[Over 7,000 fans packed
into University Assembly Hall for the recent reunion of the 1989
not only received a No. 1 seed…I contend that we were the No. 1 of
all the No. 1s! To this day I think the bias of the NCAA against us
was manifested by the cakewalk they gave Michigan and the hard road
they gave us. It wasn’t the first time the NCAA persecuted the
Illini and it probably won’t be the last. At any rate, we drew
McNeese State and got to play them at the Hoosier (now the RCA) Dome
in Indianapolis. Those Hoosiers just never seem to get tired of
watching good basketball from Illinois teams, no matter who’s
coaching us! McNeese was a much better No. 16 seed than some of the
teams they march out there now. They had had some great quality
victories that season and had a very good slow-down scheme versus
the Illini. (On a personal side note…in the "it’s a small
world category"…two guys that I later became friends with had
just signed their letters of intent to attend McNeese shortly before
the NCAA tournament.) Luckily, we got the jitters out in time to
hang on to a hard-fought victory.
days later, I found myself back in the dome worried to death. Our
second round match-up was against THE BEST team you’ve never heard
of; at least most casual fans had never heard of…The Ball State
Cardinals. I’ve never been a casual fan…don’t want to be…won’t
accept the position if it’s offered. A guy you may have heard of,
Rick Majerus coached Ball State. Rick felt, and so did his team,
that they could derail the Illini’s dream season. For a long time
during that game, it looked as if they would. I’ve watched it on
tape a couple of times, and I’m still not sure how we pulled off
the victory, but we did. That won us a trip to the Humphrey Dome in
everyone else was dancing deliriously in the streets, I grabbed my
bracket page to see whom our next TWO games would be against…LOUISVILLE
and SYRACUSE…thanks, NCAA; thank you very much! The match-ups
against Louisville did not look like they would favor the Illini,
but Marcus Liberty had a monster game, and the Fighting Illini were
one step away from punching the big ticket. It was at that precise
moment that disaster struck and almost prematurely ended our run.
Kenny Battle slipped on the wet Dome floor that was leaking after a
huge rain, and Illinois’ chances were leaking as well. Incredibly,
the trainer and the medical staff patched him up, and that, coupled
with his voracious will to win, unleashed themselves on the
Orangemen on Easter Sunday afternoon.
a game that seemed like it took two weeks to play, the Illini hung
on to a victory by the narrowest of margins. I know it’s crazy,
but there have been few times in my life that I’ve been as happy
as I was on that Easter Sunday afternoon. I was watching the game on
Dr. Blaum’s old big-screen TV that was then stationed at Craig and
Cathy Zastrow’s house over in the Mayfair subdivision. We had just
gotten home from Easter services at Jefferson Street Christian
Church and didn’t even take time to change. I was so happy that in
retrospect I think I was actually delirious! I ran out into the
street with my suit still on but in stocking feet, waving my orange
and blue Illinois flag. I shouted to the neighbors and any
passersby, "We’re going to the Final Four…we’re going to
the FINAL FOUR"!
top of second column)
Zastrow and I probably should have been in Minneapolis to experience
the bedlam firsthand for ourselves. But we felt it was more
important to be with our families on Easter. Perhaps we were a part
of the victory after all. In fact, Kendall Gill said it best when he
was asked how he felt, and was there anything better than
celebrating a trip to the Final Four. He said, "The only thing
that’s better is celebrating the resurrection of our Lord"!
any rate, I sprinted back into the house and had a phone surgically
implanted to my ear. If there were to be any hopes of Craig and me
joining Battle in Seattle, we would have to strike quick and
decisively. I got on the phone and called every travel agent I knew.
I called the U of I to see what kind of trips and deals they were
going to offer. One of the first calls went to another of my best
friends, John Coady of Taylorville. I have gone to Illinois football
and basketball games with John for many years and I knew that he
wouldn’t be out in the cold on this one either. He was one step
ahead of me already (I love it when great minds are thinking alike),
as he had taken the liberty of procuring our Final Four tickets.
John had even booked his flight, but it was too expensive for Craig
and me, and the price seemed to be going up every minute.
out of nowhere it hit me…Amtrak would be a lot less expensive…we
could take the train to Seattle! I had no idea what I was saying,
but five minutes later we were booked on a fairly inexpensive
rail-air round trip to Seattle. It was the trip of a lifetime…other
than the game. Actually the wound is so deep, I still can’t talk
of the game at the Kingdome…but the trip was a total adventure. We
rode Amtrak’s "Empire Builder" through Wisconsin,
Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and on into Washington. A
trip that took John Coady three hours by air took us two and a half
days by train! But, oh, the sites we saw and the people we met!
There were even two characters on the train from Panama, Ill., who
claimed to be following the Illini out west as well. It was one of
those spur-of-the-moment trips or vacations that makes you wish that
you took more of them.
trip kept getting better and better. Current Springfield resident
Gary Winkleman was living in Seattle at the time, and he offered to
house Craig and me even though he didn’t know Craig from Adam. On
top of that, he gave us the use of his car, and that saved us a car
rental. We hit all the sites including the harbor, the market and
the Space Needle. Like I said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime
experience (my wife despises that phrase)!
tell me that a NCAA semifinal game was played in the area that
Saturday afternoon…darned if I can remember it. But that trip with
Craig, John and Gary epitomizes what that ’89 season meant and
STILL means to me. IT WAS A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE!!!
1 – June 29, 2000 – "Joyous
welcome and celebration for ’89 Flying Illini"