By Tony Hooker
“Reflect upon your present blessings of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” —Charles Dickens
For basketball fans who are around my age, the jubilation and excitement surrounding the 2020-21 University of Illinois Men’s Basketball team is something that was largely taken for granted for the better part of 3 decades.
It took the unassuming gentleman from Oklahoma, Lou Henson five years, but he, along with assistant coaches Tony Yates and Jimmy Collins, began to get players from Chicago and build a program. From 1980-2013, the Fighting Illini were fixtures in the college basketball postseason, having either played in the NCAA or NIT tournament every season other than 1991, 92, 99, 2008 and 2012. The 1991 and 92 teams missed the tournament due to an NCAA committee on infractions decision that was so egregious that a book, “Undue Process: The NCAA’s Injustice for All’’, by Don Yaeger, which outlined the capricious and arbitrary nature of the NCAA’s handling of the case. The 1999 Illini team, coached by Lon Kruger, suffered through a 14-18 season before defeating number 23 Minnesota, number 17 Indiana, and number 11 Ohio State on back to back days before they ran out of gas in the tourney championship, falling to eventual final four team Michigan State, to miss the tournament by just one game. The tourney run was made all the more impressive by the fact that Illinois had finished with a 3-13 conference record. The other teams to not make the postseason were Bruce Weber led squads in 2008 and 2012.
In 2013, as the Illini were prepping for March Madness, Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” was the number one song in the nation. Also in the top five was something called “Don’t You Worry, Child” by the Swedish House Mafia and Macklemore was popping tags in the “Thrift Shop.”
Eight years seems like a lifetime for a fanbase that was so used to success for three decades. Truth be told, I had to go back and look at the games and their results from the tournament. Illinois opened as the seventh seed in the East region and defeated tenth seed Colorado 57-49 in their first-round matchup before falling to Miami in a game that featured a controversial out of bounds call that led to replay being installed in the last two minutes of games, the second time that controversial rulings against Illinois led to rules changes in the tournament, so we’ve got that going for us.
The 2013 tournament itself was dominated by Louisville, who lost guard Kevin Ware to a gruesome leg injury in the regional final win over Duke. The Cardinals would go on to defeat Wichita State 72-68 in the semifinal and Michigan 82-76 to win the title.
I’ve written many times about how my moods are too much aligned with how the Illini perform, meaning for most of the past eight years, if I watched a game, I was depressed. Given the events of the last month, I’m trying very hard to appreciate my blessings and not sweat the small things. With that being said, Go Illini!