Smile Politely

Fight Club



Here’s what I learned on the baseline at the Orange & Blue scrimmage: This Illini team may be, as Dietrich Richardson said “a team of goofballs,” but that trait obscures itself on the court. You’d think a Meyers Leonard — Nnanna Egwu blood feud had reached its pinnacle only after years of mutual hostility.

Sam Maniscalco versus Tracy Abrams would seem soluble only by the mortal wounding of its combatants. There was, literally, blood on the court.* Maniscalco’s post-exertion limp proves he’s the old man on the team. He walks like the recently late John Gremer, when Gremer was still adjusting to his new, artificial hip.

After the scrimmage, players were hustled through a short media availability, and then to an autograph session. If you want to hear familiar phrases about teamwork, check in with the usual suspects. I spent the hour with Vanessa McKinney, Myke Henry’s mom. Surrounded by family, she nevertheless yearned to hug Myke. But he was busy greeting fans.

Vanessa is a bubbly optimist, and a wonderful companion, but she’ll also tell you it’s a challenge to get through every day. It’s just over a year since her youngest was gunned down, “by accident” you might say. Her nest is prematurely empty. So it was never a question whether she’d wait for an hour to smother her youngest with affection, even for just a few seconds.

Myke got his mom’s personality. He’s the sweetheart of the team, noted for his infectious good mood and inability to stop smiling. Even, as Dietrich pointed out, after being yelled at five times in a row by Coach McClain.

Mike LaTulip attended, again with his brother Joe. Mike greeted me with a brief man-hug.

It’s weird how you can share a bonding experience with someone you met for only two minutes. If recent message board derision got to him, he didn’t show it. But that’s really the whole point: not backing down from the pressure.

The only other prospect, as far as I could tell, was Orr’s Tyquone Greer. There may have been others. The staff is forbidden by NCAA rules from naming, much less introducing, prospects to reporters. Recruit spotting involves recognizing faces from other media sources, or querying people with especially long legs.

Jerrance Howard Jr. munched an apple. Jerrance Howard Sr. joined Sean Harrington and a hot-handed Chester Frazier in pounding a players threesome in a three-point shooting contest. Go ahead and credit Gary Nottingham’s endless analysis of video, and knowledge of technique, in helping the coaching staff in its four-year resurrection of Chester’s shot. Go ahead and credit Jerrance for feeding his kids healthy snacks.

Now, if Chester & Jerrance can resist the siren song of the McDonald’s Drive-Thru, world peace may break out. Probably not on the court, though. This bunch has an ax to grind.

*The blood actually belonged to Brandon Paul, although he persuaded the referees to believe otherwise. Had he been removed from the court for clean-up and bandaging, he’d have missed the opportunity to shoot hard earned free-throws.

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