Leonard A Dream Come True...At Least Briefly

Many Fighting Illini basketball fans have dreamed of someday having a true star playing the center position. Johnnie Kerr was the last Illini center to thrive in the NBA, and he played in the early 1950's. Finally, along comes Meyers Leonard, and he had no interest in any school but Illinois. Unfortunately, Illini fans may have only this one year to enjoy his presence on the court.

Illinois basketball fans have longed for that special center to dominate the post. Someone like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar. NBA and Navy star David Robinson gave fans hope a player might choose Illinois before anyone else found out about him and then grow another 6 inches.

Many potential stars have come along and chosen competitor schools or more distant locations. The Illini have tried multiple big men with variable results. A couple 7-footers enjoyed some success, but there was something missing in their makeup.

And then it happened. The small town of Robinson in southeast Illinois saw the development of Meyers Leonard from a guard to a center as he continued to get taller and taller.

He led his team to a state championship and provided glimpses of the greatness that is his potential. When he led a fast break and literally leaped over the top of a defender for a rousing dunk, Illini fans knew they had someone who could finally fulfill their wildest dreams.

Leonard had an uneventful freshman season at Illinois. He was playing behind senior Mike Tisdale and contented himself with being the team's clown. He wasn't mentally ready for the college game and gained minimal experience.

But even then, his special qualities were obvious. He has a frame that is strong and can add muscle mass. He can run the court with the best of them. He has good lateral quickness and can guard out on the court when he puts his mind to it. He is smart and a hard worker. He can leap tall buildings with a single bound. Maybe not that well, but few if any 7-footers can out-leap him.

In addition, he has good touch around the basket and can hit mid range jumpers. He once hit 18 of 20 three pointers in practice. He's a good free throw shooter, and he can hook with either hand. He sometimes takes too long before making his post moves, but he explains he needs time to decide which of multiple moves he should execute.

Leonard has unlimited potential, with the possible exception of his emotional fluctuations. He goes from one extreme to the other emotionally. One minute he is on top of the world, and the next he feels unworthy of praise. He can let bad officiating calls or poor plays get to him. Illini coach Bruce Weber has spent parts of every game trying to boost his spirits.

In many ways, he's still a young kid. When the Illini practice at the Assembly Hall, he enjoys seeing if he can make shots from the top of A section and B section. At times, he tries to punt the basketball to see how far into the stands it will fly. Or show off his pitching prowess by trying to throw a ball through a wall.

One time, he decided to stand on the concrete railing separating part of A section from the bleachers below. Both coaches and media cajoled him to get down. Whether he cared about personal injury, others did. They knew the Illini's future depended on a healthy Leonard.

Leonard admits play on the court creates mood swings that can have an adverse effect on his confidence.

"Absolutely. Missing shots, guys hanging on me. I'm the biggest guy on the court, so I don't get a lot of calls. I'm surprised with some of the things people get away with.

"You've got to play through it. Stay strong and be confident because I know, regardless of what they do, I know I can still score, get my teammates open and do certain things to take over a game."

Weber has been trying to convince him the attention is really a compliment. The constant banging, shoving and trash talk should remind him of how much respect others have for him. They fear what he can do to them.

"Absolutely. They're trying to get in my head from the get-go, trying to be physical with me. I don't always get the calls, but I get away with some things too. I've just got to remind myself to keep playing. I'm the biggest guy on the court, so I'm not gonna get as many calls as some other guys."

Some of his immaturity may stem from growing up without a father. His dad died when he was six, leaving his mother to raise him and older brother Bailey. Shortly thereafter, his mother suffered back problems that continue to plague her and limit her ability to make a living. She can't even make the trip to Champaign to watch her son in person.

Weber reminds how the town of Robinson reached out to help the Leonard family.

"The whole community has done a great job with him. They helped mom out as a single parent. Meyers is a great kid. Off the court, he's a fun-loving kid. We're trying to get him to be a mature adult on the court. He can still be a fun-loving kid off the court and enjoy himself.

"I think that's what makes him special. He's very intelligent, and his mom has done a great job as a single parent, and the whole community has really helped him and guided him. And they take a lot of pride. Almost every game, there's anywhere from 5 to 15 Robinson people here that all feel Meyers is part of their family. I think they're very proud of having him here."

Leonard is averaging around 14 points and 8 rebounds a game. He could be even better next year, but Illini fans may not get the chance to see him play for them. There are few center prospects as talented as Leonard. The NBA seems willing to take chances on players like him even though he needs at least a couple more years to mature.

Will Leonard turn pro? That is the question on everyone's mind these days. More than likely, the need to care for his mother will override other issues. He could be a top-5 draft pick after his junior year and make mega bucks, but he will almost certainly be drafted in the first round if he chooses that route this spring. Up to now, he's been noncommittal, in public anyway.

"I don't know right now. Obviously, the NBA is my future hopefully, barring injury or anything else that could happen. But for right now, I'm focusing on Illinois. I'm focused strictly on trying to make the tournament and playing for Illinois. At the end of the season, I'll make my decisions."

He admits all the NBA talk, and all the feelers from scouts and others, have taken a toll at times.

"I've just always wanted to play well for my teammates here and play well for the coaching staff. And to represent my family and community. But as far as trying to play to impress people, that's gonna come. I've always just done it for the here and now.

"Obviously, it has weighed on me a little bit at times throughout the season because it's not easy when you hear everyone in your ear. They try to come at you from different angles. Some people close to me try to keep me grounded, as well as my teammates."

His mother is a big concern.

"Obviously, my mom is kind of teetering with her health. She's always been there for me and gave everything she had to me, so I want to take care of her. She can make it even through next year if I decide to stay."

Another consideration is his brother. Bailey recently concluded his second tour of duty in Afghanistan as a Marine. He surprised his brother by returning in time to watch his game against Michigan. Before knowing about the surprise, Meyers mentioned the possibility his brother might have an influence on his NBA decision.

"My brother may re-enlist. Maybe if I stick around he'll decide to stay. I really have no idea right now. I definitely thought about it and kind of weighed my options."

Bailey was asked to respond to that comment.

"I have not re-enlisted. It's all up in the air as to whether or not I'll go back in. He knows that's my decision. He knows he can always give me his opinion, but in the end I already know what I want to do.

"I'm all about trying something new, but then again I don't regret my decision of enlisting. I don't want to completely get away from it, but we'll just have to see how it pans out.

"I'm actually waiting for him to bring it up to me rather than me bringing it up to him. It's his life. The only thing I can do is give him some insight, but my level of experience is a completely different playing field. So I can give a little bit of advice for what he does, but not very much. I feel he's mature enough to make the right decision for himself."

Leonard still has much to learn, but his ceiling is unlimited. As well as he has played at times this season, assistant coach Wayne McClain reminds how Leonard is really in his infancy regarding college basketball.

"You've got to understand, this guy is really in his first year of college basketball. He's still learning. For a guy who's not spent very much time, he's done a pretty good job. It's just a matter of him getting more experience, and he's figuring it out every day."

True. But he may do his figuring out while riding an NBA bench next year rather than at Illinois. Leonard is this reporter's dream come true. It will be a shame if the dream can't last longer, but Leonard's dream is just beginning.

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