Smile Politely

Illini hosts open Bball practice

Throngs of orange-clad fans camped outside the Assembly Hall Saturday morning. The place was buzzing with excitement. By noon, they had all packed themselves into… no wait, they were still outside.

Tailgaters pounded cold ones. Charcoal sizzled with drippings. Cornholers bypassed the obligation to engage in conversation.

Only the true believers ventured inside the dome, perhaps a couple thousand of them. They found seats in A section, and a portion of the B tier.

The team ran some drills. A few five-minute scrimmages followed. Bruce Weber occasionally addressed the crowd over a hand-held microphone. “This is a drill we run, it’s called …” and so on.

Evan Turner and B1G commissioner Jim Delaney were the biggest stars in attendance. Turner came to support his friend Sam Maniscalco. Delaney came for a network football game featuring an important B1G team. It’s amazing, this gravitational pull Ohio State exerts on people.

Few basketball recruits turned up. Those that came fit neatly in two groups: players who’ve already committed to Illinois, and high school freshmen.

I interviewed the commits (Michael Orris, Jalen James and Malcolm Hill). Those interviews, and a few highlights from the practice, are here:

The Illini basketball highlight of my day was talking with Perry Range in the press box. His college roommate (not an athlete) was the replay official for the football game. Perry’s been a season (football) ticket holder since his playing days. He spent 25 of those years stockbroking. He’s one of those disarmingly intelligent people whose presence and gravitas reminds even the most jaded observer of college athletics: just because a guy has incredible athletic ability, don’t assume he’s not your intellectual superior, too.

The highlight of the basketball event came at the very end.

Meyers Leonard stayed to sign autographs for every single person who showed up. I hope he didn’t scrawl his way into carpal tunnel syndrome.

Meyers posed for pictures with kids born during the Bill Self administration, and some born post-Deron. He chided them for not remembering his jersey number, for confusing him with Tyler Griffey — and for the youngest fans, perhaps not knowing anyone’s name. I hope he didn’t scare any of them. If so, perhaps their parents will gently remind them that although seven feet high and constructed from taught taut, sinewy muscle; Meyers is really just a big kid himself.

If the Illini football team loses a few more games, perhaps fans will turn their attention to the basketball season. Or maybe they’ll approach it with the same wait-and-see attitude that produced only 55,000 ticket sales for a game against a name opponent; with the home team favored, undefeated and ranked; on a perfect afternoon for football.

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