Just Us

Mar 15, 2021

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It's always weird when Nike does a shirt campaign. You see the first "Just Us: Illinois" shirt and want it in short sleeve and long sleeve and then you realize that every Nike team gets a "Just Us" shirt. When the slogan is "just us" and everyone gets one, well, uh... it's not "just us".

I'll probably still forget next year that this is how it works. Adam Miller will come out for the Big Ten Tournament next year wearing a MADE FOR MARCH - ILLINOIS shirt and I'll be ready to order six and then I'll see that Minnesota is warming up on the other end in MADE FOR MARCH - MINNESOTA shirts.

Looking for these shirts online is always so depressing. Excitement, followed by googling, followed by discovering...

"Just Us" is the slogan for every Nike team this March. But really, it's ours. Seriously, I think it's ours.

+ I see Cory Patterson link something on Twitter. I click on it and it's a video of students at Sixth & Green this evening, lighting fireworks. The comments from Michigan and Iowa fans are predictable:

"LOL Illinois lighting fireworks like they won a natty."

"Y'all know this was just the Big Ten Tournament, right?"

Don't care.

Normally, I'd care. I never like it when our fanbase does something embarrassing online. We do a lot of embarrassing things, and I've spent a lot of time on Twitter being the Illini Dad trying to get us to do our homework. We can be a little much.

But tonight? Tonight the "LOL, fireworks for a Big Ten title" makes me just smile and nod at the rest of you. Let 'em talk. Let 'em laugh. We've endured so much the last fifteen years, watching our once proud program fall to seven consecutive seasons without a Tournament bid. And then, when we finally get back, the Tournament is canceled. Combine that with four winning football seasons this century and we've mostly spent the better part of the last 15 years wondering what we did to deserve this. Even the door starting to open last season was immediately slammed shut by a pandemic.

So let 'em laugh. Who understands why fireworks are appropriate here? Just us.

+ I'd say that was the same vibe inside Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend. "Do Illinois fans realize this is just the Big Ten Tournament?". I overheard at least two media conversations discussing all of the orange in the stands, one saying he looked up the StubHub prices and couldn't believe where the Illini fans had driven the prices.

The only thing that really came close to matching the noise was the Indiana game on Thursday evening. That game definitely had an overwhelming "home game" vibe (mostly because Rutgers only had a few dozen fans). But still, numbers-wise, it didn't appear to be anything close to the three Illini games. Indiana fans were mostly surly, too - I think they were there 50% to cheer and 50% to boo their 12-14 (now 12-15) record. The "fire Archie" chant was pretty loud.

Still, I can understand the "why are some of these people spending $200+ per ticket to a Big Ten Tournament game?" That's easy: for a chance to get to see this special team in person. Everyone wants to say they were there. Fans weren't allowed this season, and most other fanbases seemed to approach this BTT as "this was just a lost season - we'll go again next year", while Illinois fans were "I don't care if it's a 12 hour drive - I need to see this team in person at least once". To the other 13 teams: "there will be other concerts coming through this year". To us: "I have to see the Rolling Stones in person at least once".

Who would compare their college basketball team to the Rolling Stones? Just us.

+ The lady working the elevator lobby got it.

During the Iowa game, I left the upstairs pressbox about halfway through halftime to visit some people in the stands. They were on the east baseline and I was all the way at the top of the stadium on the west. So it's about a ten minute trip to get to their seats. I talk to them for a bit, the second half is about to start, and so I head back to the pressbox. By the time I get to the elevator lobby, the second half has started. The woman who checks credentials in that lobby is watching the game on the little TV there.

"Oh good, they're winning" she says when they show the score. The camera is zoomed in on two Illini players and she says "I want them to win".

"The good guys!", I tell her. "That's the team everyone is here to see."

"I just want them to win because they look like they're having fun".

To most fanbases, her "the team who has the most fun should win" comes off as simple, non-sports-fan, grandmotherly advice. To us? I wanted to invite her to speak at the postseason banquet.

Because that's exactly why we're all in Indy. That's what we've come to see. This is an enjoyable season because we're winning, but it's also special because Andre Curbelo smiles when he dunks. Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery were caught up in it, media covering an Illini game for the first time this year were commenting on it, and the elevator lobby attendant really wanted to see us win.

(We did.)

+ No one really "gets" Giorgi. And that's OK. Opposing fanbases seem to be somewhere between "he gets a little aggressive when there's a loose ball tie-up" and "he makes way, way too much noise from the bench". At their worst, opposing fans are mostly "just shut up, dude" with Giorgi.

But we get Giorgi. We know the entire Giorgi experience. And we know the Kofi experience as well. When the big fella dunks, turns, and runs up the court with the widest smile this side of Kingston, we totally get it. Kofi's energy has always been infectious, and when he and Giorgi are feeding off each other, you can't help but get pulled in.

So if any Ohio State fans wonder why the "jorr-jeee-jorr-jeee" chants were raining down on a player who had 12 points and 6 rebounds, don't worry about it. We know what it's all about. These two guys - roommates, buddies, friends for life - have been feeding off of each other for two years now. Giorgi had to take a backseat to Kofi, and he did it with zero bitterness, bringing all of this energy from the bench, and so for Brad Underwood to stick with Giorgi in the closing minutes because he was playing so well (with Kofi the one bringing all the energy from the bench), well, let's just say we all get it. That was a moment.

As was their press conference. I'll remember it for a long time. If you haven't seen it yet, here's the entire press conference as uploaded by Rob McColley:

And if you don't want to watch the entire thing, just know that Giorgi said the word "amazing" approximately 60 times. Which is why I ended the press conference with this question:

Would that whole exchange seem extremely corny to some grizzled reporter and his handheld tape recorder? Absolutely. But that presser wasn't for any of them. It was pretty much just for us.

+ We were devastated by a special season being suddenly canceled last March 12th. Here was this team, ready to make so much noise in March, and it was over. Ayo was going to go pro, we might even lose Kofi, and the team we thought was going to bring us back was being disassembled.

When Ayo and Kofi both declared for the NBA Draft, it seemed too cruel. We're finally right on the cusp, and now we'll always wonder "what if?". Perhaps "on the cusp" even undersells it. We'd been knocking on the door asking to be allowed back in for more than a decade, and yet we're still standing outside. Finally, someone turns the light on over the door. Are we finally going to be allowed inside? No. Global pandemic. Light goes off.

This means that we're the ones who understand the journey from July 31st until now. Twitter thought we overreacted to Ayo coming back, but we knew. Twitter thought we really overreacted to Kofi coming back, but we knew. When cases rose and the season was in doubt back in November, we were the ones in a total and complete panic. We were the only ones to understood the urgency here.

When Mady Sissoko broke Ayo's nose, Michigan State fans were mostly "get over it - noses get broken all the time during basketball games", but we knew. This is everything. We've been waiting such a long time for this return and a careless foul just put that at risk. No one understands what's riding on this.

Stand up for our team when the conference champion is announced? Descend on Indianapolis like it's the Final Four when it's only the Big Ten Tournament? Freak you out a little bit with the level of devotion to a program returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013? Yeah, I get it. It's a little creepy. We're a little crazed.

But we're not worried about you. Just us.


detlef on March 15, 2021 @ 11:18 AM

Beat Drexel!

Flillini2911 on March 15, 2021 @ 11:26 AM

Great article. The beautiful thing about yesterday's game was that it took all of them (us, not a couple or a few). Yes, Kofi and Ayo, but some of Giorgi, some of Trent, some of Damonte, Andre, and Adam all the way down the bench. They are playing with the same camaraderie and belief of the 2005 team. They have the same "feel" that the 1989 team had. That is why they're winning....they believe they are going to win. Exciting times for "us" Illini fans.

stevelsloan on March 15, 2021 @ 11:37 AM

Thanks for all you have done this season to keep us connected to the team. Wouldn’t expect any other writer to “get it” quite like you, after all it’s Just Us.......

stevelsloan on March 15, 2021 @ 11:37 AM

Thanks for all you have done this season to keep us connected to the team. Wouldn’t expect any other writer to “get it” quite like you, after all it’s Just Us.......

taz on March 15, 2021 @ 12:40 PM

Know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your team is getting a one seed in the tourney and yet still get teary eyed when it's announced, thinking about all we've been through?

Just us.

Okay, maybe just me. Go Illini!

ATOillini on March 15, 2021 @ 12:57 PM

This. Yes.

I’m late with what I’m about to say, but the video of your walk to the press box during the Iowa game was priceless. I too am an absurd worrier. The more I’m convinced we really have something special (we do), the worse I get. The tension in that video is palpable. I thought I was watching “The Blair Witch Project”. Something horrible is about to happen when you round the next corner.....“8 point play by Iowa!”

I see quite a few “this is why I subscribe” comments over time in this section. Count me as another.

Guys, please stay focused, and don’t let someone who averages 3.8 ppg miraculously come off the bench to drill 6 of 8 from three.

Altgeld88 on March 15, 2021 @ 02:20 PM

Couldn't care less about what other fanbases think of our students celebrating in the street. They've suffered through a completely socially deforming year, were deprived of seeing our boys in the tourney last March, and were barely in elementary school the last time the Illini were consistently strong.

Oh, and this is a once-in-a- generation group of guys scorching the hardwood with their talent and chemistry. Heck, I wouldn't blame them if they started a bonfire on the front lawn of Harker Hall and burned down that 100-year-old oak tree. (lol... Is it even still there after 30+ years?!)

BanTheCharge on March 15, 2021 @ 02:55 PM

This was wonderful to read.

Hate our region, love this team.

Let's win 6 more!

haasi on March 15, 2021 @ 03:11 PM

GREAT read Robert

neale stoner on March 15, 2021 @ 03:56 PM

Nice piece. Not just a blogger.

MarchingIllini on March 15, 2021 @ 05:23 PM

Absolutely great writing over the full season, but especially capturing the BTT experience since Thursday. Thank you for putting into words all of the angst, emotion and finally JOY of watching this incredibly special team.

Every game in the NCAA is going to be like a game at SFC. Be prepared to see ticket prices for the Illinois games to spike much higher than any other sessions and what's great is no one else will understand. JUST US

edgyinchina@yahoo.com on March 15, 2021 @ 05:31 PM

Nice piece Robert.... BTW: The Washington Post has a great bracket filled out. The Winner: ILLINOIS...


IlliNYC on March 15, 2021 @ 05:56 PM

BU & Ayo & everyone in the program have built a team that plays hard and tough with joy...and it's so rare and wonderful to watch.

AGig21 on March 15, 2021 @ 06:21 PM

How long has it been since we were featured on an ESPN gameday? Curbelo alone probably gets us 2 next year.

CalifIllini on March 15, 2021 @ 10:59 PM

This essay is brilliant, Robert. The surprising evolution of this amazing team over the past few months has been such an unexpected pleasure--such a gift to us all--in such an awful year. And you have so perfectly articulated the emotions of serious fans through it all. This is why I subscribe.

patbasu@gmail.com on March 16, 2021 @ 01:09 AM

Hilarious- Iowa fans and mich fans hating?! Iowa will always be jealous of all things Illinois and they haven’t made a sweet 16 since the early 90s and mich so salty that no one is taking them seriously.

PacNW Illini on March 16, 2021 @ 01:14 AM

This! And Michigan is like every "rich-kid bully" from an 80s movie...dismisses the successes of others yet expects to be celebrated for their own

JimmyTheLayup on March 16, 2021 @ 07:52 PM

This was poetry.

Illinir1 on March 16, 2021 @ 08:16 PM

This article, like most of yours Robert, is AMAZING!!!

It's been so long since either men's basketball or football have excelled. I am going to soak in and enjoy every minute of the remainder of this special basketball season, which I already know will end in tears of pride for this team (whether it be over a National Title or the season ending fate of 67 of the 68 tournament teams).

Lou-a-villini on March 16, 2021 @ 10:56 PM


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