My friends make fun of me for recording Illini basketball games. I haven’t been doing it for every game, but I have captured all their significant games--their win over Wake Forest which launched them into the No. 1 ranking, Big Ten rivalries against Wisconsin and Michigan State, their lone loss at Ohio State, the conference tournament, and of course the NCAA Tourney. After last night’s game, they now at least know why.
The final four minutes of regulation during Illinois 90-89 victory over Arizona is a complete blur. I need to go back and watch it again--not just so that I can relive the moment, but so that I can recall just what actually happened in that moment. The nuts and bolts of it are simple: Illinois erased a 15-point deficit with under four minutes to go to send the game to overtime. If you don’t watch much college basketball, let me just say this: that sort of thing doesn’t happen--especially against elite teams in the NCAA Tourney.
Saturday was possibly the best day of basketball that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. First, Louisville found a way to defeat West Virginia in overtime, much to my chagrin. This, after the Mountaineers made an astounding 18 three-pointers on unbelievable 67 percent three-point shooting. My boy Pittsnogle netted a game-high 25 points in the loss, which ended a real Cinderella story. That game was simply phenomenal. I should have came to the correct conclusion at that game’s end: on this day, anything was possible. If Louisville, which looked like a severely overmatched team in the first half, could battle back after being down 20 points to win the game going away in overtime, then anything could happen in the Illinois-Arizona game.
And, boy, did it ever.I’ll allow others to sing the Illini’s praises.
The team’s rally is already being called the greatest comeback in college basketball history. While that declaration might be a bit premature or reactionary, it’s certain that this game is among the elite comebacks the game has ever witnessed. See for yourself.
But, I don’t want to simply rehash what you can already gather from opening up the front page of any sports section in America.
On many personal levels, this game was a wake-up call for me. I’m a doubter by nature, a pessimist that would rather shoulder the doubt than boast of the positive possibilities of “what if?” I’m also an addict. I’m addicted to the thrill of victory and the misery of defeat. And, in the world of an average sports fan, the pain of defeat is encountered far more often than the joy of a championship. During my adult life, I’ve yet to know what it feels like to get the Big Win. I certainly know what it feels like to come close. I only have to turn back to October of 2004 for that emotion, as the Cardinals defeated the Astros to make it to the World Series. We all know how that one turned out.
That Series only reinforced the dangers within for the rooting fan. Enter the world of fandom at your own risk. A season following your favorite team is a tiresome rollercoaster ride. You will be crushed far too often. You will be rewarded with only fleeting, occasional moments of rejoice. You will become oh so familiar with the phrase, “this close.” Rarely, sometimes not even in your lifetime, will you be allowed to call your team a Champion. And, if you are not strong or wise, you will become a cynic, a person who doesn’t allow him or herself to revel in the happiness that goes hand in hand with rooting for a winning, championship-caliber team. There’s always that shadow of doubt darkening the road ahead, begging you to miss the forest for the trees.
Up until last night, I was that cynic. I was full of doubt, attempting to be “realistic.” No, my team isn’t good enough to win a national title. They don’t have the athletes to beat this team. They don’t have the size to handle those guys. They don’t have the talent to beat so-and-so. But, now I know better. There’s no room for “realism” in the mind of a fan. There’s only room for hope. And hope breeds positive energy. And positive energy is what compels basketball teams on to National Championships. And, today, I think that’s exactly where the Illini are headed.
(I promise to get back to writing about music soon. I’m mulling over some significant changes to the site, and should have all of that ironed out within the next few days.)
N/P--Ted Leo & the Pharmcists, The Tyranny of Distance