Through the Trifocals

We just experienced possibly the greatest event in Illini basketball history as we celebrated our 100th anniversary. Fans and participants alike now have a set of loving memories that will sustain them for a lifetime. Illinisports describes the weekend in this column.

What a marvelous weekend we just experienced. Words cannot express accurately how wonderful it was to have so many Illini basketball players and support personnel, past and present, united for the common purpose of celebrating our 100th year of Illini basketball. But for those who could not attend, this writer will share some of the flavor of the occasion.

Thoughts and images flood into the mind at light speed, all wanting an equal place in one's awareness. Straight journalistic description alone cannot convey the truth of what occurred. To describe the weekend simply as a sequence of events would not do justice to it. The participants and their fans shared feelings and memories that elevated their awareness to the stratosphere and made mundane practices such as eating and sleeping mere afterthoughts.

Perhaps drawing parallels to certain movies can help more people get a feel for what happened. First of all, one remembers the Kevin Costner line from "Field of Dreams", approximated here, "There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers fall into place." Indeed, this was the first time so many former Illini returned at the same time to relive memories and share a common purpose. It is also the first time in its vaunted history Illinois has enjoyed nine straight weeks atop the national rankings as its exciting current team continues its outstanding play. Everything came together to make this truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The numerous weekend festivities were opportunities for eight decades of Illini to meet, relive the past and embrace the present and future. Interestingly, even members of the All-Century team were excited to meet the generation that preceded them. After all, those older players were THEIR heroes growing up.

Former teammates, some of whom hadn't gotten together in 30-40 years or more, had the chance to relive their most cherished memories. There was much to share and much positive energy to absorb. Even those who were uncertain of their reception were relieved and thrilled to realize they are still and will always be part of the Illini family. Meals were part of the weekend, but food for the soul was plentiful as well.

One is reminded of the scene at the end of the movie "A League Of Their Own", where members of women's professional baseball teams joined together to unveil their special subdivision of Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. Both then and this past weekend, fans could actually meet and interact with the originators of so many happy memories from games gone by. No photo, movie or holographic projection can substitute for the heroes themselves, and they were in abundance. It was as if the pages of a history book came alive before our eyes.

Truly, for one weekend the University of Illinois housed a living Hall of Fame. The oldest former Illini in attendance was Colin Handlon, who lettered in 1938, 1939 and 1940. This is ancient history to most, but please understand he played alongside Lou Boudreau. Yes, THE Lou Boudreau who was one of Illinois' all-time greatest athletes and is now enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The stories Colin can tell would fascinate any history buff. He is a living record of some of the earliest days of Illini basketball.

1940's Whiz Kid, former athletic director and All-Century team member Gene Vance was there, along with his teammate and fellow starter from 1946-47 Fred Green. These outstanding gentlemen were inspiring in their herculean efforts to walk their aged bodies out onto the Assembly Hall floor. Several other members of the great Illini teams from the 1940's and 1950's were there as well.

Govoner Vaughn and Mannie Jackson, the first two African Americans to letter in basketball at Illinois, were there. They were not only great basketball players back in the late 1950's, but they are truly great human beings who continue to share their special energy and motivation with all those they encounter. Mannie recently saved the Harlem Globetrotters from near bankruptcy and is helping restore that special team of international goodwill ambassadors to its former glory.

Even some of the players whose playing days were cut short for one reason or another or who felt estranged upon departing still realized their first love is Illinois. George BonSalle went ineligible midseason of his senior year, causing a free-fall in the fortunes of his championship-hopeful 1956-1957 team. But his 6'-8" frame was pleasurably conspicuous by its presence. It was wonderful to realize his misfortune was forgotten in the glow of a wonderful reunion.

Rich Jones, who likely would have been one of the all-time Illini greats had he been able to stay for his entire four years, made the trip from Las Vegas. He and former teammate Ron Dunlap, now a school administrator in Wisconsin, saw their promising careers cut short by the Slush Fund. But they and some others should be commended for holding no malice or bitterness over past events and rejoining the Illini family that receives them with open arms. What a tremendous example they set for us all.

And the list of former coaches was impressive as well. Harv Schmidt hadn't returned to campus since his dismissal as head basketball coach in 1974. But he was met with a rowsing show of support, both for his exciting coaching and his quality leadership and play as a former Illini captain. A few older fans still carried "I Like Harv" buttons in reminder. Gene Bartow coached only one season at Illinois but still desired the chance to be part of the festivities. And a number of assistant coaches made it back as well, including Tony Yates and Jimmy Collins. Collins is head coach at UI-Chicago, but he tore himself away from his duties long enough to share memories and pay his respects at the Friday reception.

Of course, the favorite former coach for most fans was Lou Henson. The city of Champaign was so excited to see his return it renamed a portion of First Street West of Assembly Hall "Lou Henson Court" in his honor. Lou was undaunted despite being wheelchair bound following viral encephalitis, and his positive energy added much to the festivities. His successful attempt at standing from his chair to receive his awards brought tears to more than one eye, both among fans and players.

Around 350 players, coaches, managers, trainers and other support personnel returned for the occasion, and the list of great players is simply long to repeat here. But these people are not just former basketball stars. They are, for the most part, self-actualized adults who have continued to star in the game of life after basketball. Their expansive awareness, forged in the fires of competition, has helped many of them continue to evolve and grow as humans to the point they are true points of light in a dark world.

Many have had remarkable success in the business world. Many others have served as teachers, facilitators and administrators in a variety of helping venues, sharing their knowledge and good hearts with those in need. Their list of professional accomplishments is as vast as their basketball resumes. Truly, they are much more than just basketball players.

Their bodies are older and less pliable than their college years, but when you look into their eyes, you see the same love of basketball, the same competitive fire, the same eagerness to utilize their vast athleticism. It reminded one of "The Twilight Zone: The Movie." In particular, the portion where the Scatman Caruthers character encouraged old people in a nursing home to play "Kick The Can." In that movie, youthful enthusiasm overcame assumptions of bodily limitation, and the old people transformed into their child selves.

Our Illini alumni would give anything to meet Scatman, even for a moment, just to relive the greatness of their youth. The thrilling last-second victories, the day(s) they experienced the "Zone" and swished shots from all over the court, the championships won, the team comeraderie shared. These events are taken for granted while we live them, but they are missed when our opportunites for athletic glory cease.

That great youthful athlete still exists in each and every one of our former Illini stars, wanting desperately to show itself again. As our Illini greats were introduced to a packed Assembly Hall crowd, some were limping, some were practically doubled over with the deformities of aging, some were terribly out of shape, and some were distorted beyond recognition. But if you were there, and all you saw was the aging, you truly missed the point. Inside each body was a lionine heart, an intelligent and aware mind, a memory of past greatness, and a love of basketball and all things Illini.

Some of these past stars played in the Alumni game on Saturday morning and reminded us of their former glory, delaying temporarily their need for Scatman's assistance. Recent graduate Lucas Johnson got on an uncanny role in the 3-point shooting contest and won the finale over Tom Michaels. But he admitted his success may have been due in part to fresh legs as the four rounds of shooting took their toll on older participants. These gentlemen weren't just good, they were fantastic regardless of age. Johnson even admitted he may have made more 3's Saturday morning than his entire playing career.

Two of the most remarkable shooting performances were turned in by older alums Rick Howat and Gibson City's Dennis Graff, both of whom made the final four before tiring. Howat graduated in 1971 but still showed his mechanically perfect form. He played before three-point shots were allowed or he would likely be among Illinois' all-time best scorers. Later in the actual game, he ran the court well and swished some jumpers despite being in his mid 50's.

The alumni game itself was highly competitive. If some were disappointed in their heroes' performances, it was only those who are too immature to realize how much one's skills diminish with age and reduced practice time. Around 40-45 people participated, including 1963 graduate and All-Century team honoree Dave Downey, now in his 60's. There were a few dunks from recent graduates, but most were content to play a team game. Still, the score ended with both teams in the 70's, and all participants showed flashes of their former glory.

Bruce Douglas still was making steals and then rifling quick passes for easy assists. That was his game, and there has been none better in the history of Illini basketball. He also hit some threes, to the pleasant surprise of some who questioned his outside shot in college. Eddie Johnson, Marcus Liberty, Doug Altenberger, Kenny Battle, Craig Tucker, Levi Cobb, Chris Gandy, Glynn Blackwell, Perry Range, Marcus Griffin, Sergio McClain, Richard Keene, Otho Tucker and George Montgomery were just a few of the many Illini stars who shared moves and mirth on the court. Big George's wide smile gave pleasure to everyone as he pounded the boards and faked a defender before scoring a bank shot. These guys made an effort to get in shape for their game, and it showed.

The culmination of the entire weekend was the festivities at Assembly Hall that included the current Illini's excellent 89-66 victory over the Minnesota. The Gophers never had a chance as the special energy of the moment was simply too uplifting for the Illini to let victory slip from its fingers. The whole event reminded this writer of a Jim Henson and his Muppets movie called "The Dark Crystal."

Many may not remember this movie, but the storyline parallels this past weekend quite well. In a planetary system far away, a destructive event occurred that caused the development of two separate groups of beings. This event was likened to a small dark shard being broken off from a perfected super crystal. The premise of the movie was the need to replace the shard at one special moment when all three suns aligned together.

The two groups of beings were called Skexys and Mystics. The Skexys were the mercurial, post-pubescent, grab-all-the-gusto group who thought only of their wants of the moment and had no knowledge of their connection to time and space. Perhaps the Skexys and our present team and their fans can be compared favorably, at least for argument's sake.

The Mystics were sluggish and deformed but possessed great wisdom. They were snubbed by the Skexys as being inferior and unimportant, but the Mystics served as a contrasting balancer for the Skexys. At the end of the movie, the suns came back into alignment, drawing the Mystics and Skexys inextricably back to the crystal. The shard was replaced and the two groups reunited to transform into grand energy beings who were greater than the sum of their polar opposite parts. They then flew off as energy beams, free from all previous constraints.

How else can you describe what happened at Assembly Hall Saturday afternoon? The wise, mature alums were drawn like magnets to the center of the Illini basketball universe. There they joined with our current team and all Illini fans lucky enough to possess tickets, plus all who were able to watch on television or listen to the radio. Suddenly, all separations of time and space vanished, and we were all, at least for the moment, one.

We could almost feel the Assembly Hall revving up its motor as a practically infinite amount of loving energy began to swirl around this concrete space ship of a basketball arena. Those trusting enough to let down their guard could not help but feel completely inspired and uplifted by this unified field of spiraling energy. They didn't want the occasion to end.

And for many, it didn't end. They will undoubtedly continue to experience flashbacks of the weekend's events long after completion. Many likely will have dreams that help them relive events or remind them of their connections to the whole. Even as their bodies journeyed back to their homes all over the planet, their renewed connections to the oneness that is the University of Illinois remain firmer than ever.

No matter how far we all travel away from the central point, we will always be within that unique frame of reference, strengthened and even rejuvenated by its healing warmth.

May we all be together in that moment. Always.

Go Illini, past, present and future!!!


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