Flyin' high again: Tales from the '89 Illini

Flyin' high again: Tales from the '89 Illini

It's time to squeeze into that vintage "Lou Can Do" T-shirt, try to remember where you put that "Battle for Seattle" banner and stick a pin or two in your Bobby Knight voodoo doll.

Twenty-nine years, 10 months and 22 days after throwing down their last dunks, the Flyin' Illini are back in town for a turn-back-the-clock celebration today at State Farm Center.

In the throwback spirit, here are 30 things a then-going-on-30 News-Gazette Illini beat writer learned about Lou Henson's beloved bunch during a 27-part, 120-interview, 10th-anniversary series that ran on these pages during an otherwise dreary 1998-99 basketball season.


From the No. 1 player in the national high school class of '87 (Marcus Liberty) to the 0.1-point-per-game 13th man (Eddie Manzke), the entire roster was homegrown.

It's been 24 seasons — that's five coaching changes ago — since the Illini trotted out a lineup of all Illinoisans.

They weren't just from the Land of Lincoln; that was their identity. Most of them suited up for their respective regions the summer before at the old Prairie State Games. And they all went on a mini-barnstorming tour that November — putting on a show before packed high school and small college gyms in Carbondale, Decatur, Kankakee, Rantoul and Rockford.

"That was a lot of fun because people in certain places in Illinois that really didn't get to see you up close and personal, besides on TV, had the opportunity to talk to you, get your autograph, shake your hand," said Kenny Battle, who treated the Rantoul crowd to four dunks. "It really showed us that fans all over the state appreciated us."


What if ... 7-footer Jens Kujawa hadn't passed up his final year of eligibility — the 1988-89 season — in favor of a pro contract in his native West Germany?

No offense, Kendall Gill said, but "I'm glad Jens didn't come back. It would have messed up the chemistry of our team if he did. He wouldn't have been able to keep up with us."


Just one problem, which Henson was quick to recognize: With no Jens, the tallest player on his roster stood 6-foot-8 (Liberty, who'd yet to log a college minute) and his starting center was a generously listed 6-7 (Lowell Hamilton).

(In the 29 seasons since, only one UI team topped out at 6-8 — Lon Kruger's '98 Big Ten co-champs).

Henson's starting five went 6-6 (Stephen Bardo), 6-4 (Gill), 6-6 (Battle), 6-6 (Nick Anderson) and 6-7 (Hamilton).

That'll never cut it in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, out-of-town sportswriters wrote, unaware that "they were all jumping jacks (who) looked like they came out of a cloning machine or something," as former LSU coach Dale Brown put it.


Among those we interviewed for this series was a certain potty-mouthed Big Ten coach, who during the same week he skipped Indiana's own 1998-99 basketball media day returned a call to The News-Gazette sports department to ask the Illini beat writer a few questions about the Flyin' Illini.

Bob Knight: "Memory escapes me momentarily. Did they win the NCAA?"

Us: "Um ..."

Knight: "How many teams have won the NCAA out of the Big Ten?"

Us: "Nine."

Knight: "How many teams have gone to the Final Four out of the Big Ten?"Us: "Thirty-four."Knight: "You're talking about a very good team, but I don't think you can go any further than that with it. I thought they would win the NCAA. But I'll tell you what I thought hurt them the most. If I remember correctly, they played Michigan the last game of the year and won easily (89-73 in Ann Arbor). Then, when they had to turn around and play Michigan again in the NCAA, that's always a tough kind of game, given the results of the previous game. I think without that particular matchup, Illinois might very well have won the NCAA."


Forgive the General. He was probably still bitter about the events of March 5, 1989, when the kind of thing that never happened back then in Bloomington did.

The Jim Turpin/Loren Tate play-by-play sounds better than we could ever write it, so do yourself a favor: Visit and give a listen to the call of the shot heard 'round the Big Ten — Anderson's 30-foot buzzer-beater in a 70-67 win over the Big Ten champs.

"I don't think there was a person in that arena that thought Anderson could get that shot off," said Ed Hightower, the lead official that day at the other Assembly Hall.

And after he did? "Absolute silence, as I remember it, except for the few people from Illinois," Turpin said. "It's quite a sight to see all the players jumping all over Anderson. And then Knight walking off the floor with his head down. It was a memorable time down there."


For those who fans who prefer their broadcasts in another language, here's what the motormouth who came up with the Flyin' Illini nickname remembers most:

"I mean, they were reminiscent of the doctors of dunk ... Louisville's club in 1980 ... with a little slam, jam, bam. The pressure defense, the transition game and the high-rising ability that they had with those athletes was really unique and very special. It was awesome, bay-bee, with a capital A, to watch the Flyin' Illini do their thing. I mean, they were poetry in motion. They were Baryshnikov in shorts."


Dick Vitale had a small financial stake in the Flyin' Illini's success. As the story goes, local entrepreneurs Phil Rushing and Scott Katsinas came up with the idea to make T-shirts emblazoned with Dicky V's bald noggin and the words "Illinois No. 1 baby," which they'd sell for $10 a pop as soon as the Illini reached the top spot in the polls.

In one week, they hawked 7,200 shirts. Vitale donated his share of the profits — $3,000 — to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.


Six school records the Flyin' Illini still own, three decades later: most points in a season (3,110), most points in a game (127), most shots made in a season (1,200), most steals by a team (341), most steals by a player (Battle's 89) and most dipsy-doo dunkeroo shoutouts by Vitale after any of the 171 alley-oops, windmills, 360s and other assorted slams.


No Illinois team could fall so far behind and come so far back like the '89 bunch, who spotted Missouri 18, Georgia Tech 16 and Indiana 13 — and won all three.


What if ... 14 games in, the IHSA's two-time reigning scoring champ didn't develop a blood clot near his left armpit, ending his freshman season early?

You name the Flyin' Illini star, and Andy Kaufmann lit him up in practice that year.

"Only guy I know that could put up more points than Nick Anderson," said Larry Smith, who came off Henson's bench that season. "He beat everybody. Easy. You'd try to talk to him. 'Hey, young boy. Shoot it.' He'd bring it right at us, man."


It was a different Big Ten back then. What the league lacked in members (there were actually 10 schools), it made up for in nationally ranked teams (four spent time in the top five of the AP poll that season), future NBA draft picks (21), nonconference dominance (an all-time best 119-29 record) and nets cut down (since Michigan in '89, only 2000 Michigan State has won it all).

"The college game is so watered down because all the good players are leaving," said Gill, who put in four years at Illinois, then 15 in the NBA. "You don't have the caliber of players that you had back then."


The way fans felt about that '89 team is the way the players felt about the former Chicago probation officer who convinced most of them to come to Champaign.

If not for Jimmy Collins, "that year never would have happened," Gill said. "Never ever. The players wouldn't have been there."

Even the high school hot shots from outside the Windy City limits — like Alton's Smith, who Dick Nagy was the lead recruiter on — took a liking to the future UIC head coach.

"Coach Nagy, white guy, came down here and was trying to sell it," Smith said. "Then one time, he brings Coach Collins, and Coach Collins is like, 'Man, you coming or what? Quit playing.'"I'm like, "I'm coming, man.'"


Collins didn't land every recruit he courted. Just as the Flyin' Illini were preparing to tip off the season, the staff hosted a soft-spoken, 17-year-old giant from San Antonio.

He was close to 7 feet tall, with arms that looked like they should be fed three times a day and a clock hanging from a chain around his neck."I can remember walking around with him for just about a day before my curiosity finally killed me," Collins said. "I said, 'Let me ask you a question.' And he said, 'Yeah?' And I said, 'Why you got that big, ol' clock on your chest?'"And he looked at me in the strangest way and said, 'So I can tell time.'"Oh, that silly Shaquille O'Neal.Illinois was the only school other than LSU, where Shaq signed, to get the big guy to visit. Collins liked Illinois' chances — until the weather that November weekend took a turn for the frigid.

"The first day, the weather was nice. The second day, the weather was nice. He was having a great time," Collins said. "On the third day, I drove him back to O'Hare and it started to snow. It turned really, really miserable, and he just had a little light coat on."When we were coming into Chicago, I looked over at him and he was kind of shaking. I said, 'Uh-oh.'"


Shaq was a year away when LSU hosted the "best team we ever played in Baton Rouge." That's how Brown, then retired, described Illinois, which routed All-American guard Chris Jackson and the Tigers, 127-100, three days before Christmas.


It was one of eight — yes, we said eight — times the Flyin' Illini cracked triple digits that season.

Since the turn of the century, starting with Bill Self's first year here, Illinois teams have scored 100 points in a game seven times.


Everyone on the '89 Illini had a role beyond basketball.

Bardo was the don't-take-nothing-from-nobody true believer, who gathered the team in the locker room for a quick prayer after the LSU romp. It went: "Lord, lead us on our path to the Final Four."Parkland product P.J. Bowman — who now goes by Dr. Phillip Bowman, of Beverly Hills — was the resident psychiatrist, which came in handy with Bardo for a roommate. "The rest of us, we were all silly," Hamilton said. "But P.J. was like a 45-year-old guy in a college body."

Future Danville prison guard Ervin Small was the enforcer — more than willing to return the forearm shiver to an opponent who messed with one of his teammates. "I'd be like, "Hey man, dude elbowed ya. I'll get him back,'" Small said. "I was that type."


They were fashion trend-setters — introducing to college basketball the long, baggy shorts that became all the rage. Not everyone was a fan, though. "Far be it for me to criticize anyone's dress, but I just remember them looking like ragamuffins," said the late Rick Majerus, whose Ball State team the Illini bounced in the NCAA Round of 32.


What if ... Gill hadn't broken his foot during a 103-92 double-OT thriller against Georgia Tech, the late-January win that elevated the Flyin' Illini to No. 1?

It was only a seven-day stay — the Gill-less Illini dropped three of their next four, tumbled to 10th in the next AP poll, were without their star for 12 games and wound up finishing behind Indiana in the Big Ten title race.

"Indiana wouldn't have won it if we had Kendall all the time," Henson said. "You know, the thing that's interesting is that until Michigan beat us in the Final Four, we didn't lose a game with Kendall in the lineup."


Three things we heard about Battle, who despite spending his first two seasons at Northern Illinois still ranks among the UI's top 50 career scorers:

Don't be fooled by the .500 career three-point shooting percentage. (He only attempted 18). Said Kaufmann: "I remember the managers could beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E. He couldn't shoot it. I never saw him really work on his shooting. He didn't have to. He got by with dunks and little flip shots."

A late first-round NBA draft pick, he spent four unremarkable seasons playing for four franchises. Not that the so-so pro career diminishes his college legacy any. Said former CBS analyst Billy Packer: "Kenny Battle was one of those guys that the NBA doesn't have enough of but was the perfect college player. It's unfortunate the NBA doesn't have room for that type of player because you'd pay to watch him play."

He led the team in how'd-he-do-that theatrics, be it the reverse dunk against Georgia Tech (Ted Beach's favorite), the alley-oop off an out-of-bounds play against Florida (Hamilton's) or the double-pump reverse layup against Syracuse (Rod Cardinal's). Said former Wisconsin coach Steve Yoder: "He was as good an athlete as anybody that Michigan's Fab Five had."


The only better feeling than beating two juggernauts in three days in March — first Louisville, 83-69, then Syracuse, 89-86 — was what happened at the tail end of the trip home from Minneapolis, where the team had secured a spot in the Final Four for the first time in 37 years.

"When the plane whipped around and you saw all the people out there, you got a lump in your throat," said Tom Livingston, who was along for the ride as Chief Illiniwek.

UI police put the Easter Sunday night crowd at Willard Airport at somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. That's not counting the 4-mile-long stream of cars on U.S. 45, horns honking hysterically.

"I'll never forget that day as long as I live," Gill said. "That was one of the greatest nights of my life."


You know how the story ends.

The C-U version: With under 10 seconds left, a spot in Monday's final on the line and the score tied at 81, Michigan's Terry Mills misses a long shot from the corner of the Kingdome court. Sean Higgins pushes Anderson in the back and scores the winning basket, the refs miss the call, and the Wolverines are crowned national champs two nights later.

Henson gets the last word:

"We put so much emotion in the Louisville and Syracuse games that we didn't have it left for the Final Four. I know, people say, 'Now does that make any sense, to not have any emotion left for the Final Four?' Well, you can't control it."It's like you see teams put so much into getting to the Super Bowl and once they get there, they're nothing. They might lose 45-0. You never want to have to play on emotion over a long period of time because it always catches up to you."