Monday, March 28, 2005

Everyone Was Rising From The Dead

It had to be Easter weekend.

Not since Jesus arose from his three-day slumber and said, "I'm back, bitches! Where's the wine? I want to par-tay!" have we seen more miraculous returns from the abyss of death. Illinois did it. Louisville did it. Even Kentucky did it, though it didn't last for long and it was sent back to its cross, namely the Lexington media.

In the supposed season of miracles, Illinois' 90-89 win over Arizona was, in one word, miraculous. It was almost enough to make me give up drinking, premarital sex, lying, and desiring my neighbor's wife, not to mention roughly half the women I see walking down the street. I even contemplated going to church on Sunday morning, but I was hungover - you know, celebrating a miracle and all. That's excusable, right? And I was drinking wine.

It was one of those games that will never fade away in the foggy bank of aging memories. You'll always remember exactly where you were. You'll remember the no-way-this-can-actually-happen disbelief and the inexplicable affirmation that miracles do exist clashing in four minutes of mayhem. You'll never forget the reminder that, yes, dreams do hard. You might not remember every shot or rebound or steal, but you'll never forget the feeling that you were watching one of those rare moments that - and excuse me for being corny here - reminds you of why you love sports in the first place. Other than the gambling and the cheerleaders, of course.

And it had to happen on Easter weekend. Had to. Isn't this the time of year when Jesus rises from the dead? Hadn't Louisville overcome a 20-point deficit to defeat West Virginia in the earlier game? Doesn't Fran Drescher have a new sitcom on CBS, boggling the minds of funny comedians everywhere?

Yes, yes, and, strangely, yes.

Apparently, this is a great time for comebacks. Has anyone spoken to MJ lately? Somebody lock up Billy Idol.

After the game, Roger Powell, Illinois' ordained minister, offered his opinion that it was all the doing of Jesus. Shit, it even said so right there on his Nikes, as he pointed out. Hmm. I don't know. Technically, Jesus was still a day away from pushing aside a giant rock and emerging from his death cave. And God? Well, God was probably too busy ducking phone calls, releasing PR statements concerning the Terry Schiavo fiasco, and having Scott Pederson gang-raped in prison to worry about a basketball game.

Then again, maybe. Maybe Jesus had some money on the games. Maybe he's a gambler. Who knows? He does like his wine. Maybe he gets a little tipsy and calls his bookie. (“Hey, Jesus here. Yeah, I know I'm calling late. Yeah, I'm drunk. So what! Who are you, my mother? Just give me 'Zona and the points and quit you bitchin'.")

Either way, there is no denying that Illinois' overcoming a 15 point deficit with four minutes left - and eight points with a minute left - will remain one of the more miraculous finishes you'll ever see. Admit it, you thought it was over. I know I did. Hell, even Channing Frye, the Arizona center, hit a three-pointer as the last of the Illini joy seemed to slip away. Everything was going wrong for Illinois and right for Arizona. I was thinking of what Bruce Weber would say in the postgame locker room. I was suddenly remembering the many former Chicago teams that built glorious balloons full of hope and possibility only to pop in a final sad act of utter disappointment. And I was thinking that the blue and orange paint adorning 75% of my body nonstop for the last two months no longer seemed like such a good idea.

(I'm kidding about 75% of my body being covered in paint for the last two months. The paint is only on my face and it's been more like a month and a half.)

I guess it's like Jim Valvano said - "Don't give up, don't ever give up!"

Suddenly, Deron Williams was draining threes, and Luther Head was producing improbable steals, and Dee Brown, the shortest player on the court, was grabbing rebounds in the chaos of the paint and sticking putbacks. The Allstate Arena, virtually a sea of orange, was raucous. Suddenly, it seemed possible. It was a real live revival.

Nah, couldn't be. Inconceivable. Impossible.

But Arizona continued to struggle, running offenses designed with seemingly no thought process, and launching shots that junior high school coaches everywhere must have been cringing at. Salim Stoudamire, the Cats' notorious and moody gunner, was visibly exhausted, his role as an option almost voided by Williams and Head, who took turns hounding him. I have other theories as to why Stoudamire was so winded. I mean, he is a Stoudamire.

By the way, is it just me or does Stoudamire look like the newest member of Santana with that beard and headband?

Oye como va. Listen to my way.

Suddenly, everything was going Illinois' way. Suddenly, Illinois was within striking range. Suddenly, it was tied and going to overtime. And, suddenly, it was over and eyes were rubbed in that-didn't just-happen-did-it astonishment.

But it did.

And I don't want to hear this talk about how it was an Arizona collapse, rather than an Illinois comeback. It wasn't Arizona that hit all the big shots, produced all the big steals, and grabbed the most important rebounds. Sure, the Cats' shot selection at the end of both regulation and overtime was questionable, but let's not forget that the Illinois defense forced those shots. Arizona played well, and with the heart of a champion, and the Cats didn't deserve to be beaten. But they were.

When Illinois lost to Ohio State and their perfect season shattered, there were many who said the loss would be crushing. They opined that the Illini's biggest strength, its ace up its sleeve, was the feeling that it couldn't be beaten, that it was somehow invincible. They said the Illini needed that. Without it, the Illini were just another good team that could be knocked off on any give day. Maybe those people were right, maybe not.

Well, perhaps that feeling of invincibility will return now. Perhaps the confidence returns, the confidence the Illini has seemingly been missing the past several weeks. Perhaps the Illini will reach a level of comfort and competence that only comes to those that have stood at the doorstep of death and survived. Surely, there is nothing like a miracle to make one believe that a journey is blessed and special.

Thing is, Louisville's comeback win over West Virginia was equally improbable. The Cardinals must be feeling a similar sense of being bulletproof. Maybe it will all depend on who Jesus bets on.

If so, I'm glad Illinois has Powell. Perhaps Powell can hold some prayer services and channel God or Jesus or whoever to say:

1) Thank you.
2) The spread for the Louisville game is three points.
3) Let's do it again. That was fun.


Blogger Jackie Chiles said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Jackie Chiles said...

Can not believe I missed that game. I can feel the excitement from your recap alone. Fuuccckkkkkk.

So, will you be happy with just that memory if the Illini gets clipped by the Cards or MSU/UNC? Or do you need the banner to be satisfied?

Good call on Stoudemire by the way. Sure all that extra hair didn't help none either.

Welcome back.

Oh yeah, what happened to the black jesus?

6:21 PM  
Blogger UnknownColumn said...

You missed it? That sucks. A lot of games earn "instant classic" status, but only a few take the next step into the level of Chargers-Dolphins '81/Duke-Kentucky '92/Bills-Oilers '92 lore.

Illinois-Arizona '05 could be one of those games. It was that improbable and amazing. And if Illinois wins it all, the legend will only grow. It's not often you see something that you won't ever see again. The funny part was the next day talking to people I know, and everyone was talking about where they were and what was going on - and they won't soon forget. I have a buddy who pretty much despises basketball yet he told me he happened to flip on the game right as the comeback started and was amazed. The only reason he didn't click away immediately was because he thought it was the end of the line for Illinois and he felt an obligation to watch the latest Chicago team go down in flames. My sister works in a bar and said the place was a funeral and suddenly turned into a zoo. I love that.

Nah, I don't think any Illinois fans will be satisfied unless they win it all. That has been the goal all season. It's not like reaching the Final Four was a big surprise and everything else is just icing on the cake.

Black Jesus? He's still hungover from the NAACP awards last week. He'll be back.

10:11 PM  
Blogger kegtron said...

I refuse to read or watch anything regarding that game. I'm glad I missed it, it killed my bracket.

2:37 PM  

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