Part 34: A hockey brawler, NBA executive and 2 Emmy winners

Part 34: A hockey brawler, NBA executive and 2 Emmy winners

In Part 34 of our yearlong series commemorating the UI's 150th birthday, we asked 10 grads who've gone on to big things to tell us about the places and spaces that made the most indelible impressions on them during their time in C-U.

Won $700,000-plus competing in World Series of Poker

"Playing club hockey at the ice rink on campus with a bunch or rowdy fans on Friday and Saturday nights was fun — especially when I would pick a random fight with a player from the other team so I could get kicked out and go drinking early if the game was a blowout.

"During one of these games, I had a player from Northwestern tell me that I would eventually be working for him because he was smarter and Northwestern was a better school. A few shifts later, I lined him up for a vicious check. After I knocked his socks off, I said to him 'I guess I better kick your (tail) now so you remember who I am.'

"I also remember singing 'American Pie' at the bar at midnight at Murphy's or White Horse back in the day, working for the Champaign-Urbana Bandits minor league baseball team when Carlton Fisk did an autograph signing for us and we drew 3,000 fans instead of the usual 100, and taking the entire Illini offensive line to Vegas after the 1994 Liberty Bowl and watching Jonathan Kerr imitate and dance like Elvis all over Vegas."

Post-Production Lead, Snapchat

"Sometime during my freshman year, circa 2006, I attended a tech talk at the Siebel Center. It sounded interesting enough, I was already on that side of campus and, of course, I knew there would be free pizza. So, as I sat eating what was likely my 10th free slice of Papa John's pizza that week, I listened to someone whose name and company I can no longer recall, give a presentation I would never forget.

"The speaker was showing off something called a smartphone — a term I had never heard before. The device looked pretty much like a Blackberry: claustrophobically small keyboard, a small horizontal screen and one of those tiny trackballs to navigate. It was running an OS that looked like Windows 98 on a desktop computer made for a hamster, and the web browser took nearly a minute to load an underwhelming interpretation of the internet.

"As I listened to the presenter talk about the potential of this device, and a future of mobile internet access from anywhere, I'll never forget what I thought: The smartphone is the stupidest thing I've ever seen.

"Why would anyone want one of these, I thought. It's so slow and difficult to navigate — I'd rather carry my laptop and hope for WiFi.

"Though it would be less than a year until Steve Jobs would blow the world away with the first modern smartphone, my 19-year-old self could not comprehend the value of what I was seeing. It wasn't until years later, looking back, that I could appreciate the irony of my naivete in failing to recognize not only a technology that would change the world but one that would give birth to the very industry I would devote my career to."

Chief speechwriter for former Attorney General Eric Holder

"I remember the first time I walked through the doors of Lincoln Hall, during a campus visit, to check out the classrooms where I would spend so much of my time. The building was in a startling state of disrepair — this was before the renovation, when the floors were cracked and the paint was peeling in nearly every classroom — but the place had a musty, lived-in quality that I found oddly appealing.

"Outside of class, I remember visiting my academic advisors and going to office hours on the building's upper floors. I remember the strange, labyrinthine basement, where the university stored an assortment of skeletal stone fragments — pieces of sculptures, of friezes, of gargoyles, each carefully tagged — that had fallen off of, or been removed from, buildings across campus. Covered in dust, in the dim basement light, they were really quite eerie.

"Most of all, I remember the afternoon I visited the internship office to drop off an application to work for then-Senator Barack Obama on Capitol Hill. I could not have imagined it at the time, but that application would profoundly change my life — leading me to a profession I love, foreshadowing the years I would spend in the Obama Administration, and introducing me to my future wife."

Former Ford Motor Co. VP, now Rug Doctor's chief marketing officer

"One hallowed room on campus — the rehearsal room in the Harding Band Building on Sixth — is a place I associate with being inspired and challenged to work hard to achieve excellence. Well, perhaps perfection.

"Dr. Harry Begian, director of bands, expected it, demanded it and got it. How lucky to be told 'that is not good enough,' 'do not speak, only listen and watch.' A dumb mistake would be met with penetrating eyes that locked in on you while his powerful arms never stopped beating. He did not tolerate lack of preparedness.

"My favorite moments were being obediently entranced as his entire being performed pieces like 'Der Rosenkavalier,' singing the opening horn line lick, waltzing the melody over to the clarinets, then swinging over to the flutes and oboes — teaching, channelling what Richard Strauss intended. With unrelenting focus, 100 individuals were made to breathe as one — and given the opportunity to experience the divine."

Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force

"My spot would be the Armory. From late-night deliveries of Insomnia for all-night study sessions, to sitting in leadership classes struggling to apply abstract concepts to real life, to learning all the new dance crazes, to the sweat dripping off my ears during physical training for ROTC, the Armory was a second home."

Policy specialist in Obama White House

"There was a grassy hill located between Allen Residence Hall and the Illini Grove tennis courts. It was my not-so-secret spot on campus to reflect and decompress after a long day, turning in a paper or finishing a rough test.

"I would get some looks as I sat there, day or evening, but it was soothing to pop a squat, look at the sky and sort through all the thoughts any normal, overstressing undergrad would have. And if you didn't mind the company of some crawlers, the view was even better at night. I would gaze up at the sky and get lost in all of the stars, often forgetting the stressor that brought me there in the first place.

"I miss that place a ton, and do encourage any student looking for a calming spot to give it a try while they can. The looks you'll get are an added bonus."

Won Primetime Emmy as director at Showtime Networks

"My brother, a fellow Illini, and I used to drive over to Carmon's diner for breakfast. Larry and his sister were so sweet to us, especially since coming from Singapore we were pretty foreign to Urbana-Champaign. They epitomized the kind and warm hospitality of Midwesterners to us.

"Now that I live in New York City, it's definitely a feeling I miss from time to time — that wholesome community, glowing feeling."

J.J. POLK (JD '04)
Executive Director, Basketball Administration, NBA's New Orleans Pelicans

"My fondest memory has to be getting engaged — at Café Kopi — to my law school sweetheart, Jill R. Newbold. We had our first date at Café Kopi during law school, and like the law nerds we were and remain, she suggested we bring our books to our first coffee date.

"Of course, we never opened our books and talked all night until closing time. We now have three great kids, Sadie, Josephine and Jimmy III. Who knew the U of I, and Café Kopi, would be such a landmark for our lives."

Emmy-winning correspondent, ABC News

"To this day, music is my stress reliever. And on campus, there was a great record store near the corner of Green and Wright streets, pretty close to the campus bookstore and next door to Zorba's, where I tasted my first of many, many gyros.

"It was an old, dark record store with wood paneling and the place where I bought my first CD. In 1989, when I arrived on campus, the store was still selling mostly vinyl and cassette tapes. But that changed in the spring of the following year, when you could walk in, grab a set of headphones and pretty much listen to any CD before you bought it. By today's standards, this was a stupidly inconvenient way of shopping for music, but I loved every minute of it.

"I spent hours in that store at least once a week, and even though my music world is now completely digital, I still have those first CDs from the Green Street record store. Salt-n-Pepa's 'Black's Magic' was my first. I bought it the day it came out, in the spring of 1990. It has moved with me from coast to coast and back again, from apartments to condos, and to its present home in Atlanta, on a metal CD rack, safely tucked away."

Associate General Counsel, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

"The one place that really sums up my non-academic time at Illinois is the area of the quad immediately adjacent to the Illini Union. Whether it was a pick-up hacky sack circle, an impromptu jam session with whomever brought a guitar that day, or rousing debates between protesters, that is the one place where for most of my time at Illinois I could always count on running into an acquaintance from all aspects of my campus experience.

"It is where I took the mic on National Coming Out Day. It is where I met my first bandmates. It was a home away from home during the day, whether I lived at Allen Hall or on opposite ends of Green Street."

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