Grace Changes People: The Leron Black Story

Illini redshirt sophomore forward Leron Black is grateful for his second chance and anxious to return to game action.

CHAMPAIGN -- In one moment, life as you know it can be taken away by a mistake.

In one moment, that dream that you've worked for every day can slip through your fingertips. Uncharacteristic or not, your action jeopardizes your livelihood.

That's where Illini forward Leron Black was at in the back of a police car on a February night -- arrested on a charge of aggravated assault for threatening a bouncer with a knife.

Red and blue lights flashed across his face just as thoughts and judgements about his status within the Illini program flashed across the minds of everyone when reading the news the next morning.

Black tied for first in the Big Ten in rebounds per minute played the previous season as a freshman. He was the team's most productive player over in Europe the following summer. He was a consensus top-50 recruit for John Groce in the 2014 class. And by his teammates' admission, he was one of the most likeable guys on the team.

None of that mattered in that moment, though. Black's sophomore season was over back in December due to a meniscus tear, and there was a chance his career at Illinois was too.

But after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge in April that included probation, community service and a fine, Black was reinstated to the Illinois program on May 6. He was given a six-game suspension, but more importantly, he was given a second chance.

It's one that has allowed him to learn and grow. One that opened his eyes to what was right in front of him.

"I'm just thankful and blessed that I'm still here today. I thank God every day for allowing me to have this second chance. It's taught me to not take anything for granted," Black said. "In any situation, everything you've worked for can be taken away in a second. I've realized how much you can have an impact as an athlete. How much you impact the community and your family."

'Grace changes people'

That's a line that Black carries close to his heart. You'll see it in a hashtag below every photo he posts on his Instagram account.

Raised in a church-going family back in Memphis, Black was always one to center his life around faith. And he received those words sitting in a church service in Urbana with his girlfriend the weekend after he got reinstated.

Now, it's his mark.

"The pastor was saying how grace makes you change. It just stuck with me because God had grace on me and my situation," Black said. "I knew for myself that I needed to make a change if I wanted to get back headed in the right direction."

On one hand, the change was simply going back to his roots. That's what Illini assistant Jamall Walker has noticed. Walker was the lead recruiter for Black in the 2014 class.

"I think he just went back to his values -- to what he's grown up with. He's always had a great family," Walker said. "I think he just went back to himself. Sometimes in college, people have to find themselves. But I also think you can lose yourself. So I think he's really gone back to who he is and what he's about."

One newfound change has been Black's commitment to the community. He had court-ordered community service. Now, he gives back because he wants to.

You can find him helping out at schools. He's quick to volunteer during basketball camps.

"He's great with kids, man. He's unbelievable. He loves kids. Kids love him," Walker said. "Sometimes you've got to go through things to get some direction. That situation may have showed him a destination that he can use down the road."

On-court redemption

The next step is getting back in the game. Illinois has its season-opener on Friday night against SEMO, and Black will be sidelined for that game and three more due to his suspension.

As best as he can, Black is patiently waiting to put on the Illini uniform and run out of the tunnel with his teammates. He'll get that opportunity on Nov. 21 against Winthrop -- one game before Illinois heads out to Brooklyn to take on West Virginia.

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In the meantime, it's all business on the practice court. It's for that very reason that Illini assistant Dustin Ford will tell you Black is one of his favorites that he's ever coached.

"You never have to get him to bring more effort or intensity," Ford said. "The focus is entirely on basketball and he goes to work."

How hard does he work?

"He plays almost every possession like you're holding his head under water right now," Groce said at media day last month.

That comment came one week after practice officially began. And the proof is in the pudding. The Illini give out the No. 40 James Augustine practice uniform to the player who led the previous practice in rebounding.

To Black, it's like a title belt. He was wearing it during a skill workout last Friday at the State Farm Center prior to Illinois' exhibition contest against Lewis. He's worn it more than a few other times since practice started.

"Probably about 80 percent of the time," Illini director of basketball operations James Haring said.

That's the relentless effort, immeasurable motor and flat out dog that those around the program have associated with Black since he arrived. For Walker and Groce, it's what made him a priority target as a high school prospect.

Those characteristics -- mixed in with some maturity -- are big reasons why big things are expected of Black this year and in the future. He's a better player than he was before the injury. His mid-range game has continued to blossom. Other areas, too.

"I feel like my strength and conditioning has gotten a lot better," Black said. "My defense has gotten better and my IQ for the game has gotten a lot better."

He might even tell you he's hungrier than before -- if that's physically possible.

"He's always been pretty hungry. I don't know that he's hungrier. If he is, that's a pretty hungry dude," Walker said. "If he uses this as motivation, so be it. But I hope he uses it as a way to learn valuable lessons for while he's here and when he grows to be a man."

It's in Black's hands to make this a comeback story worth telling one day. And that goes beyond the realm of basketball in the Big Ten or anywhere else.


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