The Big Five February 7, 2013
In the final week of January in 2008 – we had all just returned from the Rose Bowl, and the basketball season began to tank quickly – Illinois invited Jack Cooley from Glenbrook South for a visit. We had recently offered the big man, as had Wisconsin and Notre Dame, and I had a debate with some friends. Were were really pursuing Cooley, or were we trying to force Tyler Griffey’s hand? Was this a visit, or a “hey Tyler, we have Jack Cooley coming in this weekend so if you want that last big-man scholarship…”
Whatever it was, it worked. The Thursday before Cooley’s visit, Griffey committed to Illinois. Cooley canceled his visit, verballed to Notre Dame the following week, and that was that.
Living in the St. Louis area, I was thrilled. I always love seeing STL area kids coming to Champaign. These are all my guys, but for the last four years, Tyler has been 15% more my guy. Malcolm Hill will be 15% more my guy. I don’t know why I do this, but something about people saying “going up to Champaign” instead of “down” means something to me.
There’s a bar in Wildwood where Tyler is from – Indigo Joe’s is the name, I believe – that has a Tyler Griffey Illini jersey on the wall. I don’t even like the food that much, but I go there as often as I can. You hang an orange jersey on the wall in Tiger land, you have my business.
So because of all of that, Tyler has been my dude these last four years. When he hit those threes against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tourney as a freshman, I was ecstatic. When he scored 18 at Michigan last year but then only played 8 minutes in the Purdue game, I was furious. When he hit those two dagger threes against Butler in Maui I was thrilled. That’s my guy. The childhood thing of having a favorite player never left me, I guess (see: Hawthorne, Terry).
But then Tyler fell into this tremendous slump. It was so incredibly hard to watch. Nothing would drop. He looked tentative on both ends. It was cover-your-eyes bad at times.
So in the second half tonight, when we were down by double digits, ESPN showed a graphic listing Jack Cooley and all of his double-doubles for Notre Dame this season. As the announcers talked about Cooley, I let it slip to my son. “We might have had Cooley at Illinois, but we wanted Griffey instead.”
A simple comment, sure, but I felt awful as soon as I said it. I stick by Griffey for 3.5 seasons and then wish for Jack Cooley in the final two months? What? Once my guy, always my guy. Forget I ever said anything. Now that the slump is broken, go hit another three, Tyler (he did). And then he grabbed a big rebound (YAY). And then he missed a bunny (EEK). And he told John Groce “we got this” when Groce was wandering too close to a technical.
And then that happened.
Eddie Johnson’s jumper.
Nick Anderson’s 35 footer.
Andy Kauffman’s three.
Deron Williams’ three.
And Tyler Griffey’s layup.
In my lifetime, those are the Big Five. Those are the remember-where-you-were moments. There are others, of course – Frankie at the buzzer to beat Ohio State, Marcus Griffin and the inbounds play against Wisconsin, Cory Bradford’s three against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament – but given the circumstances, those are the Big Five. The first one knocked off #1 Michigan State. The second one shoved a dagger through Bobby Knight and 17,000 stunned Hoosier fans. The third one was a kick to Bruce Pearl’s face. The fourth one was the greatest moment in Illini history and sent us to the Final Four. And the fifth one knocked off #1 Indiana in Champaign at the buzzer to cap a 13-2 run to close the game.
And Tyler Griffey forever gets his name on that list. I just can’t find words to describe how excited that makes me. All of that hard work, all of those struggles, all of the turmoil with his former coach not trusting him and benching him at his first mistake, and now a place in Illini history.
And you know what makes it even sweeter? The guy who really won the game for us. The other guy that had been through so much turmoil the last few seasons. The guy who was Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten but then struggled to regain that form. Tyler’s layup will be remembered, but DJ won that game.
Those last 12 points will forever be etched in my mind. John Groce calls a timeout and sets up a double screen for DJ to take a three. BANG. We dump it down to Sam McLaurin who kicks it to DJ in the corner. BANG. DJ gets the ball and takes a step-back 18 footer for the tie. BANG. And then after Oladipo gives Indiana the lead, Brandon Paul gets fouled and hits the ugliest free throw I’ve ever seen in my life (I think it went backboard, rim, rim, backboard, rim, in). Brandon swishes the second free throw, and then Oladipo has a chance to win it. BANG, DJ gets the steal, gets blocked on the layup, and, well, then that happened.
And the lineup on the floor for all of that? 5th-year senior Sam McLaurin. Senior Tyler Griffey. Senior Brandon Paul. Senior DJ Richardson. And 4th year junior Joseph Bertrand. The much-maligned 2009 recruiting class (plus McLaurin) getting a moment in the sun. On ESPN. Against Indiana. #1 Indiana. And a layup at the buzzer followed by an Orange Krush court rush.
I wonder if those empty seats in A section will regret staying home.