Through the Trifocals

The Fighting Illini basketball team is creating positive feedback from all over the country. Pollsters are rating us among the elite; recruits are making first contact; and excited Illini fans are coming out of the woodwork, all for the Funtastic Illini. Illinisports joins the bandwagon in this column.

The 2004-2005 version of the Fighting Illini baskeball team is becoming quite a phenomenon. It is gaining popularity not seen since the 1988-89 Flying Illini, the team of dunkers that reached the Final Four and was likely the best team in the nation that year. And it is demonstrating many of the same qualities that made the Flying Illini so special.

We don't have all the dunkers that 1988-89 team possessed, but we are having a similar effect on those who observe us play together. Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo and Lowell Hamilton, along with reserves Larry Smith, Marcus Liberty, Ervin Small, and P. J. Bowman combined to create more upliftment for their fans and admirers than any other team in the country that year. People from every corner of the land revered the Flying Illini and looked forward to watching them play.

Our present team conjures up memories of other special juggernauts besides just the Flying Illini. Lon Kruger's 1997-98 team of "nobodys" Kevin Turner, Jerry Hester, Jarrod Gee, Brian Johnson and Matt Heldman used a special team chemistry to create a well-oiled machine that drove through an outstanding season, culminating with a share of the Big 10 championship. Their tremendous caring for each other was typified by a play where seldom-used reserve Arias Davis flew out of bounds to save the ball, Brian Johnson ran after him to pull him back onto the floor, and the two then ran down to the other end, where their continued efforts led to Matt Heldman's open three pointer. It was a feel-good team of overachievers.

Few of us remember the Whiz Kids, but they were the talk of the country back in 1941-1943. They won two consecutive Big Ten Championships with the four bookend players Ken Menke, Andy Phillip, Jack Smiley, and Gene Vance. All were about the same height, and all had speed and skill. But it was their teamwork that gave them the special edge over their competition. Books and articles were written in abundance about them, and it was because of their special chemistry playing together as much as their basketball prowess. Phillip went on to play many years in the pros, but this special foursome made each other better than they could have been separately.

This writer can remember some other special teams at the high school, college and pro levels that share the special traits our present Illini are demonstrating, but they are few and far between. The unique Chicago Loyola quintet of 1963 may be the best comparison of all. None of its players went onto long-term fame in the NBA, and yet together they were unbeatable. Illinois' great team of that year, which included Dave Downey, Bill Burwell, Bill Small, Skip Thoren, Tal Brody and Bogie Redmon, couldn't penetrate the invisible wall of togetherness that made the Ramblers so great that season, losing 79-64 in the NCAA tournament Elite Eight.

There have been a few other special teams throughout time, and an apology is offered for those who remain unmentioned. But there are certain traits all these teams have that cannot be quantified but are essential in creating the aura of greatness that surrounds them. One cannot measure heart or inner fire on the basis of statistics or won-loss records. One cannot logically deduce the potential of such teams by looking at them as individuals. Only by combining intangible qualities with logic is a true assessment possible.

Many scribes are now taking turns trying to describe this year's version of the Fighting Illini, with varying degrees of success. Truly, our present Illini team inspires glowing commentary from coast to coast. Loren Tate, wise sage and long-time sports writer for the Champaign-Urbana "News-Gazette", describes them thusly: "Individually, it isn't clear if any of the Illini are ready for the me-first NBA. But this unit is greater than the sum of its parts..."

This may be as accurate a statement as any. Because they are our heroes, of course we feel they will all have a great chance to play in the National Basketball Association, their ultimate goal. But without arguing individual skill levels, there is no doubt that together, each player accentuates the abilities of the others.

To wax philosophical for a moment, the team is like a big electromagnet drawing everyone to them. When each individual's positive energy and natural optimism gets combined into a team concept, something spectacular occurs. An energy cornucopea is created that spirals upward and outward toward infinity, drawing everyone into its vortex. Opposite to a tornado or hurricane, with its destructiveness, this energy spiral creates light energy that manifests tangibly as happiness, joy, inspiration and love.

What is the magical elixir that produces this profound effect? Why can't it be duplicated more often by teams around the country? Why can't a statistical analysis predict its potential? Answering these questions is literally impossible. After all, we are trying to use our logical left-brains to analyze and define a phenomenon that defies logic. Of course, we all try to accomplish this, and this writer is no exception. So here goes.

First of all, our team is composed of decent young men with positive attitudes, strong academic orientation, and a desire to work hard to be the best they can be. They have an affinity for each other that is natural and not forced. They truly enjoy being together on and off the court, and they share their joy of unity with those who encounter them in public. They like and trust their coaches and are willing to follow instruction. And they are strongly motivated to win. In fact, they work daily with purpose, their goals being a Final Four appearance and National Championship.

When these fine individuals combine their qualities to work toward team rather than individual goals, they become like cells of one brain that blend their combined uniqueness. That one mind thus has traits such as optimism, intelligence, unselfishness, effervescense, ambition, reverence, athleticism, joy, intensity, quickness, maturity, open-heartedness, and especially an expanded consciousness. This group mind becomes one practically perfect basketball player, and it is stronger and more capable than most any other less perfected group energy.

As one, our Illini players appear to send nerve impulses back and forth in response to game situations. They appear able to sense each other's thoughts. And they are instantly aware of their opponents' tendencies and attack patterns. Thus, they can adapt to counter most anything their opponents try. It is not just their ability to adapt but also their quickness in adapting that makes them effective. This mental quickness is only possible when all teammates are on the same wavelength, caring more for each other than themselves. In fact, their unselfishness is derived from the knowledge that personal goals can be enhanced best through group success.

While some may scoff, the most special trait of this year's Illini team is LOVE. It is love that brings them together, both their love of basketball and love of each other. It is love that holds the individuals within the group brain, with all individual actions occurring within that all-encompassing energy. In fact, each successful interaction strengthens the bonds of love between players and coaches, making them even more capable than before.

It is love that makes them so attractive to outsiders. It is love that inspires and uplifts us all to see beyond the limits of our individual lives and feel the fun, excitement and optimism shared by the Illini team.

When five players who truly love each other and share with each other get together on a basketball floor, a five-pointed star is created. One can even feel the lines of energy shooting back and forth between the five points of the star. As the ball passes around and through the opposition, and as the individual players screen for each other and interchange positions, the energy of love and togetherness that already exists whirls around the team in ever-increasing speed and diameter with each revolution. The end result reminds one of a spinning top, standing proudly upright as its spin exceeds upright velocity.

Another analogy might be a train engine. When the team passes the ball, always looking for the extra pass to an open man, an observer can feel the energy of the team pick up, like an engine gearing up. Each pass raises anticipation, like stoking the engine's fire. This anticipation increases exponentially as we await the explosion of a great pass followed by a successful shot. And that final explosion uplifts the team as its internal fire burns brightly, sending it along the track to victory. We fans then hop aboard the Illini's train eagerly as we are certain of its destination.

The Funtastic Illini are like pied pipers, drawing a following wherever they go. We see them having fun and winning, but we also feel their joy and the great love they have for one another and for the game of basketball. We sense in them a potential for which we all strive, a higher calling filled with light, love and happiness. We long to join them in celebrating something wonderful, hoping it will engulf and eliminate the monotony and minimalness of our daily lives. We desire to join them in the special world of their own creation.

Like Tate said, there is no one person on the Illini team that is guaranteed a first round selection for the National Basketball Association. Several may get the chance to play in that league someday, and they will at least have an opportunity to play for pay in a minor pro league or overseas. But no amount of income or individual fame can give them the special happiness they presently enjoy. They may never again have as much fun as they are having right now. They may never again duplicate the special loving chemistry found on this year's Illini team.

The 2004-2005 version of the Fighting Illini has many games yet to play, and there could still be a downturn that limits our won-loss record. But as of this writing, it is easy to imagine a long-term continuation of success. We feel like we are on a major roll, and people all over the country concur. We must continue to enjoy it while it lasts, for every game we play is something so memorable that we should never take it for granted. After all, we never know when it may come again.

Numerous people are predicting a Final Four in the Illini's future, with some sensing a National Championship in this, our 100th season of basketball. Truly, if we continue to play as we have to date, if we continue to be healthy, unselfish and highly motivated, there is apparently no limit. Of course, we are so caught up in that special Illini loving feeling, we may not be able to visualize or accept other less positive possibilities right now.

For however long this phenomenon lasts, let's embrace it and love it. Athleticism, perspiration, intent and unbeatable combination. The Funtastic Illini are truly a team for the ages.

Go Illini!!! Happy Holidays.


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