Through the Trifocals

This weekend is possibly the greatest event in Illinois basketball history. Around half of all the still-living players, managers, trainers and support staff who have ever participated with the Illini basketball team will reunite and be recognized at the conclusion of the Minnesota game. Illinisports praises a former great Illini who deserved to make the All-Century team in this column.

Next weekend is the culmination of 100 years of Illini basketball. An amazingly high total of approximately 350 former Illini basketball players and support staff will be in attendance at our game with Minnesota.

Eighteen of the 20 All-Century team members or their representatives will be in attendance as well. These great players have already been announced, but Illini fans attending the game will have a special opportunity to see them again and give them the adulation they still richly deserve. Everyone is looking forward to one of the finest moments in Illini history.

Of course, some great players will not be there, for a wide variety of legitimate reasons. We regret their absence and hope they can visit campus at some future date. And, since it was a popularity contest voted on by fans and limited to 20 players divided by three eras, not all the greatest players are included in the All-Century team.

Our current team players were ineligible for inclusion or they would have dominated the voting. Sadly, they will be long forgotten when the Second Century team is feted in 2105. Players such as Don Sunderlage, who was a 1st team All-American and won the Chicago Tribune Silver Basketball for being the outstanding basketball player in the Big 10 in 1951, were overlooked just because their fan base has mostly passed on by now. And potential all-time greats such as Rich Jones had their careers ended prematurely.

There are some players who, despite tremendous careers, are not remembered as fondly as others. Players who go on to play a number of years in the NBA are remembered better than those who play overseas or choose careers in fields outside of basketball. Players who stay around Champaign-Urbana and continue to make names for themselves within the university community are beloved as much for their post-career contributions as their playing days. Players who have an exciting style may be exalted by fans over those who make the most valuable contributions to their teams. And charismatic personalities are almost always venerated over the earthy, nose-to-the-grindstone types.

Of all the great Illini players who were not fortunate enough to be named to the All-Century team, the one I regret most is Kiwane Garris. Many fans still remember him since he played from 1994 to 1997. And he is still making a comfortable living playing professional basketball in Italy. That prevents him from attending next week's festivities, so I would like to make special mention of him at this time.

Kiwane has had several tryouts with the NBA. However, he is barely over 6' tall and lacks the dominant jumping ability or extreme quickness to make up for his lack of height. And he is not an effervescent, charismatic personality that draws attention to himself. All he has is one of the best combinations of basketball tools to ever play basketball at Illinois.

Kiwane is a master ball handler, passer and shooter. No one can press him. When he has the ball, no one is getting it from him. Ball handling is not always prized by the average fan because fundamentals are not exciting. But a lack of these fundamentals causes losses. You can count on Garris to move the ball upcourt and get the team into its offense no matter how extreme the pressure.

Kiwane is one of those rare point guards who can both pass and score. Early in his Illini career, he tended to score 30 points one game and hand out 12 assists another, as if he could do only one of the two at a time. But as he matured, he found out how to think both individually and collectively, so by his senior year he was putting up big points and big assists simultaneously.

Kiwane can shoot from anywhere on the court with accuracy. One thing I have always loved about him is his ability to penetrate and finish near the basket. Even when he needs to shoot from extreme angles, he finds a way to put the ball in the basket. I will never forget watching him blast between defenders, cupping the ball between his arm and chest to protect it, and then placing it back into his hand near the basket for the soft layin. His transition from strength to touch is seamless. And beyond his ability to hole the shot, he almost always gets fouled on his drives. He is among the all-time best free throw shooters in Illini history, making him doubly effective on his penetrations.

It is hard to imagine a better overall player for the Illini's needs. Let's run down his records at Illinois to see just how good Kiwane Garris really is:

1. He ranks second only to Deon Thomas in most points scored in a career at 1948.
2. He averaged over 15 points per game for each of his four years, with his career average being 16.8 points per game.
3. He ranks number one in freshman scoring average with 15.9 points per game in 1994.
4. He ranks fifth in total points for one season at 622 in 1997.
5. He ranks fourth in all-time free throw % for a season at .862 in 1996 and fifth in % for a career at .830.
6. He ranks first in most made free throws for a season at 204 in 1997, first in free throws for a career at 615, first in most consecutive free throws at 39, and first in most free throws attempted for a career.
7. His most free throws for an individual game rank numbers 2 through 7 all-time at 17 twice, 16 twice, and 15.
8. He ranks 2nd in career assists (behind only Bruce Douglas) with 502.
9. He ranks 5th in total assists for one season at 180 and 6th in assist average per game at 5.63, both from the year 1997.
10. He ranks 6th in all-time career starts and fourth in minutes played at 3803.
11. He lead his team in steals all four years of his career.
12. He was twice named a co-captain, for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
13. He was named honorable mention All-Big 10 by the media in 1994, 2nd Team All-Big 10 by the coaches in 1995, 1st Team All-Big 10 in 1996 by the coaches, and 1st Team All-Big 10 by both the coaches and media in 1997.
14. He was a three-time Illini MVP.

Wouldn't we be absolutely thrilled to recruit another player of Garris' caliber? How can someone so great be overlooked for the All-Century team? It is one of the quirks of selecting a team such as this that Garris had the misfortune of being left off the team. Certainly, many people remember Kiwane and agree he should have been included. But the team is dominated by Flying Illini and Whiz Kids plus a few charismatic individuals, and that plus limits on the total number of players selected per era combined to nudge Garris out of the top 20.

So today I celebrate the greatness that is Kiwane Garris. May he always be remembered as one of the Illini's greatest players even as his name is not engraved in bronze in the Illini celebration of its first 100 years. And may someone please share this column with him. He deserves much more than a column, but perhaps it is better than nothing.

Thank you, Kiwane.

Go Illini!!! Go ALL Illini, past, present and future!!!


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