to play and watch the game.

The poetry, artistry and the emotion of the game of basketball is unmatched. I don’t think there’s many things in this world where you can see so much creativity in one moment, and see the same amount of tenacity and killer instinct in the next.

And the fact that you can feel so much passion for some colors, some laundry and some spaceship looking building in the middle of a cornfield is so frustratingly beautiful.

As you can imagine, no one was more thrilled than me when John Groce secured a commitment from Da’Monte Williams.

I’ve always claimed certain players as “my guys” before they ever even step foot on the court. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.

First Myke Henry, then Malcolm Hill, and now it would be Da’Monte Williams.

And once you’re my guy, you’re my guy.

I didn’t expect Frankie Williams. But I was excited that there was going to be a connection to my first real memory of being a sports fan back on my favorite team. And that Bill Raftery might blurt out “Shades of Frankie!” after Da’Monte crossed someone up in the open floor.

Holding on. That’s all college sports really is, right? Transporting you back to that time and place when you were young and full of passion all the time. These games and these kids are our way of not letting go of that feeling.

It hasn’t exactly been a storybook career for Da’Monte Williams.

He battled back from an ACL injury he suffered during his senior season in high school. His minutes have stabilized as an upperclassmen, but his shot and skill hasn’t lived up to the potential scouts saw in high school. While his offensive skill and aggression doesn’t remind us of his father, his IQ and basketball toughness does. And Brad Underwood has rewarded that with a starting spot on the best Illinois basketball team since 2005.

All season fans have been calling for Da’Monte to have a reduced role. And it’s hard to blame them. Prior to his suspension, Alan Griffin was having a breakout year and bringing an offensive punch to the table that Williams wasn’t. But Da’Monte didn’t waver. He didn’t complain. He didn’t start forcing things. He stayed true to his game and his role and his responsibility.

We all have a Michael Jordan, or a Frankie Williams, that we aspire to be deep down. And it’s important to have goals of that stature to reach for. But it’s even more important to remember that we don’t have to be defined by the loftiest expectations we hold for ourselves.

The fact that Illini legacy Da’Monte Williams closed out the seventh straight win for Illinois in a sold out State Farm Center that was reminiscent of 2001 was the best way for that emotional week to end. And that he did it on defense with the grit of a role player and the straight-faced, all-business, killer mentality of a superstar was pretty cool to see for a kid that has worked his ass off for this program we all desperately love.

Tragedy comes in all shapes and sizes. We learned that the hard way this week. But through all of it, hopefully it reminded us why we love the people and places and things that we love so hard.