Flyin'' Illini - A 10-year tribute: Bardo a 'basket case' only on court

Flyin'' Illini - A 10-year tribute: Bardo a 'basket case' only on court

Rooming with Stephen Bardo prepared P.J. Bowman for a career in psychiatry better than any textbook or teacher he had in college.

"My first counseling case," Bowman said with a chuckle. "Steve would come home after games and be so filled up inside with all that competitive stuff that it would take him a long time to unwind. So we'd always have to talk about it and get it off his chest before the next game."

The two had a lot of long talks on the couch during the 1988-89 Illinois basketball season. But never did Bardo need to vent more than after the Syracuse thriller in Minneapolis.

He had a rough night – two points, four turnovers, five fouls – then almost made it a lot worse by going Sprewell on Illinois coach Lou Henson.

"I had a bad game, I fouled out and he said something real crazy to me," Bardo said. "He said, 'What are you trying to do, throw the game?' And I looked at him and I called him everything but the child of God. I swear I did. I snapped. We're on the bench about to go to blows, and Coach (Jimmy) Collins and Coach (Dick) Nagy are trying to settle me down. I'm about to hit him, man. I'm serious."

Then there was that time at Purdue, when Bardo had it out on the sidelines with Boilermakers coach Gene Keady.

"I'm going out of bounds for the ball, and he hits the ball, and the ref doesn't say anything," Bardo said. "So I give (Keady) a little forearm when I'm going back. And he's letting me have it. And I turn around and I'm letting him have it. We're arguing, we're shouting, we're spitting. The whole game, I'm taking the ball out and I'm like, 'You sorry son of a ...' And he's doing the same. We're just two competitive people."

That's one word for it.

"Intense is the word I'd use," said Doug Woolard, who coached him at Carbondale High.

Warmer.

"Steve's what you'd call temperamental," said Dr. Bowman, Bardo's best buddy to this day. "Very temperamental. In certain situations, he'd compete so hard that you'd almost wonder if he'd kind of snap and do something like foul a guy hard or say something to the coaches that might get him benched or get into a verbal jaw match with somebody and run the risk of getting a technical."

Off the court, he was a different dude. Fun-loving. Church-going. Library-attending.

"Heart of gold," said his college sweetheart-turned-wife, Leslie. "But he's a monster on the court. I know I wouldn't want to play against him."

Bardo got into it with players and coaches – from the other team and his own. If he had a beef with somebody – anybody – he wasn't afraid to speak up.

That's part of what made him such a fine player, ex-teammates will tell you.

"Coach Henson used to say, 'You've got to break them,' " Collins said. "Steve was a guy you couldn't break. But hindsight's a great thing. Looking back, we didn't need to, because he was smart enough, he was big enough, he was tough enough and he did whatever it took to win a ballgame."

Follow the leader

Nick Anderson was voted team MVP. Kenny Battle was nominated for the Wooden Award. And, well, we all know what happened to the Flyin' Illini when Kendall Gill took a spill.

But if you ask Bardo which guy made Henson's Illini go, he'd pick none of the above.

"Probably myself, because I ran the team and I kept everyone happy," he said. "If I was to go down, we would have struggled because guys wouldn't have gotten the ball where they're used to getting it."

He was the perfect point guard for the Flyin' Illini: heady and steady, unselfish and unbreakable.

"Steve had a sense of strength about him," Andy Kaufmann said. "That's what made him a good player, too – a certain strength and confidence and practicality. You felt like he could guide you. He was only, what 21? But he was dependable and solid."

Keady called him "the glue." Henson called him "the leader." Billy Packer called him the kind of point guard you don't see anymore.

"We haven't seen guards the size of Bardo and (Kendall) Gill on the college basketball scene in awhile," said Packer, a CBS analyst.

Bardo never scored a whole lot – he averaged 7.0 points a game during his career – but he sure dug defense.

He bagged Defensive Player of the Year honors in college (no Illini's won the Big Ten honor since Bardo did in '89) and the pros (twice, in fact, in the CBA).

"He could guard anybody in the league," assistant coach Mark Coomes said. "He had to guard Steve Smith, Glen Rice, the other team's best player – whether he was a guard, forward or center. Bardo could guard them all."

Big plans

Harold Bardo never has asked his son what the pay's like for a 30-year-old point guard in Japan.

But after seeing the lovely home Stephen shares with his wife and two kids in the south suburbs, he has a pretty good idea.

"It looks to me like they've done very well for themselves," Harold said. "He and his wife have big dreams."

Basketball has taken his son here, there and everywhere since he left Illinois in 1990, from the Atlanta Hawks (NBA) to the Atlanta Eagles (USBL). He's been cut 16 times, played in 10 different countries and stayed in a lot of hotels where they don't leave the light on.

Bardo's latest, and last, stop is Kawasaki, Japan. He's in his third season playing for the Toshiba Red Thunders, who are leading their division at 10-2 and getting 18 points and 10 rebounds a night from Bardo.

He thinks he may have another two or three years in him but sounds eager to get on with his life. Leslie gave birth to son No. 2 in August, and little Stephen Paul's about to celebrate his seventh birthday.

They miss their daddy, who's gone six months out of the year.

"I just keep telling myself it won't be long," Bardo said.

He might quit playing, but Bardo doesn't plan to leave basketball anytime soon. He wants to stay involved in some way, whether it's as a color commentator (he did Bulls postgame for CLTV last year), a sports agent or an administrator.

Last week, Harold Bardo took over as interim athletic director at Southern Illinois, giving his son a bright idea.

"I guess I should start lobbying now for the AD position at Illinois, huh?" Bardo said.

Coming next Wednesday: Henson gets his due.

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