Through the Trifocals

This year's Illini basketball season is now over, but it will never be forgotten. Illinisports reminds us of the phenomenon that was this magical season in this column.

The 2004-2005 Illini basketball season is now history, but the repurcussions will last well into the future. The Illini were more than a basketball team, they were a phenomenon. Losing a close game in the National Championship to North Carolina while playing less than our best game cannot detract from our memories of a most remarkable season.

Every sports writer has taken a turn trying to describe our team and its special season, and a number have done a fantastic job with a remarkable story. As a contributing columnist on the Illiniboard, I feel compelled to write a summation as well. But what can be added to that which has already been said? It has always been my task to find an angle, an approach, that others have not utilized. And it is my mandate to provide weekly reading material to my 3 or so loyal readers. So I will simply speak from the heart and hope it is eloquent enough to give proper credit to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As a basketball team, the Illini took above-average players and quality coaches and molded themselves into a strong, cohesive unit that played the game of basketball to near perfection. As a phenomenon, they were the head of a vast comet of dynamic energy that attracted people all over the US and world into its brilliant and vast tail. They truly uplifted not only the Illini fandom but like-minded people everywhere to dream big dreams and blend enjoyably with the uplifting experience.

We live in a world of polar opposites, and there is as much destruction as creation. In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, it seems as if the more negative energies have taken an increasingly large stranglehold on the Earth and its living organisms. And then, out of all the chaos and confusion, a confluence of people, time and events comes along and gives meaning to our existence, hope to our fear, and a renewed willingness to tackle the problems of our daily survival.

When I think of the Illini basketball team, I am reminded of an old Frank Capra movie entitled, "Meet John Doe", starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Although not as famous as Capra's, "It's a Wonderful Life", this movie shares the same uplifting feelings associated with an underdog overcoming all odds.

In a series of events first choreographed simply to give a newspaper more publicity, a homeless man is propped up as a savior to the common man. And all the blue-collar workers of the USA respond en masse to support and encourage the philosophies written by the newspaper for John Doe to speak. Thoughts of rising up and resisting Corporate America to force positive change for those in legal servitude to the wealthy elite were anathema to the newspaper's true agenda. But those words became a rallying cry of the "silent majority" to discover their real power.

The Illini basketball team inspires the common man in the same way. >From our blue-collar coaching staff to our hard working, never-say-die athletes, we played basketball "the way it is supposed to be played." Our "Old School" style reminded people of simpler days when coaching strategy and unselfish teamwork were valued over individual accomplishment and extremes of athleticism. It was a well-grounded everyman team that amassed followers in numbers that overwhelmed those with pretenses of elitism wherever and whenever we played.

The Illini basketball team was treated much like John Doe to start the season. Sure, most knew we had a good team and rated us in the top 10 in the country. But few if any thought we would win 29 straight games or make it all the way to the NCAA Championship. We were just one of several contenders, nuisances for the elite with all their high school All-Americans and future NBA stars. Few really expected that we would become threats to the teams seen by large corporations as the advertising superstars.

The Illini displayed their wonderful comeraderie and teamwork from the outset, and more and more people began to feel in their hearts the makings of a special team. For in a world of selfishness, our unselfish was a refreshing improvement. In a world of separation, we were a unified whole that actually embraced a larger following rather than closing off to it. In a world of glorification of some egos over others, we were impossible to categorize by player, our greatness being dependent on the group energy rather than individual stardom. In a world of superpowers forcing submission on those deemed inferior, we defeated our competitors and earned their respect without humiliating them or creating hatred and vengence in them.

Truly, we became synonymous with the higher ideals most humans espouse in their most private dreams, and our success gave hope to those who feared that goodness could not win over greed. That teamwork and unselfishness could win over individual elitism. That the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts. The Illini became wayshowers, proving that all people can have success in life if we never give up on our dreams but hold to our ideals against all odds.

Sure, we are talking about a basketball team and not World Peace. But similar cycles occur at all levels of existence. The exact same events that propelled the Illini to the top of the basketball world also propel a grade school science project to succeed in competition with its peers or a group of world governments to find the strength and unselfishness necessary to create a lasting peace.

In reality, we are talking about much more than just a basketball team. When I think of the phenomenon surrounding the Illini, I am reminded of the Beatles. No, the Illini have not achieved to that level of world greatness. But in both cases, a group of young men combined talents that were at first unapparent to outsiders and created a body of music (i.e. a resume of basketball successes) that was exciting and uplifting to those who encountered it.

Many national writers still have difficulty understanding and explaining the reasons for the Illini's success. On paper, we don't have a team of superstars who all have NBA stardom written all over them. We have some special players, but many of their best qualities are hidden to the casual observer. Different ones contribute at different times to the needs of the whole, but one or two players do not take all the credit.

In like manner, the Beatles were just four mop-haired musicians who sang simple, bouncy songs that people could not hear without wanting to stand up and dance around. None of them were especially attractive, none was especially obvious with his talent. And one, Ringo Starr, was forever assumed to be some amateur picked up at the last minute just to provide a beat for the music. But together, the Beatles were and are to this day the most famous of all Rock & Roll groups.

For those who remember the Beatles' invasion of the US, all sorts of people acted totally crazy with a need to be close to the group. Few could have predicted this phenomenon. Few if any could have expected to see teenage girls screaming and fainting with adrenalin overspill at the mere sight of the Beatles. But the Beatles truly transformed world music, and their members were later discovered to be exceptional individual talents in their own right. But this was long after they created a quantity of work as a group that stands the test of time, for all time.

Don't you see the similarities? Why else would Illini fans who could not afford tickets to the Final Four still drive and fly to St. Louis just to be closer to the team? They couldn't see the team play, but they could attend the open practices, and they could visit with and share memories with thousands of orange-clad compatriots.

Why else would Illini students and Champaign-Urbana townspeople surge into the streets of Campustown and into the Quad after the Illini defeated Louisville? We hadn't won the National Championship, but these fine people couldn't stop themselves from wanting to share this special experience with all other Illini fans.

And why wouldn't these people become destructive as so often happens in an environment reminiscent of a mob mentality? Instead of overturning cars, breaking windows and starting fires in an uncontrollable drunken overreaction to their sudden opportunity, the fans continually reminded each other to rise above such senseless destruction and enjoy the moment. Only a truly unique, remarkable set of experiences can create such unification of mature, wise group behavior.

Why would so many thousands of loyal fans wish to continue the season beyond the National Championship game by marching reverently into Memorial Stadium to show the Illini team its love and appreciation? Although not in the same numbers, it was a little like Muslims making their pilgramage to Mecca or Catholics paying their respects to their departed leader at the Vatican. Illini fans wanted to share all that wonderful group love one more time. And they wanted to thank the Illini players and coaches for providing them so much light in a dark world.

Even within the Illini team, it was evident from the start that this would be a remarkable year. There was no excessive celebration for individual game successes. Rather, there was a calm reminder that each game is just part of a process destined to propel us to the Final Four in St. Louis. When we first were named #1 in the country, Bruce Weber and his fine assistants reminded his players and the fans to enjoy and embrace the sudden fame. In most cases, teams unaccustomed to success overreact to such fame and play poorly immediately afterward. Not the Illini.

And how could anyone predict Bruce Weber would respond to the sudden acclaim as if he had experienced it frequently before? He seemed to know exactly what to say to the public and how to motivate the team properly to maintain a high level of play throughout the long, grinding season. It was as if Weber and his team had already lived each moment prior to the actual event and thus had no need for fear or self-doubt. For each of the record 15 weeks at the top of the polls, the Illini seemed to gain strength from the public acclaim, as if they knew they were supposed to be there all along.

And indeed, they were meant to be there. Numerous sports writers and announcers around the country have referred to the Illini as "a team of destiny." Others have referred to our "Magical Season." I could give many examples to help prove the likelihood of the role destiny plays in our lives, but most people have an instinctive need to repel that notion.

Still, if there was ever a time where one could identify a gentle, loving force that takes us without fail where we most need to go, this was the time. If ever there was a time when that energy, whatever you wish to call it, was so strong and obvious that the common man could feel it and respond in positive anticipation to its likely long-term effects, this was the time.

Personally, it makes sense to me that we all can have a chance to experience such a wonderful cycle, if only we can trust it enough to be patient in anticipation of its eventual entry into our lives. For me, attempts to force success against the flow of Nature always fails and leaves me with headaches or worse. But getting on the raft of a positive destiny and allowing it to push you gently along the river of your life, trusting it knows where it is going, is the easiest, most satisfying experience one can possibly have. It is so freeing. It eliminates all the fear and negativism that is guaranteed within those who feel they can and must bend Nature to their will.

Whether we call it destiny or continue to believe that Illini prayers and passions somehow created an almost perfect season even though all other players and teams were striving to do the same thing, we must admit that we have experienced something we will remember all the rest of our lives. Even if we never do this well again, no one can take this away from us.

It is a gift for the ages, and we have all shared in its blessings. Who could ever ask for more? Thank you Illini! We are forever in your debt.

Go Illini!!!


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