Changing Sides: My Journey from the Orange and Blue to the Cream and Crimson
Last Thursday, Indiana beat Illinois 84-71. The final score does not accurately describe the game. At the half, Indiana clung to a two-point lead, and it wasn’t until a run with 10 minutes left in the game that IU started to pull away. The game was very physical and pitted two of the Big Ten’s best big men against each other. The headline going into the game was certainly Meyers Leonard for Illinois vs. Cody Zeller for Indiana, and through the first half, Leonard was clearly getting the better of the matchup. Illinois’ game plan was to go inside early and often and establish physical play against Zeller. While this worked in the first half, Zeller never backed down, and the turning point in the game was when Zeller got the ball in the block and went up strong, smashing Leonard in the nose on the way up. The play was not illegal, just typical Big Ten basketball. Leonard seemed rattled by the play and shortly afterward committed an incredibly dumb third foul. From then on, the foul situation became a huge problem for Illinois, as the refs started to call the game tight. Indiana took advantage of this and continued to drive to the rim, but Illinois settled for outside shots early in the shot clock. The result was the lopsided result of 84-71.
Unfortunately, this may be the last time we get to see these two big men play each other. Apparently a large number of scouts were at the game, and both Zeller and Leonard are projected to be first-round picks in the NBA next year. Totally selfishly, I hope they both stay in the NCAA. The matchup was great to watch, and both teams promise to be even better next year as they both have good recruits coming in. The new Big Ten schedule unfortunately does not allow teams to play each other twice, and therefore a rematch in Champaign won’t happen this year. Our only chance to see a rematch will be the Big Ten Tournament. Of course, as a big Indiana fan, I’m happy that IU won, and won handily. The game was big for seeding purposes, and although it was probably a bigger game for U of I (they’re probably in the NCAA tournament but could use some more wins), IU needed the win, too. They have been struggling lately and need to go on a bit of a run to finish the Big Ten and head into the NCAA tournament on a high note.
Those of you who know me know that I wouldn’t always have been rooting for Indiana to win this game. In fact, the first 18 years of my life, I was a diehard Illinois fan. Rooting for Illinois wasn’t just a hobby, it defined who I was. In 5th grade, we were asked to list four things that defined us a person, and one of mine was “University of Illinois fan.” Keep in mind that this was in 1992, at the height of the Bulls dynasty, and even Michael Jordan couldn’t measure up to my love for the orange and blue. This came from my father, the biggest Illinois fan on earth. The curse words I learned watching Illinois basketball games with him could fill Urban Dictionary. One of the stories he likes to tell about me that was when I was 4 or 5, we were watching a replay of an Illinois game on vacation but I didn’t realize it was a replay. I kept getting very excited over the fact that Illinois was coming back, and I’d celebrate every score. He didn’t have the heart to tell me Illinois would end up losing, since my feeble child brain couldn’t comprehend the idea of a rerun.
I remember several great Illinois moments, but probably the most unbelievable happened in 1989, during a game against Indiana at Bloomington. In the waning seconds, Jay Edwards hit an improbable shot to give Indiana the lead, but with time expiring, Nick Anderson was able to drain a three to give Illinois the victory and break the heart of Hoosier Nation. At the time, I couldn’t have been happier. I remember going to my buddy’s dad’s house for a sleepover, beaming from ear to ear. Neither my friend nor his father took too kindly to this, as they were big Indiana fans. I, on the other hand, had been taught by my dad from a young age that Bobby Knight was the devil (hell he even wore the right color) and that “had Indiana treated him like any other employee in America he would have been fired” and IU wouldn’t have all those national championships. Never mind the fact that I’m positive that if my father coached basketball, he would have done so in the exact same manner as Bobby Knight.
In 2000, I had to choose where to go to college. This is a long story for another time, but I ended up choosing Indiana. There were many implications to this decision, but the one most necessary to advance this blog post was that I had to switch allegiances. When I was first preparing to leave, I told everyone that I would simply root evenly for both teams. This seemed like it would be easy enough. After all, they play each only other twice a year, and I planned to just root for whoever had the most at stake. This turned out to be incredibly difficult. It wasn’t long after I started at IU that Bobby Knight was fired. September 10, 2000, to be exact. The students rioted. They tore down signs and trees around campus and threw firebombs at the president’s house. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters bearing the face of the student who “caused” Knight’s firing were posted and distributed. I was just under a month into my tenure as an IU fan and wasn’t upset at all. After all, the team had lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament each of the last six years. Knight was a bully and should have been fired years ago. My only real concern was that the team, which was supposed to be pretty darn good that year, would break down and the players would leave.
Later that same year, in the first game of Big Ten play, Indiana beat Michigan State, the number one ranked team in the country at the time, on a buzzer beater. If I had to pinpoint a moment in time when I went all-in as an Indiana fan, that would probably be it. The energy and enthusiam around campus was electric and contagious. I still wasn’t rooting for Illinois to lose at this point. I was just more and more certain that I was an Indiana fan first and foremost.
My sophmore year, 2002, was an amazing year to be an Indiana fan. That year they had the best record in the Big Ten and made it to the national championship game. Along the way, they played in a game that to this day I remember as the loudest sporting event I’ve ever experienced. Of course the game was against Illinois. Illinois was a top 15 team in the nation, and they came into Bloomington and ran into a buzzsaw. Indiana hit a record 17 three pointers and had two monstrous dunks, one by Jeff Newton and one by Jared Jeffries, that absolutely brought the house down. At multiple points during the game I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I couldn’t hear myself. The game was cathartic for me. I feel like if there was a moment in time when I started rooting against Illinois, that was it.
The buddy of mine I spoke about earlier underwent the opposite transition: He was a lifelong Indiana fan who attended Illinois. He had the added wrinkle of an older brother who went to IU and was constantly giving him shit for his decision, so that sped his transition along, which I’m sure he can speak to better than I can. I do specifically remember watching the Indiana vs. Oklahoma Final Four game at my mom’s house (we were still on winter break), and when IU won, my buddy was pissed. I told him that I’d be happy for Illinois if they won and he said, “Yeah, well you don’t have an older brother who will never let you hear the end of this.” Point taken.
Some big moments have occurred in the rivalry lately, and none has been larger than the Eric Gordon saga. Anyone who has made it this far in this blog post knows all about this, so there’s really no point in rehashing it here. Since then, Sampson and his cheating cell phone ways brought the Indiana program to a lower point then it has ever been in its history. Bruce Weber fanned the flames of the rivalry by saying that IU would suck three years ago. (They did, but that’s besides the point–head coaches aren’t suppose to say that sort of stuff.) I believe in the job Tom Crean is doing in bringing Indiana basketball back from the ashes, and with the recruiting classes that both Indiana and Illinois have lined up for the next few years, the rivalry should be back to where it was in the late 80s (or, at the very worst, late 90s). Last Thursday’s game was a good start. It was competitive, chippy, and fun to watch.
I still follow Illinois more closely than any program other than Indiana. My dad and I still talk about college basketball more than probably any other subject, but we’re respectful when it comes to the rivalry. I wisely didn’t call him after the victory last Thursday and I don’t plan on calling him until he calls me. Even then, we probably won’t say much about the game. If we do, I’ll claim it was a fluke victory and I’ll say that I’m certain that Illinois will turn it around this year. (Even if I don’t believe either of those statements.) He’d do the same for me. And while I’m not about to start rooting for the Illini, I will root for them if they make the Final Four (even though my friends would never let me hear the end of it), the same way I did in 2005, just because I know my dad would be happy if the Illini finally captured that elusive national title.