Lou Henson's birthday celebration was enhanced last Saturday by the return of a number of Henson's 1984 basketball squadmen and coaches to watch the Indiana game. It was a chance for fans to shower love on Efrem Winters, Bruce Douglas, Doug Altenberger, George Montgomery, Quinn Richardson, Tony Wysinger, Scott Meents and other members of that team.
Star postman Winters hadn't been back on campus for many years.
"It was like 21 years ago."
Winters was a McDonald's All-American out of Chicago King high school. His recruitment was considered a major breakthrough for Henson, as Illinois had struggled getting top players out of the city of Chicago.
Winters developed an immediate repore with point guard Douglas, and he was the beneficiary of a number of passes including some crowd-pleasing alley oop dunks. Winters could sky and was a great rebounder as well as scorer.
Efrem had a brief and unproductive pro basketball career before entering the construction business. He has had steady work as a construction foreman and has had a productive life. But he hadn't seen many of his teammates in quite awhile.
"Some of these guys I haven't seen in years and years. Bruce Douglas is one of the guys I keep in contact with. I haven't seen Anthony Welch in, oh man, 15 years. I don't see the guys too often."
After winning the Big 10 Championship, the 1984 Illini had visions of a Final Four trip. Unfortunately, they were required to play Kentucky in Rupp Arena in an Elite Eight encounter.
A home court advantage was permitted back then, and Kentucky took advantage of it. With 7-footers Melvin Turpin and Sam Bowie in the starting lineup, and with a large home following and some questionable officiating, the Wildcats moved on by a score of 54-51.
"I still think about that game today," Winters related. "It haunts me still. I felt we should have won that game. I also felt the referees could have been a little better. I can say that now because the game is 20 some years old."
One glaring officiating error late in the game saw Douglas called for traveling after Kentucky's Dickie Beal ran him over. The national outcry over Kentucky's home court advantage forced the NCAA to change its rules.
"Yes, the game should have been on a neutral court. They did change the rule after that game because of that game."
Winters' youngest child accompanied him on his visit to Champaign. He may have picked up some of his father's genes.
"My 14 year old son is with me. His name is Jamal Winters. He's in 8th grade and plays basketball. He's not in the recruiting mode yet, but he will be."
So what did Efrem think of his return to Illinois basketball and the big win over the Hoosiers?
"I'm very happy about this. This is electric. This is nice. I see all this orange. This is like I never left. I feel like going out there right now."
Does this encourage him to return more often?
"Oh yeah, I will be."