CHAMPAIGN — First, the stuffed animals.
As a college freshman, D.J. Richardson piled them high on his bed in the dorm room he shared with Joseph Bertrand. When D.J. fell asleep, he fell asleep with fuzzy tigers and teddy bears. Only, he didn’t always start the day that way.
“Every day Joe would wake up with at least seven teddy bears on his side of the dorm. And he’d say, ‘Why are all your bears on my side of the room?’ ”
Across the table, Joe hides a grin and awaits the punchline.
“And I would tell Joe, all the teddy bears are on your side of the room because I threw them at you. You wouldn’t turn off your alarm!”
This is a normal conversation between Richardson, Bertrand and Brandon Paul. No subject is immune to ridicule — not Joseph’s habit of sleeping with his eyes open (Brandon has three photos to prove it), Brandon’s tattoos (Joe argues Brandon has only three; Brandon claims six) or D.J.’s attachment to his stuffed animals.
Joseph: “Maybe if you slept more, you wouldn’t be worried about how much I slept.”
D.J.: “I guarantee that Joe has been asleep for 70 percent of his life.”
It is the coaching staff’s expectation the Illini will go as far as the three eldest guards can take them.
One is a senior and the rare four-year starter (Richardson).
One is a senior and a candidate to lead the Big Ten in scoring (Paul).
One is a fourth-year junior who should become a full-time starter (Bertrand).
That’s the basketball side of the equation. It’s a minor part of who they really are. Together, their story is less about hoops and more about their friendship. It’s a friendship built on ragging on each other and inside jokes.
Brandon: “We’re like the three best friends anyone can have.”
Between bites of his burrito bowl, D.J. finishes Brandon’s thought, if not his sentence.
“It’s a three-man wolf pack.”
Their laughter echoes through the restaurant.
For Brandon, D.J. and Joseph, it’s their soundtrack.
On the second floor of the Chipotle on Green Street, Joseph Bertrand, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson vacuum burritos and tacos as if the restaurant is closing.
And the Big Ten’s most finely tuned comedy routine commences.
There’s D.J., the hyperactive instigator. His specialty: creating a joke out of nothing.
“If Joe asks me a question, running out of the room is probably my No. 1 option. Picking up my phone is probably No. 2. And No. 3 is ignoring him, like I never heard him.”
There’s Brandon, the publisher. His smartphone has photos of D.J.’s orange house slippers. His Twitter account broadcasts #JoeTales to the world.
“What’s a JoeTale? There’s so many. ... One time I saw Joe sitting on the hood of his car. I asked him what he was doing. He says, ‘I’ve still got time left on the (parking) meter. I don’t want to waste it.’ That’s a JoeTale.”
There’s Joe, the prince of subtlety. He’s as chilled out as his Bob Marley T-shirt. His unintentional humor ties the trio together.
Brandon: “The reason we get along is that we can all be serious. Or we can all be goofy.”
Joseph: “Yeah. Seriously goofy.”
Basketball is what brought this motley crew together. It’s what they’re known for.
But basketball is hardly what they know each other for.
As close as they are now, it seems fitting the trio gave its oral commitments to Illinois within 24 hours of each other. Paul and Richardson committed on the same day — Oct. 11, 2007.
D.J.: “Right after I committed, I hit up Joe. I told him, ‘Me and Brandon just committed. You better do it, too.’ ”
Joseph: “I told him I was still thinking about it.”
D.J.: “Yeah, he said he didn’t know yet.”
After a pause, D.J. adds, “Then the next day he committed.”
They chose jersey Nos. 1 (Richardson), 2 (Bertrand) and 3 (Paul).
Since they arrived on campus — Paul from Gurnee Warren, Richardson from Findlay Prep in Nevada, Bertrand from Sterling — the troupe has been inseparable.
D.J. knows what Brandon brought to Chipotle without Brandon mentioning it.
D.J.: “He carries his own bottle of hot sauce everywhere. I don’t know where he gets it from. It just appears in front of him. Hot sauce is like Brandon’s first-aid kit.”
Joseph: “He probably puts hot sauce on his ice cream.”
Brandon knows Joseph has been known to get lost on his way to the mall.
Brandon: “How many years you lived in Champaign, Joe?”
Joseph: “It’s not like D.J. helps me, though. I’ll ask him a question and he’ll pick up his phone like he’s talking to somebody. He’s not talking to anybody.”
Joseph knows D.J.’s clothes always match — shoes, belt, shirt, hat, always color-coordinated.
Joseph: “It doesn’t matter what day it is. He’ll wake up extra early in the morning to get an outfit ready just to come to the gym.”
D.J.: “If we’re talking about clothes, though, I’ve got to tell you about Joe. Joe had these black shoes he wore all the time. I called them his ‘all-purpose’ shoes. He wore those to the Six Pack. He wore ’em to the store. He wore ’em to class. He might have worn them to go swimming.”
Joseph: “I didn’t wear them swimming.”
D.J.: “I bet you he wore them swimming. Right in the pool.”
About the only time laughter doesn’t highlight their conversation is when the topic is basketball. There’s a serious tone when it comes to their final season together.
After three years of wholly unfulfilled expectations — their own and those outside the locker room — the 2012-13 campaign is a chance to rewrite their Illini legacy.
D.J.: “I want to have more team goals instead of individual goals. One thing that stood out for me was winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. But at the same time, that was just one year and it went by so quick. I want to give the young guys — guys like Tracy (Abrams), Mike Shaw, Devin (Langford) — the chance to have great careers.”
Brandon: “People always talk about the Ohio State game (when he scored 43 points) and I can never hear enough about that. It’s something I’m obviously proud of. But I don’t want to be remembered just for that. I want to get a ring. That’s one thing I’m focused on this year — more wins and less individual awards. If we win as a team, it gives everyone a chance to be successful, not just one person. Kentucky won the national championship and all five of their (starters) got drafted. That’s a good example.”
Paul and Richardson, along with Sam McLaurin and Tracy Abrams, were named team captains in a vote among players and coaches.
The expectations upon their arrival at Illinois contrast the expectations of their final season together at Illinois.
Expectations for the 2009 recruiting class were high. Then, Richardson talked about rekindling the three-guard, Dee-Deron-Luther glory years. Paul did, too. It hasn’t turned out that way. The senior class has missed the NCAA tournament more often (twice) than it has won an NCAA game (once).
This season should tell if that bothers them as much as it should.
Expectations for this Illini basketball season are as low as they’ve been in roughly 15 years. A poll of beat writers last week predicted Illinois will finish ninth in the Big Ten.
There’s another set of expectations, however, and this trio has met and exceeded all of them. For all the knocks they’ve endured on the court, the three players have never found real trouble or faced academic issues. Each will graduate on time, in May. In today’s college game that should be notable, even if it’s not.
When it comes to the favorite moments of their three seasons together, each shares a common link — at least one highlight involves one of the other guys.
Brandon says Joseph’s 25-point game against Nebraska is in his top four.
“I had just been waiting for it to happen,” he says.
D.J. says the 2010 win against No. 5 Michigan State, after which students stormed the court, is on his short list.
“When Brandon got that steal and passed it ahead to me for the dunk? That gives me chills,” he says.
Joseph’s favorite memories are more general.
“I like when people get dunked on. So I liked it when Brandon dunked on that guy from SIU.”
Heading into this season, the new coaching staff is attempting to grow their games. Paul will be given the ball more often as the lead guard. After launching only 11 three-pointers over two seasons, Bertrand in practice is shooting over 50 percent from three. Richardson shot almost as many free throws as a freshman (80) as he did as a sophomore and junior combined (86). In the Orange & Blue Scrimmage, he got to the line for 10 free throws.
To exceed expectations, Illinois needs the most complete season of their careers.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for from all three of those guys is what are you giving us on the defensive end?” first-year UI coach John Groce said. “D.J. can catch and shoot with the best of them in the country. Brandon can score. Joseph is athletic and can make plays and get in the lane. What are you doing on the defensive end to help us?
“Particularly with (seniors) Brandon and D.J., what are you doing to help the other guys? D.J. is a guy that’s picked up stuff very quickly. OK, now that you’ve got it down, are you helping some of the younger guys figure it out? Those are some of the things we’ve been emphasizing with those guys.”
One of D.J.’s favorite stories is about Joseph’s tattoos.
He has none.
So he drew some.
D.J.: “One day Joe decided he was going to get tattoos. So he got a Magic Marker.”
He also got photos of Mike Davis’ tattoos, Jereme Richmond’s tattoos and Chester Frazier’s tattoos. The final touch was Crandall Head’s tattoos.
D.J. “I drew them all over Joe.”
Joseph: “It looked real.”
Brandon: “It looked ridiculous.”
No matter the result of their final season together, one thing’s clear.
The three guards will live it together. It was that way when they committed to Illinois, when they lived together from Illini Towers and Scott Hall to a house on Oak Street, and when they graduate together.
It was that way when Joseph scored a free book bag as a freshman — another inside joke that adds to their never-ending routine.
Joseph: “D.J. cleans more than I do. But I know where all my stuff is. I have a special system.”
D.J.: “Yeah, it’s called ‘put it in your book bag.’ ”
Brandon: “Joe’s book bag!”
D.J.: “I’ve gotta tell you about Joe’s book bag. He’s got this book bag and everything goes in it. And he carried it everywhere. Joe had an Xbox 360 in his book bag. He had that old orange cellphone. Like, the flip-phone kind. He had all his high school calculators. He had rulers. Who carries rulers? He had three inhalers!”
Brandon: “In case he ran out of inhalers!”
D.J.: “You’ll never catch Joe without his book bag.”
Joseph: “That’s not true.”
D.J.: “I bet you that book bag is at his apartment right now. Full of stuff!”