Illini Pride March 24, 2013
We’re a strange bunch. I think the best way to describe us is to use something my Maryland-fan friend said to me during the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis. “I knew Illinois was a basketball school, but I never knew that Illinois was THIS MUCH of a basketball school”.
He had no idea.
We showed up for the shootaround in the Edward Jones Dome like no fanbase has ever showed up for a Final Four shootaround. We take our “best team to never win it all” VERY seriously. Before this season, I believe we were 17th on the list of all-time NCAA Tournament wins. And the 16 teams in front of us all have at least one championship. Most of us know this stat off the top of our heads.
We also wear a lot of orange around the office on gamedays. And we talk about this team all over the internet. And we follow recruiting incredibly closely. And our student section invades another arena every year. And all of our friends around us look at us funny. “I know Illinois is a basketball school, but I’m surprised it’s this obsessive. You guys have never won a title, yet you act like Kansas fans or something. Why is the Illini fanbase so… aggressive?”
My answer: Illini Pride. What’s that?
We just lost in heartbreaking fashion in the Round of 32. With our first Sweet 16 in eight years in sight, Miami pulled away at the end and our seniors’ careers are finished. Miami’s final-minute surge was assisted by a horrible call from one of the officials, sending Twitter into a national referendum on how one bad call can influence an important game (and how deflections out-of-bounds should be reviewable). And all I can feel is pride.
I’m so incredibly proud to be an Illini fan at this moment that I can’t type fast enough. I’m like the parent of a newborn who wants to tell people about it in the hallway. My guys – my GUYS – fought like warriors tonight against a top-5 team. Miami made three surges, and we fought right back. When Brandon put down that double-pump dunk, I thought my chest was going to burst. MY GUYS, giving their absolute best.
And what did you hear throughout the arena during the game? “I-L-L… I-N-I”. Who was the only team to sell out their allotment of tickets in Austin? Illinois. What non-elite program can match our history of fanbase mobilization? None.
I have a good friend who went to North Carolina. His take after the 2005 title game was to needle me with a “ho-hum, another title” reaction (all in good fun – this guy doesn’t have a spiteful bone in his body). My comeback was pointing to the celebrations. As I remember the numbers, UNC had a “we won” celebration and 14,000 people showed up. Illinois lost, and 30,000 people showed up at Memorial Stadium.
Think about that for a second. It’s almost embarrassing, isn’t it? We had 30,000 people show up in the football stadium to celebrate a loss? Who does that?
Illini fans do that. This is our thing. It defines us, this Illini Pride. Our fandom is personal. Our players are Brandon and DJ, not Paul and Richardson. When we see effort and determination – toughness and togetherness – we fall in love.
Please note that I’m not describing blind loyalty. One only had to follow Illini fans thoughts and emotions last spring to know that that majority of us just won’t stand for a program headed south. This is not Kumbaya around the campfire no matter what happens. We care and we care deeply about getting that elusive title.
But we’re also fiercely loyal to our teams that give their all and max out their talent. Almost annoyingly loyal. Show-up-at-airports loyal. Ask-for-autographs loyal. Remember how the 2005 Illini went to watch a movie in Chicago during the Big Ten tournament and the theater snuck them in the side door because they were like rock stars with throngs of fans trying to get close to them? Yeah, that’s what will happen to DJ and Brandon and Tyler when they emerge from the tunnel tonight in Austin. These are our guys.
Man, it was hard to type that for the final time. My heart goes out to DJ and Brandon and Tyler (and Sam) right now. It’s all over for them. That has to be such and incredibly empty feeling.
But I hope they know what they provided this year. I really hope they understand what it meant to us. I’ll – we’ll – remember this season for a long, long time. The Season That Brought Illinois Basketball Back. Redemption for Tyler and DJ. Highlight reels from Brandon. Three guys that had to face so much adversity last season – a 3-12 finish and a coach getting fired – and they sent us out on top.
On top? Did I just say “on top” after a Round Of 32 loss? Yes I did. My feelings are stunningly positive right now. I’m sure I’ll wake up with that familiar “man, SO CLOSE” twinge tomorrow morning, but for now, all I can think is that my team gave 100% effort and came up just short against a top-5 team. I can’t really ever get angry at that. In fact, I’m beaming with pride.