Jeff Jordan earned a scholarship for the spring semester last year through his hustle, defense and willingness to push the ball. Never a great shooter, the Chicago Loyola graduate walked on with few expectations. Little by little, he has improved to the point he is becoming a valuable member of the Illinois team.
However, last spring he announced his intention to concentrate on his school work and decline an opportunity to play out his last two years of eligibility. Off limits to the media until this last week, the psychology major explained what happened.
"It's something that I talked over with my parents. I definitely wanted to focus on my major a little bit more. It was a heavy course load my last semester, and I felt it was a good decision."
Jordan had a prestigious summer job that took him far from campus, so he couldn't have practiced with the team over the summer anyway.
"I was in Oregon, and I came back and forth a lot. I did an internship with Nike, and I came back to school and was studying. It was a good experience."
But as is true for most athletes, the love of the game continued. And his teammates encouraged their friend to reconsider.
"Now, I feel I've got everything back on track and I'm comfortable with my school work. I talked to the guys on the team a little bit as I got the itch. I feel like it was a good decision."
Just in case he changed his mind, he kept playing and stayed in reasonable shape.
"I just played and lifted weights. I worked out with my brother (Marcus Jordan) once in awhile. I couldn't stop playing, so I wanted to make sure I stayed in shape."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was cautious to accept him back on the team when Jordan first approached him about it. Weber wanted to be certain Jordan was serious and could be a responsible member of the team for the remainder of his career. Jordan needed to sell himself. Weber didn't demand a two-year commitment, but the point guard promised it anyway.
"I did tell the coaches I was committed for two years. I told Coach Weber I want to get better and help the players as much as possible. I feel they can trust me to do what they want.
"I'm not sure if I had to convince them or not or what was going through their minds at the time. I just wanted to come in and play hard and whatever happened happened. I feel comfortable with everything that's going on."
Weber accepted him back but made him understand what was expected of him.
"When Coach Weber and I had the conversation, he said come in and play hard, get back into shape and we'll go from there. I guess as we go we'll have to play different roles. The thing about this team is we're all versatile and we like to do different things. So that's good.
"I didn't come back with any expectations. I didn't know what the situation was gonna be. I just came in with the mindset to play as hard as I can and let whatever happen happen. I wanted to be here for the guys and try to be a leader the best I can.
"I definitely feel I made the right choice. I want to keep helping the young guys as much as possible and hopefully just keep winning games."
Weber remembered the conversation between him and Jordan.
"He made a commitment that it was important to him. I think deep down Jeff always wanted to be here, but maybe he had to go without it and miss it to make that decision. He's getting better. He's been around it now, he's improved each year. He's feeling more confident, more comfortable."
From the start of fall practice, Jordan showed how valuable experience and maturity can be to one's development. He understood what was expected of a point guard and was able to provide valuable competion for Demetri McCamey. Even his shooting has improved according to Weber.
"I said last year he would give us some minutes, some maturity, leadership. He's started to figure out how to play. He really pushes the basketball. I think he's slowly but surely getting back in shape.
"Last year, he was a little bit of a defensive stopper, an energy guy. I think he's taken that a little further. He's developed a good pull-up jump shot. He doesn't always look for it. Sometimes I think he goes too far to the basket, where he should drive and kick or drive and pull up."
Jordan even hit a killer three point shot against Vanderbilt.
"I'm sure that frustrated the Vanderbilt staff because it's not totally expected. He's been a nice addition. The kids like him. He's like Billy (Cole) a little bit. He's kind of accepted what he is, and he's making the most out of it."
Jordan missed all the summer conditioning sessions, and he is still recovering from that loss. But his play has been steady enough to earn a start. Weber was pleased with his effort but thinks he still needs to get in better shape to be most effective.
"Last spring, this is what I anticipated for Jeff. Maturity, leadership, pushing the ball, giving energy. I still think he needs to take his conditioning another step if he's really gonna have some great success for us. I think he can take one more step. If he can get on the floor for loose balls, it can really help our team."
"I think I still have a little bit more to go. I feel I'm 85% back. I think everybody could probably boost it up a little bit, but I know I could probably go to another level."
Jordan is helping the team this year, and he will likely have his best season as a senior. Weber and the Illini staff are glad he returned.