Beware. The Illinois men's basketball team is spreading the latest strain of a lethal sports virus. Full of promise, but prone to losing it all under pressure, the Fighting Illini are the Cubs of college basketball, the allure of their self-destructiveness something Chicago fans uniquely succumb to.
Just when this season appeared to be different, the Illini offered a reminder of how they'd earned their reputation. Having gone through the second half of the season atop the national rankings, they had a chance to complete an unbeaten regular season at Ohio State. They led 51-39 in the second half but then started to tighten up. Nobody wanted to take a shot. Deron Williams missed an open jumper along the baseline. Luther Head forgot the team's motion offense and just stood at the three-point arc. Roger Powell went up for a stuff and got snuffed. Worst of all, in the final seconds the Illini lost track of the Buckeyes' Matt Sylvester, a bench player who was having the day of his life. Left open, he hit a three to give him a career-high 25 points and the Buckeyes a 65-64 lead. Powell missed a shot at the buzzer and the Illini ended the regular season 29-1.
So instead of checking up on the already infected at the United Center, where the Big Ten tournament was being played last weekend, I decided to head into the neighborhoods and study how deeply the virus had penetrated there, the better to treat it when the all-but-inevitable calamity strikes. The Illini overcame a few opening jitters in their first game of the tournament and brushed aside Northwestern, so for Saturday's semifinal, against Minnesota, I walked down to Mulligan's Public House in Roscoe Village. It has a reputation as a Big Ten bar, particularly among Illini loyalists; unfortunately, that reputation was bestowed by Metromix, which doesn't know shit. When I settled in for the opening tip just after lunch, there were a handful of people at the front corner of the bar and a couple of regulars in back--none following the game. The bartender, a bearded, burly guy, apologized for serving a pint in a plastic cup--he was expecting an influx of neophytes on a pre-Saint Patrick's Day pub crawl--and tried to make up for the lack of Illini fans all by himself. When they fell behind by scoring only one basket in the first four minutes, he said, "That's it, Illinois, let's watch you lose." When they finally got going, and Head hit a three to put them in front 14-13, he shouted, "Yeah, Luther!" And when Head, trailing a fast break, immediately added another basket, the bartender said, "Yeah! That's what I want to see!" At the half, with the Illini leading 30-24, I decided to beat the pub crawl and head out. So far, no need to impose a quarantine.
Down the street at the Village Tap, things were powerful mellow. The sound was down on the TVs, and some jive-ass acid jazz was playing on the bar stereo. But this was addition by subtraction in that it silenced CBS's know-it-all analyst, Billy Packer. A substantial crowd was enjoying a late lunch, and as the second half began it didn't seem anyone was paying attention to the game. But I noticed a guy in an orange Illinois T-shirt sitting at a table in a group of four, and another guy in a blue Illini shirt just down the bar; he was soon joined by his wife. Two guys to my left started talking about how the Illini play "good team basketball," as if discussing the fine points of the acid-jazz rhythm section.
When Head set up Williams on a lovely backdoor alley-oop to put Illinois ahead 35-24, no one jumped up or shouted or oohed or ahhed. It wasn't until Minnesota's Vincent Grier muffed a breakaway slam dunk, bouncing the ball off the rim, that a bunch of people revealed with their hoots that they'd been watching. When Dee Brown missed a pair of free throws--the first telltale sign of tightness--to leave the score at 43-35 with 12:45 to play, the place got noticeably quiet. The guy in the orange shirt and the guy next to him both had their chins in their right hands, like side-by-side replicas of The Thinker. The wife of the other guy in an Illini shirt curled her arm around his waist as the game grew close--offering comfort, in sickness as in health. It was a sloppy contest at both ends, and James Augustine was keeping the Illini in it with a beastlike performance on the boards; but when he made one of two free throws Illinois led just 57-53 with under four minutes to go. Brown salvaged the rebound on the miss and passed the ball back to Augustine, who was fouled. This time he sank both shots. Moments later Williams drained a jumper from the top of the key to make it 61-53, and there was quiet clapping in one corner of the bar. When Illinois won 64-56, the two guys in Illini shirts and their friends all seemed blase about it, but you knew that if they'd lost, it would have been schnapps all around to chase down the angst. In short, for all the surface normality, the infection had clearly taken hold. If it had hit Roscoe Village, forget about Wrigleyville and other sports hotbeds.
The Illini had been shaken by the death of coach Bruce Weber's mother, who suffered chest pains on arriving at the UC for Friday's opening game and died from a ruptured aorta in the emergency room at Rush University Medical Center. But, and not to sound callous, her death had the potential to refocus the Illini, taking them out of their heads and forcing them to concentrate on the moment--and of course inspiring Weber, who resolved to coach on because it was what his mother would have wanted. The black armbands on the Illini's left sleeves didn't result in a more focused performance against Minnesota, but in Sunday's final against Wisconsin the Illini looked crisp taking a 26-18 halftime lead. Their unrelenting man-to-man defense had pulled out the semifinal by holding Minnesota scoreless for the final four minutes, and it was every bit as good against Wisconsin.
The Illini were up 43-27 when suddenly they went cold, and the Badgers closed to 46-41 with just under five minutes to go. But the Illini stiffened again on defense and sank enough free throws to claim a 54-43 victory, reminding one of the lesson the Bulls used to teach--that defense wins championships. Unlike in the Bulls' prime, no echoing shouts rang from next door or down the street as I watched at home. But with the Illini set to play at the Allstate Arena next weekend if they made it to the NCAA regional finals, conditions were ripe for an epidemic.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jnathan Daniel--Getty Images.