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'A Night of Legends'

By Jo Hilliard

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[September 17, 2008]  The roar of the crowd, the hype from the band and cheerleaders, the sweat dripping from ... well, pretty much everyone. (It was hot.) But most of all, Saturday's "Night of Legends" at the Assembly Hall was a game of basketball that my mother would have loved to have seen. Most of her favorite Illini were there -- Kendall Gill, Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, and her all-time favorite, Brian Cook. In fact, we stood in line and chatted with Brian's mom, Joyce, for a moment in the ticket office... It was hot there, too.

CivicWhen Mom would call on a game day, she didn't want to talk to me. She preferred to converse with my husband, her "Illini buddy." They would talk for an hour about what the team should do, had done and might yet do. When she learned that we went to church with Brian's grandmother, she began a religious mission to send her every article about Cook from the News-Gazette.

My mom passed away in 2004, just a few months before the Illini went to the Final Four. We played the Illini Chief song at her graveside service, and her coffin was draped with an Illini blanket she had just received the week before, for Christmas.

So the night, for most people, was a night of memories about the incredible players that have been (and always will be, in our eyes). But for me, it was about the memories of my mother, who loved these young men as if they were her own.


But you know something? I think everyone at the Assembly Hall that night felt the same way Mom would have. We were all thrilled to see that the legends of Illinois basketball were finally honored with an alumni game. The Blue team from the 2005 Final Four team played well together, hitting their 3-point shots with incredible accuracy. The Flyin' Illini of '89 made up most of the White team and, even with the passage of time, managed to stay in the game. Blue maintained a comfortable lead throughout the game, closing at 84-70. The only injury noted happened when Brian Cook's elbow cut a gash in Lucas Johnson's forehead after a rebound. Deron Williams scored 19 points for the Blue team, and Kendall Gill led the White team with 14 points.

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Nursing Homes

The score was probably a moot point for most of the fans. Deron Williams was honored at halftime for his part in the USA victory at the Olympics. It was great to see Lou Henson coach the White team. And at the end of the night, 30 players from the university's history received a bigger honor by having their jerseys hung from the rafters. There was a feeling of pride and unity and nostalgia. And the players left no doubt in anyone's mind -- they had a great time.

Thanks, Rod Cardinal, for starting what we hope will be a tradition. If the sea of orange in the Assembly Hall was any indication, we'll all be back next time. And I have no doubt that somehow, Mom will be there too.


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(From A Night of Memories at A Night of Legends)

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