(Ed. Note - Former WBEZ voice Paul Friedman bleeds orange. No, he doesn't have a condition, he's just all University of Illinois. And a famed basketball squad in 2004-05 changed his opinion of Chicago sports forever. Take it away, PF!)
As a lifelong Chicagoan and a rabid sports fan from most of my 42 years, the vast majority of outcomes for every sport I've chosen to invest my soul into have been filled with heartbreak, frustration and some more heartbreak thrown in for good measure. Granted, I have been witness to 6 NBA Championships, one of the best Superbowl victories in history and a World Series Championship that, while not involving the baseball team I hold dear, provided an exultation to millions of Chicago fans. All in all, my own pallet of fandom is speckled with somber hues.
Recalling my own early memories in the 1970's of Mark Aguirre led DePaul basketball teams falling inexplicably and disappointingly short, or the Bears being easily dispatched in their rare playoff appearances, or later the Cubs failing to grab one more victory in three chances against San Diego in 1984 to reach the World Series and the Bears never quite living up to their potential after winning Superbowl XX, a 4-game sweep by the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Blackhawks Stanley Cup, and the soon to be 12-year NBA Finals drought for the Bulls. Victory and satisfaction around the teams I followed were the exceptions, never the rule. However, one team defied all my frustration and provided me with a lifetime of pure sporting enjoyment - even though they ultimately failed to reach their goal, as well - the 2004-2005 University of Illinois Men's Basketball team.
Skilled, smart and athletic, the U of I team led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine, reeled off 29 straight victories to start the season. After they destroyed the #1 Wake Forest team on December 1st, they assumed the top position in the country for the rest of the season into the Championship game. As the season progressed and more wins were collected, each game gave Illini fans the sense that we were all being treated to a once-in-a- lifetime ride. To me, the most impressive aspect of their dominance was the relative ease in which they visited and easily dispatched conference rivals Wisconsin and Michigan St over a span of a week in late January and early February.
On the last day of the regular season, with a chance to go undefeated in conference and regular season play, the Illini were beaten on the road by a last second shot at Ohio St. Because I was so confident in the emotional makeup and success of this team, I looked at this loss as a positive. Having tasted defeat entering both the conference and then the NCAA tournament, would provide the Illini with even more motivation to win. And, it almost worked out that way. During their post-season, the Illini gave me one victory that, honestly, made up for almost all of the agony I had experienced as a Chicago sports fan.
After winning the Big Ten Conference tournament, they were given the #1 seed in the Midwest and would play for the Midwest Regional Championship in Chicago. The Illini played some tough games in the early rounds, as other teams knew they had to be at their absolute best to stay with Illinois. Ultimately, the Illini made it through the Midwest bracket and only had to defeat the Arizona Wildcats for a chance to reach the Final 4 in St. Louis. Almost right from the tipoff and as the game progressed, nothing was going right for Illinois.‚ Poor shooting, porous defense and turnovers made it look as if this milestone game would end just like so many others for me as a fan. Those words, "heartbreak and frustration," began to smother me like a cold, heavy, wet blanket. They needed to win this game to validate their season, falling short of the Final Four would have been a disaster.
When I began watching college basketball, I was once told if your team could cut a lead to 10 points with 5 minutes left, you still had a chance to win the game. Illinois found itself down by 15 points, with 4 minutes left and looked dead in the water. Then, almost miraculously, Illinois turned it on. Deron Williams hit a couple of big three-point baskets, the defense tightened and the crowd came to life. In an enormous wave of momentum powered equally by the Illini players and the Chicago crowd, Illinois forced the game into overtime and eventually won it, sealing one of the most incredible comebacks in NCAA tournament history. I later had the opportunity to meet and thank several of the Illinois starting players and told them, that game had singlehandedly erased scores of frustrations watching the teams I root for. I think they liked hearing that.
A few days later, after beating Louisville, Illinois faced North Carolina in the Championship game and, once again, were down big almost from the get-go. North Carolina featured a starting lineup of players, each of which would leave the team before the start of the next season to play professionally in the NBA. They were bigger and had more weapons than the Illini did. Ultimately, Illinois rallied and had a chance to tie the game late in the second half, but a Luther Head three-point attempt just didn't have the distance. And so, it was over. Illinois lost. But, instead of being heartbroken about the loss, I could only appreciate all the incredible moments that Illinois team had provided me during the whole season. Disappointing? Sure.
But, as a Chicago fan, I'm used to it. During this special season the final disappointment was more than compensated by that Illini team that had given me so much joy for the previous 5 months.