Monday, April 04, 2005

If You're The Illini...

You might as well win it. Right?

That's all there is to it. If you're the Illini, you've come this far and not for nothing. You've reached every goal. Systematically. One by one.

You said you wanted to be Big Ten regular season champs. You were. You said you wanted the Big Ten tourney title. You got it. You said going undefeated would be unnecessary but cool. You've come within two points and 5.1 seconds of being perfect. You said you wanted to reach the Final Four. You're here.

One. By. One.

Most importantly, you said you wanted the national championship. Sure, you played it one game at a time, and repeated all the correct cliches, but the ultimate end of the journey was always in your sights. You were dreaming big. Always. Now it's here for the taking. Forty minutes and one more memorable performance and it's yours.

You can reach out and touch it.

Yeah, if you're the Illini, you might as well win the whole damn thing. Hey, why not?

If you're Bruce Weber, nothing could be sweeter for a man who lost his mother on the eve of the Big Ten tourney. Your brother won a state high school championship two weeks ago. If you win, this is may be the best basketball family story - ever. Perhaps, even, you bring out the ugly orange suit? Nah.

If you're Luther Head, you remain the silent assassin, the man of little words and big shots.

If you're Dee Brown, you just be Dee Brown. The heart. The soul.

If you're Deron Williams, you remain the calm, cool maestro of the show.

If you're Roger Powell, you say one more prayer (extra special) and hit the boards with the fervor of an angry god. If Jesus really picks sides, which is highly doubtful, you need to chat him up. Just in case.

If you're James Augustine, you play with a chip on your shoulder. You play with the hint of rage. All season long you've been bad-mouthed. You've been called a weakness. You've been called overrated. Now is your time to silence you're detractors once and for all.

If you're Jack Ingram, you cement your role as a folk hero, the everyman, the red-headed ball of energy off the bench who always seems to somehow come up with a big basket or, as against Arizona, a big steal.

If you're Nick Smith, you look in the mirror and ask yourself why you've bitched and moaned all season about playing time, even as a fairytale story was unfolding. You say thanks that all the winning has blinded fans to your selfishness. Then you go hit a few baskets like you did against Louisville and all will be forgotten.

If you're Richard McBride, you offer a breather to the guards and nail a three-pointer, maybe two.

Yes, if you're the Illini, your destiny was always racing towards tonight, towards St. Louis, towards a place in history amongst the greats. Right here. Right now.

Along the way you've heard it all.

You've heard people slobber over you, calling you the very embodiment of team basketball. They've said you're smart and unselfish. They've dubbed you a team of destiny.

And you've heard people say you were overrated. They said the Big Ten was insufficient competition. They've said you lacked size, that the inside game was an Achilles heel. They've said that North Carolina is just too deep and too talented. They've said teams just don't go 38-1

It hasn't matter what anyone has said. Good or bad.

Nothing has phased you. Nothing has altered your attention. Nothing has obscured the goal. You turned down a sweet gig on MTV, knowing full well that distractions can be cruel. You've accepted every postseason award as a formality - a welcome formality, but a formality, none the less. You've graciously commended and respected every opponent.

No amount of success has gone to your head. The accolades of one have not stirred jealousy in another. A big shot has never been followed by a slash of the throat or an angry celebration that screams, "Look at me!" No, every big play has been met with a simple pump of the fist and a pat on the back. Then you huddled up, arm in arm, and planned the next big play.

You've been fresh air in a sports world polluted by greed and hype.

You've been fun to watch. You've been beautiful. You've been the sort of magical team that comes along so rarely in a fan's life that you won't ever be forgotten. And you won't be forgotten, win or lose.

But why lose? Why now?

All you've done is play basketball. You've played it smart and you've played it well.

And now you have to do it one more time.

One more time.


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