The University of Illinois basketball teams play in the State Farm Center, located on the southwest corner of the main campus. In my day, it was known as the Assembly Hall. It’s a futuristic, flying saucer-shaped building, with seating in the round encircling the court. They had some pretty talented men’s teams during my years there, especially in 88-89. It was the 86-87 season, though, to which I paid closest attention.
Sometime in the fall of 86 I learned about the lottery held for distribution of season tickets. I still hadn’t connected closely with any of my fellow math grads, so I wound up putting in for a single ticket. I totally lucked out. When the results were posted, I saw that I had a very low number, 30 or less. When I received my ticket, I found that it was in the first row of the stands. When I went to the first home game of the season, I discovered that I was mid-court. Because of the circular design, there were seats on the floor between me and the court, but being elevated a bit gave me a better view.
I had a fantastic time that year learning about the Fighting Illini. The star was senior power forward Ken Norman, who wound up with a ten-year NBA career. The main support came from senior guards Doug Altenberger and Tony Wysinger, junior guard Glynn Blackwell, and sophomore shooting forward Lowell Hamilton. The primary center was sophomore Jens Kujawa; the most promising freshmen were guards Stephen Bardo and Kendall Gill.
That team had an exciting but ultimately star-crossed season. They finished 23-8, and seven of the losses were by no more than five points; four were by just one. They went 0-3 in OT. Their national ranking was almost always between 11 and 15, and they got a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament. In my exuberance from seeing them play so well at home, I picked Illinois to make it to the Final Four. That was a bad choice, as the Governors of Austin Peay (Let’s Go Peay!) upset them (by one point, of course) in the first round. It was pretty crushing as these things go.
I had season tickets a couple more years during my time there. My seat wasn’t nearly so good, naturally, and for whatever reason it was never quite as exciting as that first go-round. Unfortunately, I didn’t have tix two years later, when Illinois fielded what I think was the best team in the country. Gill, Bardo, and Hamilton were great, and they were joined by Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, and Marcus Liberty to form the “Flying Illini.” They beat Michigan twice during the regular season, but couldn’t knock them out a third time in the Final Four (this was the year that Michigan’s coach, Bill Frieder, resigned right before the tournament and “interim” coach Steve Fisher guided them to the school’s only national title). Sigh.
Times for the Illini got tough soon thereafter. A recruiting scandal (Bruce Pearl, then an Iowa assistant, seemingly got Deon Thomas to admit that UofI assistant Jimmie Collins got him cash and a car) wound up costing Illinois tournament eligibility in 90-91. The following year was their only sub-.500 season while I was there. They’re still looking for that first men’s team One Moment in Time™.
When I think back on weekend afternoons spent at the Assembly Hall in the winter of 87, I can recall a raucous and frankly ridiculous-sounding song (#24, headed toward #7) by a hot new trio being played frequently over the PA during timeouts. I really didn’t care much for it, but between watching MTV (yes, the video is pretty bad) and living in an area surrounded by undergraduate dormitories and fraternity houses, it was pretty much unavoidable for any number of weeks. I didn’t take the Beastie Boys seriously when they first broke through—they claim this was meant to be parody, but in my view everything points to it being simply incredibly juvenile. I was quite surprised that they morphed into a critically-acclaimed act; I’ll even admit to liking “Hey Ladies,” “So What’cha Want,” and especially “Sabotage.” You just never know what will catch your ear. RIP MCA.