As I sit here under the watchful eye of five orange clad bobbleheads and reflect on the Flying Illini 30th anniversary reunion from this weekend, my first thought is - 30 YEARS??!!
Man that's a long time. I don't know where it's gone to be honest. That's like from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II. From Apollo 13 to the new Millennium. From Lou Henson's first season in Champaign to Dee, Deron, and Luther. Mind blowing.
We've done the reunion thing six times now, but to a man everyone in attendance agreed this one was extra special. It was the first time the entire roster was present and accounted for. There was always some conflict that prevented one player or another from returning for prior reunions, but all the stars aligned this weekend - literally. Give Rod Cardinal, Lee Zerrusen and the Varsity-I Association a ton of credit here - they went above and beyond to ensure this event was such a smashing success. So for that let me use this space to say a heartfelt thank you.
Watching yourself on the scoreboard wheel while walking out onto Lou Henson Court to the cheers of 15000 people? Pretty dang cool. But sitting around a dinner table and sharing memories with the likes of Kenny Battle, Steve Bardo, and Nick Anderson? Well that's priceless.
My memories of the 1988-1989 season are forever crystalline. Putting on the uniform for the first time (I mean - are you kidding me??). The end of the bench walk-on celebration dances. Discovering that I had exact same shoe size as Nick Anderson and proudly wearing his hand me downs. Getting high fives from everyone on the team after dunking once during a drill during practice. Missing out on the dog pile after Nick beat Indiana because I had a test the next day and had traded out of that road trip for what ended up being a stupid loss at Purdue. The locker room after the Georgia Tech game. I could make this entire column just a long list of memories - but that would be terribly self-indulgent. It was kind of strange to have your peers become your heroes right in front of you, but for me that's kind of what that magical season was all about.
Yet somehow I've always viewed the experience in a vacuum - not fully appreciating the impact of what this team did to establish the Illinois program we know today. This weekend changed that for me. For this unforgettable collection of players - 30 years is but a blip to our fanbase. The Flyin' Illini are to Illini Nation what the 1985 Bears are to the city of Chicago. The work ethic, the personalities of the team and its coach, the position-less style of play - all meshed to produce a team that will never lose its place in Illini history. 30 years later and a table of KB, KG, Nick, and the boys signing autographs still creates a two hour line of star struck fans proudly clutching vintage Flyin' Illini schedule posters and T-shirts.
If Brad Underwood is ultimately successful in restoring this program to something at least approaching 1989 levels, then add one more assist to the Flyin' Illini team stats. After the game yesterday, Underwood addressed the reunion attendees and recounted his early days in the coaching profession. He recalled the impression the Flyin' Illini made on him as he was just getting started as a coach and how much we still resonated throughout the state when he served as an assistant coach at Western Illinois in the early 90's. That impression, he went on to say, stuck with him throughout his career and was a major factor in him taking the job when Josh Whitman offered it to him two years ago. He had seen what this program could be - what it should be - and he knew he wanted to get it there again.
Those words really drove it home for me. This team of which I was so fortunate to be a part remains so much more than just a catchphrase on a t-shirt. We are forever stitched deep into the fabric of the Illinois program. We created a standard by which every Illini team moving forward has been and will continue to be measured. Even in the midst of this now eight year NCAA tournament drought Illinois basketball fans still expect this team to reside in the upper echelon of the Big Ten Conference and the country - because of the Flyin' Illini.
That I played the most microscopic of roles in helping to create this legacy remains surreal to me to this day, because for the most part I enjoyed that season in the same way as everyone else - as a huge fan. I just happened to have the best seat in the house most nights. So let me finish by echoing the sentiments of every other Illinois fan out there by saying once again - thanks for the memories guys.