Among my father’s last sporting pleasures was the 2005 University of Illinois basketball team. Nearing the end of his battle with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), he reveled in how well the Illini played together.
He tuned in at every opportunity during Illinois’ run to the national championship game. There’s not a lot to smile about when you’re hooked up to oxygen 24 hours a day. The unselfishness of Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, et al, made it happen.
With five starters averaging between 10.1 and 15.9 points a game, those all-for-one Illini provided therapy no doctor could prescribe. For that, they will always hold a special place.
My dad died seven months after Illinois’ 75-70 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA title game. He was 91, and in all of those years, never saw a group that epitomized “team” more than that one. He told me so one lazy Sunday afternoon, not long after The Final Four in St. Louis.
His words rushed back this past weekend, slicing through the cheers and boos and blaring bands of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. There was irony in the locale … downtown St. Louis. Yet, it was a team that put his voice in my ear.
On a weekend for moving clocks ahead, mine slid back to 2005.
Wichita State is Dad’s Illini in black and gold. The Shockers look for each other, play for each other, put team ahead of self. A lot of coaches and players give lip service to that, insisting it is “who we are.” Few have the video and stat sheet to back it up.
Wichita State is 34-0 because head coach Gregg Marshall – like him or loathe him – has convinced his players no other numbers matter. Apparently, it did not take much arm-twisting, which is good fortune, good recruiting or both.
“For me, that’s just how I was raised … to be an unselfish individual,” said sophomore guard Ron Baker, shortly after Friday’s quarterfinal win over Evansville. “When I got here, that’s what we’re all about. I don’t know if that’s luck or destiny, whatever you want to call it.”
Wichita State starters Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton, Fred VanVleet and Baker all average between 10.8 and 15.8 points a game.
The Shockers don’t have a Deron Williams, a perennial NBA All-Star who has won Olympic gold. But they do have VanVleet, a smooth point guard who, like Williams in 2005, makes his team go.
The sophomore from Rockford is good for 12.1 points, 5.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game. Add it up and you have the Valley’s Player of the Year.
Beyond that, you get 34-0.
“I think it (unselfish play) has to be in your nature a little bit,” VanVleet said. “When you get a group of guys together who are unselfish, it’s contagious. Maybe if not all 15 are … maybe if you’ve got 10, it will carry over to the other five.”
Marshall embraces the concept, of course, but insisted Friday, “I don’t tell good players to pass on good shots. We share the ball and when it’s your turn to shoot and you’re open, I want you to shoot it.”
“I think they’ve got character for sure,” he said of his players. “Maybe they sacrifice a little bit individually for the overall good, but at this point, who’s to argue that everybody’s not getting their just reward?”
Not me. Or the colleague who said, “I enjoy watching them even when they’re ahead by 25 (points).”
Yep, it’s 2005 again.
You’d love it, Dad.
Wish you were here.