Illini Basketball

The Forth Wave

Today is July 23, 2021 and the Delta Variant is scorching SEC country.

But here in the Blue State, where vaccination is championed, Your Humble Servant touched actual Illini basketball players this week. Three of them! Although I’m not sure which. One was definitely RJ Melendez. One was the most improved player. I’ll get to that later.

I don’t expect this intermingling to continue.

Wednesday’s Ubben Availability was a ridiculous malpractice of aerosol exposure. With The Mighty Pfizer proving only 90% effective against the variant, there’s no way we’ll be allowed to Breathe on Brad like we did.

It began with 14 sports reporters socializing indoors, unmasked, up-close n’ personal. It continued with SID Derrick Burson making an announcement from the second floor catwalk. Vaxx or ax was his message. Access to players, coaches & press boxes would be available only to the vaxxed.

His email the previous evening reminded media that DIA would keep our CDC vaccination cards on file — a public record if you think Illini Athletics is institutionally controlled by the state university.

That’s fine. I’ve read the Constitution. I have no right to breathe on anybody.

Eventually, seventeen reporters and Kent Brown (Zooming to out-of-towners from an iPhone) crowded around Brad, and then Kofi. Of those 18 people, one person wore a face covering. It was me. I had an N95.

I’m visiting an immunocompromised relative tomorrow, and taking no chances. Wedged between Nico, Joey and Robert; and with Loren exhaling behind me; I realized that I’d gone from 16 months of isolation to Aerosols Central.

The CDC is pretending, for the moment, that this kind of behavior is okay. It’s a political ploy. They want to lure the vaccine-resistant toward jabs by promising a free face.

I know two fully vaccinated people who Got The Vid recently. My sister the pulmonologist says 50 fully vaxxed Brits are dead from Delta.

It’s going to get us all. I hope yours is mild. For sports purposes, however, the Vid is over.

Plowing forth toward sold-out B1G sports seasons, in stadia packed full of Midwestern mouthbreathers, is financially inevitable. Everyone needs the revenue. It’s going to happen.

Illini fans are just as Ignorant Redneck as any of them, so our stadia will be as packed as Bielematic Optimism affords. But that’s your ass on the line. You can choose to sardines yourself with a thousand randoms.

Our nearing-sixty basketball coach & morbidly obese football coach should probably be protected from you. And me.

And we should certainly protect the players, especially because Illinois basketball has a realistic shot at a national title. Ahem, I mean because it’s the right thing to do.

Or both.

Mizzou fans are hospitalized, gasping for air. Illini fans are experiencing an unfamiliar light/sunny feeling. Everything grey is now colorful.

Your favorite basketball program looked dead, or at least mortally wounded. All the news was bad: Loyola. O & Chin. And then, everyone left.

You could reasonably conclude that Brad Underwood’s momentum —from losing at EIU to a 1-Seed in 1227 days — ended when O got bored with Josh Whitman’s Compliance Worldview.

Kofi’s return gives Loren and the rest of us non-Millenials one last shot at seeing an April Trophy-Hoisting.

Brad and Kofi said important things Wednesday. Perhaps historically important things. As facile as Kofi’s ascension might feel to the hundreds of Illini whose jerseys won’t hang in the rafters; the fact is that Illinois basketball has him, a once-per-generation athlete, and every other of 356 Division I NCAA basketball teams doesn’t.

The Curbelo-to-Kofi connection, with assassins waiting on the wings, is the best argument for a national championship since 1989. Ayo was exciting. Deron Dee Luther garnered attention. But 2022 has the analytics potential. It is, in year five, The Team Brad Built.

The head coach’s outlook is waaaaaay more data-driven than his two predecessors. And you can see exactly what he has in mind just by looking at the newcomers, even if you’re not sure who they are. They’re all 6’7″ and 190 lbs. of lithe, taut limbs.

Curbelo-to-Kofi is the fastball, for sure. These new wings are the slider.

I was pulling a laptop from my bag when two nearly identical SFs approached. One was a ginger, so I just kind of assumed he was that Wisconsin kid.

That’s the weird thing about covering Illini basketball during COVID-21. I should have met all these dudes a long time ago. I should be able to tell them apart.

My N95 caused my glasses to steam up. I couldn’t even see them now.

“Hey guys, I’m Rob. I’m media.”

“Hi, I’m Luke,” is perhaps what the one on the left said, shaking my proffered hand as if touching strangers were a completely normal thing to do. “I’m RJ,” said the other, grasping an obviously shaken hand.

“I’m Coleman,” said a third guy, who approached as I explained that my N95 was a precaution for … I mean, do they need to hear about an immunocompromised relative?

Then it sank in: Coleman Hawkins just introduced himself to me. He’d never seen me before.

I’ve talked with Coleman Hawkins a few times. But it was on screen. I’ve seen him on TV a lot. It didn’t even occur to me that he’d have no idea who I was in the flesh.

“Check your Twitter,” I told him as the tall trio headed toward the exit. “Coach Underwood just said you were the most improved player.”

“Oh yeah?” Coleman responded. He still has that ingenue spirit. He’s unabashed about it. You have to like him.

Geoff Alexander came in after the players left. By this time, I’d sat down on the hallway’s only chair, catching up on texts & emails. Geoff said “hey brotha,” and offered a left elbow by way of greeting. His entire body contorted down and across to offer this simple, pandemic-oriented gesture.

This feels more familiar, I thought.

But again, something was very different. Geoff is in perfect physical condition now. We’d kind of seen that happening from afar, but it’s really astonishing up close. He wasn’t a lard ass before, but he’s just super fit now.

I was glad to offer my elbow in return. I’m personally very excited for Geoff’s promotion. I think it’ll be good for Illini basketball, too. Geoff had a lot to do with keeping Kofi in the fold.

Tim Anderson will likely be introduced to the media next week. I expect that availability to happen in the State Farm Center Media Room, if it’s at all in person.

It’s the aerosols. But there’s more to it.

All the TV guys got wobbly-armed by Brad’s 27th minute of Q&A. Covid made everything so much easier on those arms. But even before Covid, the DIA built a fancy media room where TV guys had access to a riser, an audio feed, and tri-pods.

So I’m guessing that your next viewing will find your Illini favorites in frame, well lit, in focus and audible. Wednesday’s scrum might not have seemed as uncomfortable to you as it did to the people who provided the coverage, but it’s the wildfire spread of Delta that seems likely to keep the state’s highest paid employees, and potential national champions, out of our airspace.

You’ll like it, too. The video won’t be so shaky.