I love Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Without exaggeration, he is probably my favorite athlete of all time. The smile, the energy, the dancing, I love everything about the guy. And it’s not just about his personality — I’ve always liked him as a player too.
When Giorgi first arrived in Champaign, he was not expected to amount to much. He was ranked 373rd as a recruit, and he was certainly not one of Brad Underwood’s top priorities. In fact, Underwood only discovered him when he was scouting Giorgi’s high school teammate.
But even as a freshman, Giorgi quickly made a name for himself. He was a fan favorite before the season even started, firing up the State Farm Center crowd during the exhibition against Illinois Wesleyan. And in just his third game, he put up 17 points against a Gonzaga team that would go on to make the Elite Eight. By the time his freshman season was over, Giorgi had set the Illinois freshman single-game scoring record with a monster 35-point performance against Rutgers, and he was the 5th-highest scoring Illini freshman of all time with 12.5 points per game. Not bad for the 373rd-ranked recruit.
His sophomore season did not go as well. With the addition of Kofi Cockburn, Giorgi was forced into a new role as a power forward instead of center. He never quite got comfortable as the 4-man, and by the end of the season he lost his starting spot and played almost exclusively as Kofi’s backup.
In his junior season though, he settled nicely into his backup role. No longer asked to carry as much of the offensive load, Giorgi regained the efficiency of his freshman season. He did struggle to find consistency from game to game, but he still showed flashes of brilliance that reminded us all just how amazing he could be.
And no moment was more amazing than the Big Ten championship. After Illinois got out to an early 17-point lead, Ohio State cut the lead to two early in the second half. Worse yet, Kofi Cockburn was forced to the bench with foul trouble. Enter Bezhanishvili. Despite Ohio State having all of the momentum, Giorgi ripped off 10 points in a row capped off by this glorious and one.
In the end, I think that’s how we’ll remember Giorgi. Yes, he had his struggles, but he played basketball with a joy that was impossible not to appreciate. So when he led Illinois to its biggest win since 2005… well, there’s a reason fans showered a backup center with chants of “Gior-gi, Gior-gi.”
For now, Giorgi likely heads to Europe to play professionally, and I know that Illini fans will miss him. He will probably miss us too. But he gets to return home from America with a college education and an opportunity to make a living close to his family. You don’t have to be an Illini fan to cheer for that.