James Augustine is one of the most unique, original basketball players in the history of the University of Illinois. He set records that may never be broken, and yet he never sees himself as a superstar. James is probably as surprised as anyone that he had such great success at Illinois and now has a chance to play professional basketball.
This writer's first memories of James Augustine were not all the games he started as a freshman during the 2002-2003 season. Rather, it was his personality as he and his teammates watched the Illini women's basketball games that first winter. Arriving at the Assembly Hall following their own practices, most or all the team would support their women counterparts.
One could tell immediately that James was a fun-loving, easy-going, even occasionally goofy college student who also happened to be 6'-10" tall and a basketball player. It was far more fun to watch the male basketballers than the women that year, as they showed their enthusiasm and teamwork while leading cheers for the women. And the young girls attending the games fell all over themselves striving for autographs and/or attention from James, Dee Brown, and all the other men's players. James seemed almost embarrassed by the attention. It was clear he was unaccustomed to it.
James Augustine showed immediate athleticism and potential during his freshman season, and most Illini fans clamored for more. They sensed that James had special qualities and wanted him to manifest those abilities as soon as possible. But James was less aware of his potential. He hadn't even been recruited heavily out of high school at Lincoln-Way Central as he needed time to grow into his body. And he had some injuries that set him back as well.
James didn't expect to be a starter as a raw freshman, but there he was complimenting superstar Brian Cook in Bill Self's high-low offense. Immediately, his quick-leaping ability and raw speed were assets to Illini efforts. Starting a trend that continued throughout his career, Augustine gained control of almost every opening tipoff to help his team get off to a good start. He gladly performed the dirty work of trying to defend the post against behemoths who clearly outweighed him and who tried to muscle him out of the way. And he began his almost monotonous quest toward 1000 career rebounds by grabbing one after another without flash or fanfare.
James seemed to relish a supporting role, both then and now. He never appeared to worry about individual statistics, preferring to let team leaders Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head gain all the glory. But while many have set goals of 1000+ career points and 1000+ career rebounds, James actually did that. He joined a hallowed list of only a dozen players in Big 10 history to accomplish the feat. And because he was foul-prone, he may have obtained his points and rebounds in less minutes per game than any of his predecessors.
James Augustine likely never once thought about setting such a goal. At least, not until the media forced him to realize how close he was as a senior. He just worked hard to help the Illini win, and he was a master of winning. Augie and his close friend Dee Brown, who had encouraged Illini coaches to recruit him in the first place, participated in more victories in their careers than anyone in Illini history And they ended up tied for second in Big 10 career wins only one short of the top spot.
When you have James Augustine on the floor, you have the consummate warrior who never complains and never backs down. Like a silent assassin, he can hurt opponents when they least expect it. A tip in, a give-and-go dunk, a short pick-and-pop jumper, a steal and breakout slam, an occasional free throw and Augie is in double figures without anyone noticing. Never once did he show signs of selfishness, even when fans and coaches clamored for more from him. But James preferred anonymity and wins, especially wins.
Augie might be classified as a true enigma, even to himself. He has a bushy, thick head of hair that some bald men would kill for, but he prefers either to go bald or wear a short-cropped look. When he does let it grow out, some people actually like him better bald. He is caucasian, but his complexion is such that some have wondered about his racial identity.
James is extremely tall, but he has the athleticism of a much smaller man. When he gets up a head of steam, no one can catch him, not even lightning quick Dee Brown. He has an unorthodox left-handed shot that seems to slice off the side of his hand, but he maintained one of the highest career shooting percentages in the history of the Big 10 because he attempted only quality shots. Truly, it is no oxymoron to state that James Augustine is a star role player. There may never have been anyone so uniquely blessed in the history of Illini basketball.
One cannot offer a biography of James Augustine without including his contributions to the Illini's great run to the National Championship game in 2005. He was an essential cog in a special chemistry of five starters who won 37 games and led the national polls almost the entire 2004-2005 season.
Augie, Roger Powell and the aforementioned Brown, Williams, and Head were possibly the most enjoyable team to watch in NCAA history and had the whole country mesmerized by their fabulous teamwork and comaraderie. It was as if the five had spent more than one lifetime together as they demonstrated team-oriented skills the envy of players and coaches everywhere. Film of that great Illini team will be used frequently by coaches around the world as a teaching tool. They were masters of team basketball and shared a truly special destiny.
In one of the saddest ironies of his wonderful Illini career, James spent a majority of the National Championship game on the bench in foul trouble. Augie was always getting ticky-tack calls against him, in part for his tendency to use his hands too much on defense. But in the National Championship game, he received calls that many felt should have gone against his opponent.
Bullish North Carolina postman Sean May repeatedly lowered his shoulder to gain an opening for his shot, and officials protected him at Augustine's expense. On one foul, May knocked Augie almost completely out of bounds, but the foul was not called on May. James sat helplessly on the bench while May forced openings and easy buckets to help UNC squeak out a 75-70 thriller, knowing we might have won had he been on the court more.
Despite his preferred subordinate role, James responded as always to the needs of his team and became a leader his senior season. He finally accepted the idea of being a primary scorer and began to perfect the post moves he would need to score more. This was probably not easy for him, but he did a great job anyway. He knew the team needed him to score, so he found ways of increasing his output. Illini fans knew he could do it, but he finally had the incentive to develop his offensive game. In doing so, he helped the Illini to an outstanding 26-7 season.
James Augustine will likely always have a bad memory of the National Championship game, but it is one of the few he experienced at Illinois. Truly, James Augustine must be considered one of the greatest 20-30 players in the history of the University of Illinois. The Illini fandom has no idea how much we will miss him, that is until next season when we find out how difficult it is to play without him. Such is the nature of role players who are indispensable.
As the NBA draft approaches, professional scouts and coaches now have the difficult task of studying James Augustine as a pro prospect. Some will look only at his offensive game and question his value. But those who care about winning will be wise to include Augie in their evaluations. He brings unique qualities that can be an asset to any professional team. If given the chance, this writer believes James can have a long career in professional basketball. As a role player, of course. He wouldn't want it any other way.
As you graduate from the University of Illinois, we salute you, James Augustine, and wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. We will miss you more than we know.
A Tribute to James Augustine
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