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Suddenly, Final Four Isn’t That Far Away

For me, for many, this was the place to be. Hugh Hefner jotted down ideas for a new magazine here. Roger Ebert wrote for the Daily Illini here. Red Grange galloped and Dick Butkus growled here. John Bardeen won two Nobel Prizes in physics here. Eleven CEOs of Fortune 500 companies matriculated here. Bonnie Blair skated around in circles here.

But I never spent one minute here, except as a visitor, an accidental tourist. Broke my heart, too. Made me feel as though I missed something, missed playing my supporting part in life’s Best Picture.

As a boy, Illinois was the one university to which those in my immediate circle aspired. More than once I made that hardly scenic trip down Interstate 57, pulling out of Kankakee like Arlo Guthrie’s train, past withered stalks of corn, past the little Paxton High School on the prairie, past the Air Force base at Rantoul, then into the comforting bosom of Champaign-Urbana, campus of the Fighting Illini. For what the Illini were fighting we had no idea, but we were on their side.

UCLA, USC, San Diego, San Francisco, these were other worldly, transcendental places, where beach boys and millionaires and blond quarterbacks and hippies and starlets and, oh, you know, Californians went to college.

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To star-struck hicks such as myself, students out there were not on campus; they were on location. They spoke English, but that was the extent of our knowledge about them. Ostensibly they got automobiles for 16th-birthday gifts and started fashion and slang trends so we could copy them six months later. Their families had maids; people from our families were more likely to be maids.

We went to one of those melting-pot, ethnic-stew high schools with poor Irish and Slovak kids from white-trashy suburbs, black kids from towns as hardscrabble and segregated as our own, and Italian kids who studied Latin so they could understand Mass at churches with obscure-saint names like San Rocco and St. Liborius. Freshman year, my first day, a punk named Cedric cornered me in the boys’ john and ripped off my wristwatch. I mean ripped off , as in, from my wrist. Tough school.

We could count the rich kids on one hand, and any boy who was smart did his best to disguise it. No dean ever spoke to us of Stanford or Harvard or even Northwestern, which was not so far away. Back then it cost $600 extra tuition just to enroll out of state, so the brainy students sent away for brochures from schools like Monmouth or Illinois Wesleyan or Knox, classy colleges they could afford, while low-rent, no-grant scholars such as myself started out at a nearby community college where classrooms were rooted in pre-fab trailers.

Some of us kept thought-bubbles of Champaign inside our heads. One thing that kept the University of Illinois a center of attention year after year was the state high school basketball tournament, during which all other activity in entire communities often came to a halt. That movie “Hoosiers,” you know? Well, to me, it’s a documentary. That fictional story could hardly be more real, except that Indiana did not own exclusive rights to all that healthy madness.

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Sometimes we even argued over which state had better champions. The best high school team I ever saw, a 1972 outfit captained by Quinn Buckner, was situated no more than 15 miles from an East Chicago, Ind., school that took its own state championship behind Junior Bridgeman and Tim Stoddard. We argued endlessly, pointlessly, over which team was superior. Some still do.

The large concrete mushroom in which state tournament games were played was a citadel in which the finest basketball in the world was played. One catch, though: We never thought much about this arena’s principal tenant, the University of Illinois basketball team. There was nothing much to think about, see. Back then the Illini were more Trying than Flying. The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament? The Final Four? These were merely annual television specials: The Johnny Wooden Show, with This Year’s Guest Stars. Had nothing to do with us. Might as well have been a Bob Hope Vietnam show.

The one thing we always wondered was whether any local yokels might make good. Once in a great while, some native son would make his presence felt in college basketball’s great pageant, and somehow this swelled our pride. We wouldn’t erect a new city-limits tribute to him or anything like that, but just the same, his was a heroic deed, for he represented those of us who could never represent ourselves. We were territorial, like sharks. We fed off such heroes.

I haven’t thought this way for quite some time. Years have gone by. The homeland, the heartland, meant less and less as distance grew. Nothing touched those same nerves anymore. Nobody from “back home” had the bearing on our lives they once did, gave us any joy if they enjoyed any success. We never spent so much as a nickel sending congratulation telegrams.

But a funny feeling went through me when the college game’s Final Four for 1989 came to pass. I am not certain that I can properly explain it, and even less certain that anybody else cares, but will try nonetheless.

The little town where I grew up was next to a slightly larger town whose high school games I frequently attended. For several years the basketball coach at that school was a thoroughly decent fellow name of Steve Fisher, whom I later came to know quite well. Nothing about this man’s prep teams ever made me suspect he might someday be coaching anybody in the NCAA semifinals, but nothing could make me happier for him.

The very next town over, Fisher’s arch-rival high school had some fairly decent teams, but few distinguished players. That same school, however, has produced Kendall Gill, playmaking guard of the Illinois team that will play Michigan this Saturday at Seattle for a shot at the national championship. He missed several games with an injury, but the Illini are undefeated with Gill in their lineup this season.

The next town over, a tiny one bordering both mine and Fisher’s, has never, to my knowledge, turned out a college basketball star of any kind. Phil Henderson, the Duke guard who scored 23 points in the East Regional championship game against Georgetown, is from this town. He, too, will be in Seattle.

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I wouldn’t miss this Final Four for the world. Somehow, I belong. Somehow, I keep hearing this Credence Clearwater Revival song in my head: “Just got back from Illinois, locked the front door, oh, boy. Got to sit down, take a rest on the porch. Imagination sets in, pretty soon I’m singin’. Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door.”


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