Two things Lon Kruger misses most about Illinois: Memorial Stadium on a fall Saturday and Kirby Avenue on a Monday morning. Or Tuesday or Wednesday or ....
"The traffic here, if you catch it at the wrong time of the day, is awful," Kruger said from his downtown Atlanta office, where he's preparing for his first season as coach of the Atlanta Hawks. "It can take me up to 45 minutes to from my house to work.
"Other than that, no major surprises."
The transition from Big Ten to the NBA is nearly complete for Kruger. His family's settled in (the house is in Marietta, and son Kevin started high school two weeks ago), his coaching staff's in place and the players are starting to trickle in for training camp, which starts in a month.
Last weekend, Kruger visited family in Kansas. His next extended break comes in June.
"I think the length of the season is going to be a shock," Kruger said. "Eighty-two games in 163 days. There won't be many breaks."
Kruger, an NBA rookie, already has made some wise moves. He hired NBA veterans Rick Mahorn and Gar Heard as assistants. He drafted DerMarr Johnson and Hanno Mottola, both whom should contribute (another draftee, Scoonie Penn, will play this season in Italy). And he's working on winning over Dikembe Mutombo, the one Hawk who can make teammates listen to the new coach.
Still, fans in Atlanta aren't impressed. The local newspaper continues to run a survey asking "was Lonnie Kruger a good choice for the Hawks?" Kruger isn't faring much better than Pat Buchanan: 76 percent of those responding say, "No," and 80 percent predict a losing season.
Meanwhile, Illinois is a Top 10 team.
"The key is having good players, regardless of what level you're at," Kruger said.
Kruger said he probably won't see the Illini in person this season. The closest he'll come is when the Hawks play Dec. 15 at Chicago, the night before Illinois hosts Arizona on the same court. He'd stick around, but Atlanta has a home game Dec. 16 against New Jersey.
Tough guy Henson
One painkiller and a few hours' rest was all Lou Henson needed to recover from Wednesday's hernia operation.
"I'm not trying to sound macho, but the next day I put in 11 hours of work," Henson said. "I figured I'd be better off moving around."
Henson checked into a Las Cruces, N.M., hospital at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and was out five hours later. The next morning, he was thinking basketball.
One of the doctors who worked on Henson graduated from Indiana. She told the coach that afterward.
"Had I known that before, I would have refused to let her operate on me," Henson said.
Gary Payton wouldn't shut up, Jason Kidd wouldn't stop running and Kevin Garnett wouldn't stop dunking.
That's Cory Bradford's report from Hawaii, where the Illinois junior spent the past week scrimmaging against the U.S. Olympic team.
The workouts culminated with Saturday's exhibition on NBC, Bradford scoring xx points in his team's xx-xx loss. Afterward, he cornered some of the NBA stars for autographs and pictures he'll show to his Illini teammates when he gets back to town.
Bradford spent much of the week matched against Milwaukee's Ray Allen, who shoots better than he acts. Allen went out of his way to make Bradford feel at ease, offering him Gatorade and advice after every workout.
"He really wanted to see what I was about," said Bradford, who's friends with another Milwaukee guard, former Memphis standout Elliott Perry. "I think he relates to Memphis players."
Allen, Garnett and Kidd impressed Bradford, who's becoming a USA Basketball regular.
"Now I've got to transfer what I learned back to Illinois," Bradford said.
Bradford roomed with Duke's Shane Battier, the two checking out the shops and beaches of Maui. The two will see each other again Nov. 28, when the Illini and the Blue Devils meet in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
"We spent some time bragging about who's going to win," Bradford said.
In the locker room after last March's loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament, many of the Illini stressed the need to get stronger. By the looks of it, several players followed through with their pledge.
Leading the way is junior center Robert Archibald, who began four-man workouts at an impressive 255 pounds. That's up from the 206 he checked in as a freshman.
"One of our weaker areas was overall strength and toughness," Archibald said. "We wanted to be a little more intimidating when people came down in the paint. It seems teams like Michigan State and Florida bullied us, and we weren't able to do much about it."
The Illini have been under the direction of assistant strength coach Kevin Early, whose top priority is to deal with the men's basketball team. In the past, the Illini didn't receive such undevoted attention.
As a result, Lucas Johnson, Sergio McClain and Jerrance Howard already look more imposing than they did six months ago.
The 6-foot-11 Archibald noticed a difference the first time he posted up during team scrimmages.
"I found it a lot easier moving down inside, taking up position and holding that position," Archibald said. "It's harder to push 255 pounds off the block than it is 210."
Archibald said the back condition that caused him to miss parts of last season still is an issue. Like practice partners Damir Krupalija (ankle) and Marcus Griffin (knee), Archibald has played with some pain during the offseason.
"There are good days and bad," he said. "It's kind of hard. You just try and do as much as you can on the good days and do whatever you can on the bad days."
Around the horn
Former Illini Kenny Battle's stint as an assistant coach for the Harlem Globetrotters is over. At least he's been replaced by another Big Ten product: Former Indiana player and assistant coach Joby Wright has joined former Illini Manny Jackson's traveling outfit. ... Najeeb Echols, high on the UI's recruiting list, has settled on a high school for his senior year. The News-Gazette All-State second-teamer, who spent last season at Whitney Young and talked about transferring to Leo, has enrolled at Morgan Park. Now it's up to the IHSA to determine if he's eligible. ... Kevin O'Neill's abrupt departure from Northwestern didn't catch the coaching community by surprise. He was hinting about leaving the Big Ten school for some time. By staying through the summer, O'Neill was able to complete his money-making summer camps. Athletic director Rick Taylor said his replacement doesn't necessarily need Division I head coaching experience. How about Illinois assistant Rob Judson, who knows the Chicago area and its rich recruiting resources better than anyone? Another Big Ten assistant with a big upside is Michigan State's Brian Gregory, who worked with O'Neill at Northwestern before joining Tom Izzo in 1999. Having a national title on your resume can't hurt.
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette. His column on college basketball runs Sundays during the football season.