Fans pack Virginia to pull for team

CHAMPAIGN – While the University of Illinois men's basketball team was winning big at the Braggin' Rights game versus the University of Missouri, more than 600 fans were cheering them on from an unlikely venue.

The Virginia Theatre in Champaign hosted a free viewing of the Braggin' Rights game. The event came complete with a two-stories-tall television screen, a video showing about 100 years of Illinois basketball and a question-and-answer session with famed former basketball coach Lou Henson and longtime commentator Jim Turpin.

Theater volunteer Jane Klaproth called the night "Color the Virginia Orange," and her suggested title was apt.

Throughout the theater, orange-clad fans whooped, hollered, whistled, stomped and applauded as the Illini roared their way to an 82-50 victory.

"This is a terrific game and has been for 24 years," said Turpin backstage before the game. "Every play, every shot, every turnover is magnified in a game like this."

In the echo of the Virginia Theatre, the same could be said.

When Henson walked on the stage – without the cane he has used since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2003 – he was greeted to a standing ovation and chants of "We love you, Lou!"

The two local celebrities discussed everything from past Braggin' Rights games and former Illini players to Henson's golf game and the orange takeover in Assembly Hall. "In 1975, we had 3,000 at the first ball game. We didn't have many people wearing orange," Henson said. "It's hard to believe it's come this far."

When asked his favorite Illini player – or even his favorite three – Henson demured.

"The fourth guy would be unhappy."

For some, Henson's talk was the highlight of the night. Benny Stovall came, he said, because "I heard Lou was going to be in town."

The Champaign man knew Henson through his father's former job working in the Assembly Hall, and couldn't stop gushing about how kind the former coach had been to him and his family.

Deanna Williams came because the excited atmosphere was "something different than watching it on the couch," she said.

"The big screen, all the fans," Williams said, it was "kind of like the next best thing to being there."

That included the cheers. Shouts of I-L-L rang out, along with War-ren Car-ters and the like.

"I think we're making the most noise," said Artemis Comet. The 10-year-old came with her brother, Chris, and friends Rachel and Sarah Manzella. The four kids spent the game starting cheers and keeping their arms up and ready during free throws.

Sarah, 8, also came to "see how cute Dee Brown got."

Theater volunteer Joan Bazzetta was happy to see the game at the Virginia, and delighted so many people were seeing the historic theater as well. "It got people that had not been here to see the inside," she said. "Now that they've done it once, those people will come."

Schedule permitting, this won't be the last gamewatch at the Virginia, said Joe DeLuce, director of recreation for the Champaign Park District, which co-sponsored the event.

And though the game has ended, for many, the bragging is just beginning.

"We're just so proud of the team and the guys," said Lyla Nofftz. "Of course we're gonna brag!"

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