Two eras of Illini basketball, one grand legacy

Two eras of Illini basketball, one grand legacy

CHICAGO — The debate continues. Which Illinois basketball team was better: the 1989 Flyin' Illini or the 2005 NCAA finalist?

It even came up during the school's Hall of Fame Gala on Friday night at the Field Museum.

Host Rece Davis asked two stars from the respective teams. New Hall of Famer Kendall Gill from '89 went first.

"Both great teams," Gill said. "Deron (Williams) and Dee (Brown) and their crew did the Illinois legacy proud getting to the national championshp game. My team, we did a great job as well.

"I think the most important thing is to always have the (players) in the NBA to continue the legacy. That's how I look at it."

What does Williams think?

"Same thing," he said. "I've been getting this question since I left here. There's no way to compare us. Two different eras. There's so much time between each team."

Both Williams and Gill are thrilled to be members of the Hall. Williams was picked in the first year, but couldn't attend the ceremony because of basketball conflicts.

"It means a lot for me," Williams said.

"It means everything," Gill added.

Gill's career got a boost by an early snub. Not considered among the nation's elite recruits, Gill remembers his first media day as a freshman.

"Not one person interviewed me, not even my hometown newspaper," Gill said. "I made a promise to myself in that room that by the time I left this school, I was going to be one of the best players to ever come through the University of Illinois.

"Fortunately enough, with the help of many people, I was able to make it. This day tells me I did the right thing."

Williams earned a place in Illinois basketball lore with a tying three-pointer against Arizona late in the 2005 regional final. The Illini had trailed by 15 with four minutes to play.

"I just know we didn't give up," Williams said. "We believed in each other. We believed in ourselves. It wasn't our time to lose."

Williams has never watched a replay of the historic game.

"All these Illini fans, they remind me so I don't have to watch it," Williams said. "Talk to anybody in this room and they can walk me through it, play-by-play."

Second-year Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood welcomed Gill and Williams to the stage.

"Ultimate winners," Underwood said.

He pointed to the numbers for the two, who won about 80 percent of their games. Gill went 98-31. Williams was 88-16.

They were in the NCAA tournament every year, with never lower than a No. 5 seed. Their teams were ranked No. 1 during their careers and had the two winningest seasons in school history.

"These guys were tremendous workers and developed their skills.," Underwood said. "They made themselves world-class athletes."

They both had long, successful NBA careers after being picked early in the draft.

Williams earned two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

No surprise, basketball dominated the Gala. Of course, the highlight was the induction of Lou Henson into the Hall.

Wearing his customary orange jacket, Henson was mentioned numerous times during the event.

Henson and fellow Hall of Famer Dave Downey were introduced by a member of last year's inaugural class, Jerry Colangelo.

The crowd of about 500 let out a loud "Looooouuuu" as Henson came on the stage.

When did he first wear the orange jacket?

"In 1975 when I came to Illinois," Henson said, "and I haven't taken it off since."

Chicago sportscaster and former Illini basketball manager Ryan Baker announced the Lou and Mary Henson Academic Assistance Fund, which will enable former Illinois basketball players to return to school to finish their degrees. The fund is already over $500,000.

"Coach has been a tremendous role model and mentor and friend," Baker said.

Baker's first meeting with Henson came during an all-star game more than three decades ago. Baker introduced himself to the coach and mentioned the idea of someday being a team manager.

The coach told Baker "go to the office when you get on campus and we'll work it out."

Baker followed orders, reporting the day after he moved to school as a freshman.

"Coach was a man of his word," Baker said. "Little did I know how much that would change my life forever. Being affiliated with the University of Illinois and Fighting Illini basketball, I got a chance to have a front-row seat to watching the greatest coaches in college basketball history and the greatest team in college basketball history."

Basketball's future was also a hot topic. On Thursday night, a basketball summit included several former players and top program supporters.

They talked about a push to renovate Ubben, hoping to get the project on the Illini's practice facility started within the next year.

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