Illini basketball

The Steve Douglas Reunion

You probably didn’t hear about the November 16 reunion of the inaugural Illini Women’s Basketball team and their head coach, Professor Emeritus Stephen Douglas. I wouldn’t have either, were it not for my prom date.

To me, Steve Douglas was the disembodied voice at the top of the stairwell. Many nights in the late 1980s, he stepped quietly out of his bedroom, and gently uttered a single word, in a soft, sing-song voice: “Lauren …”

That meant it was time for me to stop spooning his youngest daughter on the living room couch (a thoroughly PG-13 activity), and go home.

From her, I knew that he was friends with Tarheels coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. I was impressed by that.

In fact, Steve Douglas was a basketball star in his own right. He was the Doug Altenberger of the #1 ranked KSU Wildcats. Guthridge was his teammate.

He helped them to a Final Four. And then, like a lot of basketball greats, he wrote a dissertation on Political Sociaization in Indonesia.

Steve Douglas was a professor of political science at UIUC in 1974, during the height of the women’s liberation movement. Those uppity feminists decided it would be equitable if the women’s club team were developed into a legitimate, funded college basketball program. And by “funded,” I mean UIUC paid a faculty member an entire thousand dollars to coach its first WBB team.

How, I wondered, did Professor Douglas balance his teaching load with coaching. And with research. And parenting, for that matter. In 1974, he had three young daughters; eight year-old Kate, six year-old Liz and baby Lauren.

Kate, Sara, Liz, Lauren and Steve Douglas

Their mother, Sara, was not a stay-at-home mom. She was a professor, too; an expert in the international textiles trade. How did they manage? It seems like a lot.

So I asked.

STEVE DOUGLAS: “I was restless in my role(s) and welcomed alternative if unusual projects.  As I look back on my ‘career,’ however, the more interesting question is not how did I balance the various activities but why, especially with regard to basketball, did I persevere?  It should have been — and actually was — sufficient that I had memorable careers on high school and then college basketball courts, got a decent job, did my best as husband to a high achieving faculty member (like your dad in this regard), and raised three highly competent ‘girls.’   

Kate, Lauren & Liz – Christmas 1975

“But there is more to my story.  

“The first unusual circumstance has to do with my mother.  As one of seven siblings she made her way through her teens and beyond by excelling in sports:  tennis champion, in both doubles and singles, in an odd set of tournaments in Nebraska (in the mid-’20s, I   suppose): baserunner in a big moment in a softball game in Hastings, Nebraska, sliding safely into the reaches of third base in a classic-for-the-times short skirt (I was 7 or 8 at the time and . . . I’ll never forget it!); clarinet player in the Hastings College marching band who broke her clarinet over some poor guy’s head when her boyfriend, who became my dad, captain of the football team and pretty good tackle, picked up a fumble and ran for the only TD of his career;  and, after Dad got a job in Oxford, Ohio and she began commuting to Hamilton for a 6th grade teaching job, she became their basketball coach and collaborated with me to set up a game with my Oxford team (at McGuffy elementary, 6th grade team also but I was in fifth), the game won by Hamilton 43 to 9.  

“Finally, as I progressed through an interesting (to me) high school and college basketball career my mom faithfully maintained a scrapbook of all that nonsense.  My dad was a mildly interested fan, she was an intelligent fanatic. 

“So perhaps you can see that coaching women seemed perfectly appropriate to me.  Of course I never expected to have an opportunity to do it, and I wouldn’t if not for a bizarre set of circumstances that found me coaching the Malaysian national women’s team  — the experience that qualified me subsequently to coach the newly-created women’s team at Illinois.”

Prof. Sara Douglas reached the pinnacle of her career when, in 2002, she became president of the International Textile and Apparel Association. But a persistent thymic carcinoma arrived around that same time. She died in 2003.

I joined my friend Elizabeth Hess, who grew up next door to the Douglas family, in attending the memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist chapel on Green Street, in Urbana. We were not surprised, but concerned by how broken Lauren was. All three sisters stood in front of the overflowing congregation, and recited memories of their mother. But Lauren was too grief stricken to finish hers.

And then something sort of remarkable happened: Steve Douglas kept on living.

In fact, Steve Douglas met a woman named Vianne, moved to southern California, and married her in 2008.

The second Mrs. Douglas joined her husband for the 2019 reunion ceremony, a memorable affair according to those in attendance. Here’s Liz Douglas’s email account, published here with her permission.

“Hello Family! Last weekend Jim and I had the pleasure of witnessing the formal recognition of my Dad as the first ever University of Illinois women’s basketball team coach, and it was spectacular. 

“Dad and Vianne returned from California to Urbana, Illinois for a weekend of fun, casual gatherings of the former teammates with their coach, along with very special VIP tours and events with the current U of I women’s basketball team and their current coach.

“When Dad started this team in 1974, I was six, and attending their practices was ‘after school care’ for Kate and me.  We got to know the players and had so much fun watching them.  Mom cooked them all dinner at our house, and they would play with my train set with me.  Kate and I handed out water to the players and programs to the spectators at their games.  Lauren was a baby, and the players remembered all of us.

“It was emotional for me, happy and sad, to see how far the program has come.  The women’s team now has practice and game-day facilities equal to the men’s team – very different from their circumstances in the ’70’s! 

Photo by Mark Jones, who is a nice person

When Dad addressed the current team before their game last Saturday, he told them that his first responsibility on game day was to sweep the floor.  That was unfathomable to the players who are treated like rock stars today!  In the new practice facility, the coach’s large, plush office was a shock to me, knowing my dad didn’t have an office, and was paid $1,000 to coach an entire season.

“His players idolized him then, and even more so now.  I brought pictures of my dad as a player for Kansas State and learned his players did not even know he had played college ball, much less that he played in the Final Four for Kansas State.  They loved seeing the pictures and asked Dad to tell some stories of when he played.

“The U of I basketball facility now includes a ‘Hall of Fame,’ and Dad is named there as the first ever women’s coach.  They do not have a photograph of that amazing first ever team, and that felt like quite an oversight to me.  Hopefully they will be able to add the photo below.  I believe every player except one made it to the reunion.  

Steve Douglas and the Illini WBB team

“I was honored to be there with Dad last weekend, and I am grateful every day that he is my father.  How lucky for me that the light he shone on those players’ lives for just two impactful years has shined on me every year of my life. -Liz

Illini basketball

The Rock

You might have a favorite Illini player. I don’t. I’m averse to the concept of favorites. I like variety.

Moreover, favorite means different things to different people. Is it an alpha or an underdog? Do you love the personality or the skill set?

This article is about The Rock of this 2020 Illini basketball team.

Giorgi is one of those once-per-generation personalities, and his skill set is so fundamental that it appeals to all ages of hoops aficionado.

Kofi is an effortless, nearly flawless once-per-generation bucket+rebound machine. His earnestness is a story in itself.

Lali Bezhanishvili attended her fourth consecutive game on Tuesday. She’s now on a plane back to Wien.

Last night, Da’Monte Williams burst forward for a career-high 18 points, and earned a moment in the spotlight. He even smiled when this reporter asked his teammates to aver that he sometimes smiles (in the absence of cameras) and, in fact, cracks jokes.

None of these guys, all indispensable to the team, is The Rock.

Da’Monte Williams

Trent Frazier hews precipitously toward rockishness. He’s got that game, and that personality. Brad Underwood, as hard-ass old school as any current Power 5 head coach, cannot find enough time to heap praise for Trent’s toughness, defensive dominance, and playmaking capabilities.

Trent Frazier is not the subject of this article.

Ayo Dosunmu finally enjoyed a night’s romp through defenses, driving to the bucket, assisting others, connecting on jumpers from the arc.

No, I’m not talking about Alan Griffin either.

To me, it’s obvious that Andres Feliz is, and has been, the foundation of this team since the moment he arrived on campus. It’s not because he keeps the team loose in the locker room. It’s not because his stature imposes Laws of Physics on opponents. It’s because his sheer determination imposes itself on everyone lucky/unfortunate enough to cross his path.

Giorgi is everything to all people, and one of the best freshmen Illini basketball has seen since freshman eligibility. Kofi, Ayo and Trent continue to be focal points for media and opponents.

Andres Feliz remains the lone Illini whose focus, effort & intensity demonstrate a ruthlessness that — for better, or very much likely worse — can’t be taught. It’s borne of a determination that Americans can’t fake and don’t experience. Not in this generation, anyhow. Andres fought his way off that island.

Since arriving in Champaign, Andres has demonstrated a sense of humor to fans. In moments when he thought he might have been unobserved, he’s taken his teammates aside for words of encouragement, hugs, and laughs. But also tough talk.

For those who might have opinions about Tyler Underwood, it might be useful to know that both Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier have intensely close relationships with Tyler Underwood.

Sports fans and sports psychologists have an understanding about toughness & determination. Maybe casual fans understand too. Maybe not. If you’re an Illini fan and reading this column, understand & appreciate this point: Andres Feliz is the first among equals on this team. He’s the terminator who absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

The best part of the Andres Feliz story, for those of us benefiting from all his determination and hard work, is that we can expect to enjoy his labors, for free, through March.

He’s married to an American woman, and has an American kid. Maybe he’ll be able to stay even after that.

Illini basketball

A Happy Blood Bath

Just what the doctor ordered; a rampage through a hapless patsy.

Things had been going pretty well for the Illini, especially if his name were Kofi Cockburn. But as the team’s focus shifted, appropriately, to feeding its Monster in the Middle, individual stats suffered.

Saturday night, everybody got a chance.

Was it more important for Alan Griffin or Ayo Dosunmu? That’s the sort of question sports people ask, because sports people are incessantly looking for any available over/under. For better or worse, and it’s arguably for worse, sports is about winners & losers.

The answer is that it was better for Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin. The answer is that Illinois basketball got a shot in the arm by allowing everybody to bask in the glory of a slaughter.

Scoring 20 and 19 points respectively, Ayo and Alan almost visibly swelled with confidence. And they got their points quickly enough to allow plenty of minutes for the guys who don’t usually get to play.

Brad Underwood name-checked both Ayo and Alan in his postgame comments, and didn’t say they’d been struggling.

Ayo enjoyed the opportunity to run an open (or at least disorganized) floor against the Pirates. Alan got open looks, converted 3-of-7 from the arc, and made one spectacular tip-in which is almost certainly susceptible to Search, now that everything is recorded.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of it. (It happened at the other end from me, as did Da’Monte’s alley-oop dunk.) But I did get a good picture of Alan.

Ben Bosmans-Verdonk dished four assists during his ten minutes of PT. He also grabbed two rebounds and two steals, and scored four points (and committed three fouls). Tevian Jones watched from the bench, and seemed to enjoy the performance despite the obvious point that he could have enjoyed those minutes himself.

Tevian Jones watches BBV getting all his minutes

Jermaine Hamlin got nine minutes of tick, and converted a pair of FGAs. The first was a left-handed hook shot. The second was a dunk that kept going and going and going.

No-nonsense referee Keith Kimble, who has never smiled, finally grew bored with watching Hamlin hanging from the rim, and assessed a T.

Illini basketball


The Big Man On Campus was decidedly demure Friday morning. You might even say glum.

Was Kofi Cockburn depressed? No, just reflective. Erich Fisher asked a typical freshman question, of the what do you need to work on variety. And Kofi had a lot to say, because he sees a lot of weaknesses in his game, especially on defense.

Strikingly, Kofi was not shy about sharing his deficiencies. “I like constructive criticism,” he declared.

There were at least four instances where Kofi screwed up during The Citadel game. These mental errors would likely have gone unreported except for Kofi’s eagerness for feedback and analysis of his weak spots. Perhaps it goes without saying, but this is a remarkably mature outlook for a person who’s not considered, by the laws of his current domicile, old enough to make decisions about wine.

Brad Underwood addressed one of these mistakes in this morning’s press conference. He said Kofi’s fatigue allowed a lay-up for The Citadel.

There was a second lay-up that a better team would have scored when Kofi jogged down the floor, amused by his own performance on the offensive end, and oblivious to his responsibility as defensive safety. (The Citadel’s ball-handler didn’t recognize how easy it would be to dribble right past Kofi .)

Kofi over-hedged, pretty dramatically, on a defensive possession. He went out almost to the arc closest to the home bench. Conveniently, that’s the corner of the court where it’s easiest to hear the screams of the coaching staff. One assumes he wanted to intimidate, and possibly block a jump-shooter. His coaches wanted him to anchor the defense.

The fourth mistake was the fun one, because it involved Kofi’s teammates in an encouraging role. The Illini offense had an opportunity to get set and run a play. They had a lead, it was the second half, and the coaching staff wanted to run an action. But Kofi had forgotten the play, or didn’t hear the call.

Trent Frazier, standing at the free-throw line with his back to the basket, looked over his right shoulder, and stage-whispered “Kofi, up here!” Kofi moved to the far-side elbow, and Ayo, seeing everybody set, initiated the action.

There were almost certainly other times when Kofi was out of position, but we don’t need to dwell on them. These descriptions are provided only as context, to demonstrate the moments that this young man dwells on while determinedly focusing on his own improvement.

Illini basketball


Did you enjoy the Wolf Mask Reveal? Was it Worth The Wait?

Good. Now, let’s get back to regularly scheduled programming. The fifth game of Kofi’s Epoch produced, sadly, only his fourth double-double.

This Jamaican manchild is already imperfect in His Domination, His Resurrection of The Program. HE’S ONLY 80% ON DOUBLE-DOUBLES!

Fortunately for him, Kofi has not yet been told that he is Our Savior.

His naïveté is charming.

Two days ago, Kofi became “available” to the media. [DIA policy changes without notice, and it’s hard to keep up. For example, Mark Smith was “not available” until his dad had already thrown in the towel on Illinois’ failure to promote Mark Smith. Ayo was available immediately, perhaps because of the Mark Smith fiasco.]

In his first postgame press-conference, Kofi explained to the Illini media corps that he’s seven feet tall. It was as though, in his mind, he needed to introduce himself, as if we didn’t know about him.

One of Kofi’s record-setting 17 rebounds

After his record-setting performance, Kofi apologized for stealing a double-double from his good friend Giorgi.

He explained that he’d tried, to no avail, to convince Brad Underwood that Giorgi should stay in the ballgame, to get that double-double.

It’s as if Kofi has no handlers to tell him he’s god’s gift to basketball.

Despite having the words king and alpha in his Twitter handle, you almost get the feeling that he’s a humble kid (certainly not a @HumbleKid).

Giorgi scored 16 points, and grabbed NINE NOT TEN rebounds

It was a good night for frankness. Brad Underwood took a question from former Illini Tyler Cottingham (Walkon) in the postgame, and tacitly admitted that Everything Has Changed and everything is subject to change.

Mostly this question/answer concerned defensive concepts & strategy. But it can be extrapolated to all facets of the game. The point is that Underwood is not announcing major renovations, he’s simply implementing them as soon as data demands. It’s the reason you want Brad Underwood rather than an ideological dinosaur who’s incapable of changing his ways (ooh, Bruce Weber comes to mind).

Underwood tacitly admitted that Ayo has struggled, for an NBA first-round draftee value of “struggled.” If the actual words were reprinted here, you would not find “struggled” among them.

Underwood is deft at parrying, better at messaging. He was glad to see Ayo score a goodly amount of points against The Citadel.

In a separate moment, he praised Da’Monte Williams for being an integral and necessary part of this Illini team, while also demanding a whole lot more from Da’Monte without mentioning “points” or “scoring,” plausibly because that’s not what he meant.

What did he mean?

Side note: I rarely see the TV versions of Illini games, so I don’t know how many of you saw Da’Monte crash through three folding chairs Wednesday night.

At least two people were concerned

Final observation: While we were waiting for the participants to arrive in the media room, I asked Kent Brown if he recalled the date of Deon Thomas’s 16 rebound performance.

He did.

It elicited a good story.

Illini basketball

The Turnovers

Sports psychology is a million dollar industry. Perhaps billion.

Should coaches yell at players? Should coaches critique? Should coaches suggest alternative paths? Do student-athletes need Safe Spaces?

Does anyone really know?

Ayo loses the ball.

My feeling (which must be respected, right? because it’s a feeling?) is that hard-ass old school coaching is not a problem, as long as it’s performed by a person who’s actually thinking about psychology, and has a soft spot hidden away somewhere.

Brad Underwood is certainly a hard-ass, who thinks, and shows a distinct soft spot.

What will he say to Ayo Dosunmu about carelessness? And Alan Griffin about ball security?

Andres Feliz led the team in turnovers on Sunday, but I didn’t personally see anything boneheaded from him. The spectacular Feliz TO was arguably a foul on Nico Mannion. The other side of the argument is that Mannion made a great play, stripping the ball just as Feliz lifted it from his hip, looking for a lay-up that would have kept Illinois in the game.

Nico Mannion strips Andres Feliz, midair.

Feliz was kinda brooding about it in the postgame, and we hope nobody notices, on account of you’re not allowed to complain about the refs in college bball.

Ayo turned the ball over five times, and a lot of it seemed like he just wasn’t paying attention. Alan got raped stripped again, which is becoming a pattern. Alan’s a cerebral guy, so one gets the feeling that he’s visualizing all the great things that can happen now that he has the ball and then he suddenly doesn’t have the ball anymore, because a less cerebral guy thought “ook, ball!” and ripped it away.

Kofi Cockburn: 7 FG attempts

Feliz is a great combination of cerebral and ook! He thinks about the game a lot, and his understanding of spacing, angles, weak-side strategies, positioning etc. all suggest he’s very well-coached, extremely intellectual, or both. But he’s as driven by emotion as any Hallmark Holiday Special about Afro-Caribbean idioms could portray. There’s a reason you’re already finding him to be the most compelling character on the team. And he’s got a wife and kid. He played himself off the island, and now has the potential to make a career of it. It’s the American Dream most Americans forgot about generations ago because they never had to consider the alternative.

Ayo’s turnovers don’t concern Ayo, according to Ayo. Maybe you want that mentality, as a lot of coachspeak suggests. Move on. Next play. But an interesting thing happened in the Brad Underwood postgame media huddle in Tucson. When presented with the idea that Ayo is nonchalant about his TO’s, Brad Underwood did not assent or agree when offered his previous statement about Ayo, offered in the Nicholls State postgame. His I never have to worry about Ayo didn’t seem glib at the time, nor did his defense of Ayo at Grand Canyon, which told that an opponent’s focus on Ayo opened opportunities for others (like Feliz).

When you get him the ball, he can do things.

That rationale works to an extent, but it doesn’t get Ayo drafted. The whole point is to get Ayo drafted (in case you didn’t pick up on every very obvious media saturation).

But how does one explain to a pre-ordained savior that his prospects will improve if he x (where x is anything other than what comes naturally). Why would a pre-ordained savior consider x?

This player-coach relationship will define Brad Underwood. Despite his age, he’s still new to head coaching. (Ooh, a double-entendre!)

Mostly, he’s lost a lot of games at the D-1 level. If he can make Ayo care, without stripping Ayo’s confidence, he might keep this job awhile.

Illini basketball

Air, Jordanless

I threatened last week that you ought not read this space, this week, if you didn’t want to hear more about Rob Jordan.

It’s even more poignant to me now, given the last 48 hours of technical ineptitude.

Rob Jordan worked in tech. And although he had a big, if faulty, heart; he knew better than to trust any human based system. Rob Jordan was the guy who made sure things went right.

I’m sorry Rob didn’t live to see the onset of impeachment proceedings. I saw, in his Twitter feed, that he’d allowed himself to speak his mind, once Aaron’s eligibility expired. He was engaged in an argument with a John Wright, who couldn’t have been a member of the John Wright family known to local Illini fans. That John Wright wouldn’t have been arguing against “government regulations,” as he enjoys breathing clean air, and prefers to drink & bathe in water free of fracking effluent.

I planned to write this Rob Jordan remembrance on the Peoria Charter to O’Hare. But then my website crashed. If you’re interested, read the following paragraphs. If not, scroll down to the picture of Rob Jordan.

WordPress has a security flaw which allows spammers to comment on pictures, bypassing the Disable Comments plugin.

So I spent the entire ride deleting spambot-generated comments. There were 257,000 of them. Another WordPress bug prevented me from deleting more than 100 at a time.

To install the Delete All Comments plugin, I have to update to a new version of WordPress. But WordPress can’t update because my GoDaddy PHP is outdated. Can I update my PHP? No. Why not? Because your site is migrating. And sure enough, when I look in my hosting page, I find the scroll bar is still at 60%. It’s been at 60% since September.

Maybe GoDaddy called to tell me about it, but it’s hard to say. They’re notorious for upselling, and they leave lots of automated voicemails, so nobody pays attention to their messages. But I usually glance at the text translation, or subject heading, and I don’t remember a message about technical problems. 

So I called them.

GoDaddy told me they couldn’t finish migrating my website until I eliminated tens of thousands of “inodes.”  I had surpassed my limit. Can you delete them for me? I asked. One hold later, I got the answer. No.

It’s 2019 firfuksache. WordPress and GoDaddy combine to host millions of webpages, and they haven’t figured out how to defeat a simple bot.

Now I’m aboard Frontier flight 1427 to PHX ($88). I have an hour before we land. Enough time to say my piece.

The author, with his friends Rob & Romelda, in Winston-Salem

When I get to the arena tomorrow night, it will be the first time in years that Rob Jordan won’t be there to greet me. 

Romelda didn’t miss many games. Rob didn’t miss any. His Southwest miles topped Jaylon Tate’s grandmother, Bonnie, (who flew free because her significant other, Terry, was an employee).

Rob was, bluntly, a sports fan. He went to the football games too, and (as you’d guess from reading his online accounts) never lost faith in his team.

Rob wasn’t an Illinois alum. He and Romelda met at Savannah State. Most of their family was still in Georgia. But he adopted the school and its sports teams.

Rob was the basketball team’s unofficial fifth recruiter. He was the one who worked the parents during games. He was also the chief heckler. Any officiating lapse unleashed a torrent. If you criticized Aaron online, you probably got a message from Rob. He nearly ripped my head off for asking AJ, during a press conference, to describe a defensive breakdown after a home loss. He didn’t hold that grudge for more than a day. (I think he was mad at Jeremy Werner for a month straight, once. I got off easy.)

You might have thought that Aaron’s matriculation would mark the end of Rob’s attendance. That might be true for some road games, but probably not all of them. Rob had a knack for scheduling business travel to coincide with Illini basketball games. There’s a lot of fiber optic infrastructure that still hasn’t been laid.

I have a feeling that he might have found a contract in Phoenix. The alternative would be giving up Illini basketball cold turkey, and I don’t see that happening.

It was reassuring to know Rob would be there, with a rental SUV, because I normally walk and/or public transit to away games. I like it that way, but it doesn’t work so well in a freezing rain. After the game at Wake Forest, Rob and Romelda drove me back to The Historic Brookstown Inn.

They also saved my Thanksgiving last year, when Illinois’ Maui collapse landed the final game in a time slot so unlikely, I just booked a flight despite it. If it hadn’t been for them, I would likely have missed that flight, and the incredible spread my sister Susanna presents annually in Chicago.

The Lahaina Civic Center is a few feet from the coastal highway, and the roads around it are reserved (during the tournament) for team/fan motorcoaches, which shuttle incessantly to and from the resort hotels in Ka’anapali, just up the road.

I realized there was no sure way to get to the movie complex in downtown Lahaina, whence the local transit system runs a bus to the airport. (Pro tip:  it’s two dollars instead of seventy.)

There was no guarantee that a cab or a Lyft would be available at that time of night, and neither had a place to alight, because of the tour bus loop. Picking up on the side of the highway is probably illegal and definitely dangerous. I spent the afternoon scouring the island for short term rental bikes, scooters, skateboards … nothing.

Rob Jordan

So Rob and Romelda waited around for me. After watching Illinois lose its third game in three days, they probably wanted to sip a tropical highball and look at the stars, on the beach. Instead, they sat in their rented SUV, in a makeshift parking lot, on the side of a hill, with a Klieg light blaring down on them.

I was inside the Civic Center, recording post mortem thoughts from the coaches and players. When I finished, I ran up the hill and they drove me to the bus stop.

Now, it worked out for them. They hadn’t realized there was a thriving little town just down the road from the resort hotels (where things get sleepy after 9 p.m. because everyone is there for sun worship and golf). Rob was pretty excited by the prospect of nightlife.

I remembered that on the last road trip of the season, at Penn State. I’m usually the only Illini media in State College. Everyone else thinks it’s too expensive. They’re crazy. Peoria Charter to O’Hare, Spirit to LaGuardia ($31), Megabus to PSU ($1) and a night at the virtually unknown Hotel State College ($45), which is right in the middle of campus, on their version of Green Street, has a restaurant on the ground floor and a bar in the basement, with live bands!

Rob liked beer and music, so I texted him about it that afternoon, the Saturday before the Sunday early game. He was sort of interested, but doubtful that he could get there in time. I’m not completely sure that he had a confirmed flight at that moment.

As it turns out, he got a midnight flight to Pittsburgh. He rented his SUV, drove to State College, parked, and reclined the seat for a couple of hours nap. When I finally got a hold of him again, he was just waking up in the Bryce Jordan (no relation) parking lot.

After the game he drove back to the airport. I don’t think he actually got any sleep that weekend. His commitment to Aaron’s games was immovable.

That might have been the last time I saw him in person. Surely he attended the B1G tournament in Chicago. I just don’t remember talking to him there. When Aaron tweeted the details for his memorial service, Heather and I made plans to go. We dressed up and got in the car. We almost made it out of Urbana before the hail and lightning turned us back. A hundred mile line of storms seemed to have planted itself on top of Route 47, just waiting for us. Storms know Heather is a nervous driver. They follow her. They taunt her, even in the passenger seat.

I’m sort of glad, in a way, that we missed it. I think seeing him in a casket would have made it too real and final. This way, when I walk into the arena tomorrow, I can imagine that my old friend will be there, waiting for me.

Illini basketball

The Press

Normally, an Illini Report column assumes you watched the game, got your factsy news from a reputable source, and came here for some verbal panache and pictures.

For the Nicholls State write-up, I’m going to assume you didn’t see the game, and need to know why Illinois choked away a late lead. I’ll even go to the extraordinary length of divulging the final score: Illini 78, Nicholls State 70 (OT)

Illinois’ 3-guard line-up couldn’t handle a trapping press. That’s the story of the game. It wouldn’t have been close if Trent Frazier could buy a shot, or Giorgi a rebound. But that’s the way the ball bounced for those two, and suddenly a comfortable 64-50 with five minutes remaining was a tense 66-64, in favor of the visitors. And there was the seven-foot freshman, trying to bring the ball up the court.

Trent didn’t score until hitting the free-throws that sent the game to overtime. Giorgi finished with only 4 rebounds, three of which came at the offensive end. But in crunch time, he just couldn’t get to the ball when it really mattered.

Ayo had five turnovers, and landed in a crumpled pile as often as usual, which is too often. It hurts to watch

Inevitably, it was Andres Feliz who willed the team to victory. Why is it that Andres Feliz was forgotten when everyone crafted his pre-season starting five? When will you people learn?

Giorgi hit a pair of threes, and he worked to give Kofi space in the paint. In the latter respect, his energy was not focused on putting a ball directly through a hoop.

But because those efforts garnered a double-double for Kofi, and 11 points for Giorgi … well, there was reason for optimism. But yes, Giorgi isn’t getting those same low-post isolation opportunities that launched Frank Kaminski into the NBA.

More significantly, Dre’s nose for rebounds provided an unflattering comparison for Giorgi. Certainly, it seemed that the ball bounced where Giorgi wasn’t. But when you compare Giorgi’s bad luck with guys like Dennis Rodman, or Dre (and Chester Frazier before him) you have to question whether it’s luck.

Either way, it doesn’t show that Giorgi is terrible. Rebounding is a rare skill. Most guys can grab a ball that comes toward them. Andres Feliz is one of those guys who always seems to be where the ball lands.

If you want reason for optimism, think of it this way: Almost everything that could go wrong for Illinois went wrong, and yet they won.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk followed his debut perfection with an 0-fer performance. Ayo couldn’t keep the ball in his own hands and Trent went 0-for-9 from the field.

The night’s loudest crowd reaction came on a rebound dunk that Alan Griffin missed. Come Monday, we’ll have a much better idea of how worried everyone should be.

Illini Basketball

In with the old, In with the new

It seemed like old times when Illini basketball fell behind Lewis 14-2 Friday night. After all, my first-ever write up of an Illini basketball contest was titled Illinois almost Lewis-es.

Then there was Chaos and Lewis.

The new.

Friday’s exhibition featured new faces prompting new story lines. The youngsters deserve the spotlight. They performed.

Kofi Cockburn tallied a double-double. His footwork seemed natural. He looked comfortable on the floor. He didn’t panic under pressure, but instead found Da’Monte Williams for an open three.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk converted three of three attempts from three. He converted two of two attempts from one.

Eleven points in eight minutes. Three rebounds. No fouls. And Brad Underwood was even more impressed by his defense than his O.

That last point is significant for two reasons. As Underwood pointed out, BBV has been fully cleared to practice for a total of five days in his career. And more importantly, what freshman big man was ever praised for his defense in a first-ever appearance?

Cockburn was so reliable in the paint, he was almost boring to watch. The hi-lo didn’t work right away because, as Underwood reported, Giorgi was a little too excited to get it going. i.e. Giorgi forced things. i.e. Giorgi was enthusiastic about passing to another guy so the other guy could score. It’s an excellent problem to have.

But Kofi didn’t show nerves. He merely executed.

Kofi Cockburn celebrates a forced three-second turnover against Lewis.

Eventually the hi-lo worked. Giorgi and Kofi both finished with points, and Giorgi and Kofi both finished with assists. Kofi had 16 & 3. Giorgi had 12 & 2.

Kipper Nichols played the hi-lo as well. He threw two dimes, called out defenses, and rebounded/converted a missed Alan Griffin lay-up, despite much harassment.

Fellow old man Da’Monte Williams was up to his old man tricks. Even older Underwood mentioned these two in his postgame comments, and he probably wasn’t simply throwing a bone to the Groce recruits, who’ve been bypassed in the starting line-up.

Underwood can count on Williams in the same way that he counts on his son Tyler. And he did on Friday, when flashier players’ turnovers mounted.

Brad Underwood likes turnovers as much as the average basketball coach. Possibly less. He also enjoys watching his players shift out of position, reach in, foul jumpshooters, etc. just as much as the average coach.

When Alan Griffin had another Alan Griffin Moment, Underwood gave Griffin another Alan Griffin Brad Underwood Moment.

If Underwood is as hard on any other single player as he is on Alan Griffin, it hasn’t happened in public moments. It’s therefore almost impossible to avoid assuming that Underwood wouldn’t be so hard on Griffin if

  1. Underwood didn’t see enormous potential waiting to be tapped
  2. Griffin’s dad were not also a hard-nosed coach

Contrast Underwood’s praise for Jermaine Hamlin, whose performance was statistically the worst of any Illini. Five minutes, two rebounds – one of which was immediately stripped by a tiny D-II guard.

Underwood said he didn’t know how Hamlin could help the team this year, which should get Redshirt talk churning. But Underwood said he’d like Hamlin to be involved this year. Does that mean in games, or just practice?

The oldest guy in the house was Aaron Jordan.

He was present for the last Illini game at State Farm Center, of course. But that seems like ages ago, for a lot of reasons.

Aaron was working for money on Friday, not just for your enjoyment. He was part of the DIA marketing team. More fundamentally, Aaron attended his first Illini game where Rob Jordan wasn’t also in attendance.

People who didn’t know Rob Jordan might assume that his attendance streak would have ended with Aaron’s eligibility. People who knew Rob Jordan understand that he would have been there Friday night, not just to cheer Aaron’s new job, but only about 85% to cheer Aaron’s new job.

Had Rob Jordan not died suddenly this year, he would have continued to attend Illini games even after Aaron moved on and up in the world. Fundamentally, Rob was put on earth to yell at referees, to buy Cracker Jack (and tip the hawkers who brought it to his seat) and to socialize and enlighten people through networking. He was, after all, the Fiber Guru.

Rob Jordan was more important to Illini basketball than almost anyone understands, so it was especially nice to see his scion in attendance Friday. If you’re bored with reading about him, don’t check back next week. It’ll only get worse for you.