Stephen Bardo’s book on the ’89 Illini comes out Friday. Leading up to its release, we’re running excerpts. Friday: The Final Four
The Kingdome seated 60,000. It was our third dome stadium during our NCAA tournament run. The shooting background for each dome was unique. The Kingdome seemed to have a darker background, which helped the depth perception when shooting jumpers. The practice the day before the game was similar to the other practices during the tournament. The one at the Dome was mostly for show, then we went to a local gym to put in our game-plan. Even then, all the NCAA’s regulations and procedures seemed a little excessive. You couldn’t take cups on the floor, you couldn’t go this direction, you had to go north. Silly stuff that NCAA suits take way too seriously and has nothing to do with anything other than them wanting to look important. Not much has changed.
We were the only school to wear Converse shoes. I remember the Converse representatives at practice and back in the locker room. They tried to be chummy but I couldn’t help wonder, “Where were you guys all season?” Ours wasn’t an overnight success. We were #1 in the nation earlier in the season. Now we’re supposed to be happy to see you and wear these Converse jackets around Seattle proudly? Man please, the apparel was substandard and their customer relations (stunk). I think I developed knee tendonitis from those bricks they called shoes.
Everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon. Agents, guys trying to sell apparel, ladies, you name it, they wanted a piece of the action. I can see all of it for what it’s worth now much better than I could then. But even then, I could sense a con artist when I was in their presence.
The day of the game was nerve racking. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. We were in the pregame meal and Marcus was much more animated than normal. Marcus was always jovial and fun loving, he loved to laugh and have a good time. I think he was so nervous that he didn’t know what to do with himself. Unfortunately, PJ Bowman became his target.
Pee Dee Wee Straw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, was our nickname for PJ. From Saginaw, Mich., PJ’s kindness would sometimes be mistaken for weakness. He was eating and the room was pretty much silent — except for Marcus. Marcus started to mess with PJ’s food and the future Beverly Hills psychiatrist tries to reason with Marcus to chill. Marcus wasn’t having it; he had found the person he wanted to mess with. PJ and I lived together for our last two years at Illinois and I knew him well. This was a side that even I hadn’t seen from PJ. He starts to sweat, his voice rises and he warns Marcus that if he doesn’t stop messing with his food, there’s gonna be some furniture moving. Just before PJ goes upside Marcus’ head, Coach Collins walks in and defuses the situation. Coach C was really angry that we are acting like this with the biggest game of our lives in three hours.
We get to the locker room in the arena and start getting ready. Nerves are still there and Ervin starts the chant — “Awwwoooppp Shoo Wop Shoo Wop Shoo Wop Shoo Wop awww oooppp.” We were ready.
We are lined up in the tunnel, ready to take the floor. The game operations people alert you when you can run out of the tunnel. The announcer says “Representing the Midwest Region — The Fighting Illini from the University of Illinois!” Then you hear the roar of 60,000 people cheering — I still get goose bumps thinking about it. But I couldn’t move. My legs wouldn’t move. All of the sudden, I had a rush of memories from all of the Final Fours I watched from age 6 until now. It hit me, I was realizing a dream. It felt like 10 seconds, although I’m sure it was only a brief hesitation. I felt Kendall slap me and say, “Let’s go!” That’s definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced! Something I share this with my motivational speaking audiences around the nation.