So this is what they mean by the agony of defeat. For the Illini to come so agonizingly close to winning the national championship–one open three-point shot (two to be truthful) from the promised land–is too much for my fragile ticker to take. The magic of a championship season is now over. The throngs of orange–there must have been two Illini fans for every Tar Heel in the St. Louis dome–drooped out of their seats and shuffled out as if at a wake. Monday I wore orange. Tuesday black. And never will I wear powder blue.
Perhaps God really is a Tar Heel. Why else would He in His divine wisdom and mercy rip my heart out?
The Tar Heel fans here were polite, if a bit overbearing, and somewhat la-dee-dah about being in the Final Four once again. The team is stacked with NBA talent at virtually every position–virtually none of whom were recruited by the pouty Roy Williams, by the way. (And when does Matt Doherty get to help cut down the nets?) The Illini were outgunned in the paint. Another indication that God was out to punish me and other Illini fans: What in the world is Sean May doing wearing a North Carolina jersey? This sets off a series of “what ifs?” If the idiot Indiana University chancellor hadn’t fired Bobby Knight; and if Sean May had become a Hoosier–which was his birthright; then Illinois would have been national champions and our dream season wouldn’t have ended in my sloshing down an entire bottle of gin at the Adam’s Mark Hotel to deaden the pain (which may explain the grammatical errors and the rambling nature of this article).
Oh, and what about this “what if?” If the Illini had had Charles Villanueva, who originally signed with Illinois but then changed his mind and went to Connecticut instead, Illinois would have had the beef inside to match up with the Heels and we would have won. And if someone had boxed out Jawad Williams on the last tip in basket we would have won, and if Sean May had the chicken pox, we would have won. There were so many possibilities.
So I brood. It doesn’t help at all that the Adam’s Mark Hotel, as the fates would have it, is the dwelling place of the cursed Tar Heels this weekend. There was joyous screaming in the halls and down in the crowded streets below while the 1970s hit “Celebrate Good Times” was blasting on the jukebox right below my hotel room. Oh, the agony.
The game was a classic, with the two best teams in the nation. I can’t bear to watch the lowlights again: Deron Williams’s three pointer clank off the rim to take the lead with 90 seconds left, followed by Luther Head’s pull up three from the other side of the arc reaching the same unhappy fate 30 seconds later–which would have tied the game. That’s a shot he rarely misses, by the way, but the gods seemed hell-bent on drifting it ever so slightly off to the right.
This Illini team was one for the ages that any basketball fan could embrace for the majesty of what they accomplished. Whereas North Carolina has six McDonald’s All-Americans, Illinois had one. These were spectacular overachievers. Luther Head, who almost single-handedly carried the Illini back from 13 down at half-time, wasn’t even heavily recruited out of high school, but developed into a deadly assassin marksman. This would have been the shortest team in decades to have won the national championship, playing with three guards and two forwards. My wife has groused all year that I love this team more than her, but I was always the good husband. I would pat her on the head whenever she felt underappreciated and remind her that I loved them both the same.
Finishing as runner-up is like failing to win the million-dollar lottery by one digit or finishing in second place for a job. Quick: Who was the runner up for the Oscar for best male actor in 1989? You see my point.
This was arguably the best NCAA tournament since 1981, considering the extraordinary number of nail biters, Cinderellas beating up on Goliaths–it’s the gin that’s causing me to mix my metaphors–and double overtimes. But what really aches in my gut is knowing that I will be hurting from this loss not just a year from now, or five years, from now, but 20 years from now about what could have been for this glorious team. I will tell my grandkids about the team that came so close to winning the national championship. It will forever be the tale of the Little Engine that Couldn’t.
And I’m sick and tired of people saying it was a good thing that we lost to Ohio State to get the loss under our belt. I would have rather finished 37-1 rather than 36-2, thank you very much. Or maybe I’d be in an even worse state right now.
We won’t be back next year because the NCAA has this insane rule that players can only play for four years, and four of our best players are done and at least one of our juniors will jump to the NBA.
I don’t know why I’m feeling so Carolina blue about this particular defeat. I’m from Chicago and pretty used to heartaches and losing–except for the Bulls six rings. If only they would have let Michael Jordan suit up for this one. Oh, yeah, forget it. He was a Tar Heel too.
Vince Lombardi was right. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Thanks a lot Luther, Dee, Deron, Roger, and James. For nothing. Oh, I suppose I’ll forgive you all soon and return to hero worship. Well, except for Augustine–for committing five fouls and scoring exactly zero points.
Back to the bottle.
–Stephen Moore graduated from the University of Illinois in 1983.