The athlete's first struggle is almost always with the self. To be sure, there are sports prodigies who benefit from not thinking, from their utter lack of self-doubt; but for some reason they don't often find themselves playing for Chicago teams and they aren't highly prized by the fans on the rare occasions that they do. Chicago fans are more intrigued by the thinkers, the head cases, even the chokers, those paralyzed by their immense abilities. They are the sort of athlete that dominates the city's sports history and mythology.
This year's Fighting Illini men's basketball team inspired memories of the 1990-'91 Bulls in the way a cohesive roster brought back from the previous season ran roughshod over the competition early on. That first Bulls championship team had to learn how to beat down its own doubts before it could beat the Detroit Pistons. Only after claiming their first championship could the Bulls use their own confidence to force the opposition to confront its own self-doubt (as when they leaked their scouting report the following year stating that the Portland Trail Blazers were chokers). Once the Illini rose to number one in the college rankings this season and held the top spot by remaining undefeated--18-0 going into this week--they had the look of a team trying to conquer its doubts the better to deal with the competition.
That look was evident in Champaign over the semester break, in an early-round game of the Las Vegas Holiday Classic against obscure Longwood. As I walked up to Assembly Hall, it seemed to vibrate with the sound of the band inside, like a giant subwoofer left faceup in the snow. Longwood came in 1-13, and word was they could lose by 70 points. When the Lancers tied the score at 2, coach Mike Gillian called a time-out so they could savor it. The Illini took control, but the game soon settled into a thoughtless offensive scrimmage. Luther Head couldn't rein in Longwood's Michael Jefferson--not even when he gave him the old Public League intimidation treatment, standing chest to chest with him on an inbounds play. Longwood actually closed to 63-56, its bench exulting and the Illini tightening (Roger Powell put up an air ball), before the dike finally burst and the Illini ran off 23 straight points on the way to a 105-79 final. Coach Bruce Weber tried to put a good face on it, saying, "I'd rather have a down and win by 26 than have a down and lose," but the players were more hangdog. "Yeah, we played a good five minutes," said Dee Brown. "That was the only good thing about the game."
Yet the Illini came back refocused when the tournament moved to Vegas for the finals; they dismissed unbeaten Cincinnati 67-45 on New Year's Eve to go 14-0 entering the Big Ten season. If ever there was a time for self-doubt to be renewed it was then, but they pulled away from Ohio State to win the opener 84-65 at home. In their first real gut check, they fell behind Purdue by nine late in the first half on the road, but dominated the second half as Brown led them back to a comfortable 68-59 triumph. Another easy home win over Penn State brought them to Evanston Saturday to play Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Illini alumni peppered the crowd of 8,117, but the NU fans were primed for an upset. When the Illini chanted "I-L-L, I-N-I," Northwestern fans responded with "Oh you, NU," which probably dates back to "Oh you kid" and "Boola boola." Yet, when some erudite Northwestern students threw in more contemporary insults, they only riled the Illini. Head, the Manley grad who seems to enjoy returning to Chicago--he had 23 in a December win over Oregon at the United Center--scored the first 8 Illinois points, on a pair of threes and a drive for a lovely reverse layup. He would contribute only one more point in the first half, and he opened the second by picking up a stupid foul that put him on the bench with three, but after that he was the difference in the game. For two years it seemed as if Head, with his meek expression and facial hair, would be another in a series of Public League flameouts at Illinois, going back to Efrem Winters and beyond. After he was picked up in a campus burglary, his career seemed all but done. Yet he returned last season to establish himself as the team's designated X factor--making wins easy when he played well and tough going when he played poorly--and as a senior this year he's looked like the finished product, shooting threes with confidence, driving dashingly to the hoop in the Illini's orange-spats sneakers, playing stern defense, even making his free throws.
Head got going in this game when Deron Williams left him a backhanded alley-oop pass--delivered in traffic with the elan of a magician pulling a bouquet of paper flowers from his sleeve--and Head jammed it in. NU pulled within 53-48, but then Head led a rally, hitting a three on a sloppy back pass from Brown with the offense in apparent disarray, driving the baseline for a reverse layup, and sinking the dagger with another three to put the Illini up 78-60 on the way to a 78-66 final.
Yet as splendidly as Head has played in Chicago this season--which bodes well for the Big Ten Tournament, taking place at the United Center--the key to the Illini has been the way he, Brown, and Williams all just keep grinding away, weaving in and out on the perimeter, until one of them gets hot. There's very little selfishness and a whole lot of grit and determination to their play, and they get just enough of an inside presence from Powell and James Augustine to keep the other team honest until the floodgates open. Under Weber's jovial, self-deprecating guidance (at NU, his shrill voice could again be heard issuing orders above the crowd), they seem to believe that, whether it happens right away or late in the game, it's only a matter of time. That triumph over their traditional insecurity only sets up a potential grudge match with coach Bill Self, who recruited most of these players to Illinois before jilting them to go to Kansas. The Jayhawks entered the week 13-0 and the number two team in the country, making for a dream matchup in the final four. For the Illini, that would be the ultimate test of Self.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.