SAVOY – It was a celebration 52 years in the making, and Illinois fans did it up right Sunday night when welcoming home their Big Ten Conference champion Illinois men''s basketball team.
"Fifty-two years is a long time, but we finally pulled it off," Illinois junior guard Luther Head told a spirited crowd – estimated by one Flightstar charter company official to be about 1,500 people – that flocked to Willard Airport after the Illini clinched the title outright for the first time since 1952 with a 64-63 victory against Ohio State.
Fans started filling up the Flightstar airplane hangar at 5 p.m., moments after the Illini held off the Buckeyes for their 10th straight win and the conference title in Columbus, Ohio. Adults, kids, grandparents and infants all showed their support for the Illini, which shared Big Ten titles in 2000-01 and ''01-02.
The Illini faithful had airport celebrations to honor those feats, but nothing of the magnitude of the party that went down Sunday night.
"This is way more people than two years ago," Illinois junior center Nick Smith said. "This is not even close."
Flightstar officials began planning for the event as early as Tuesday and started decorating the massive hangar with orange and blue balloons on Saturday. A crew started at 8 a.m. Sunday for the finishing touches. Flightstar is the charter company Illinois uses to fly its teams.
Fans, sporting orange and blue clothing and holding cameras, camcorders and picture cellphones, quickly filled up the 100 to 150 parking spaces outside the Flightstar terminal. Cars were then parked on a nearby grass area.
If fans didn''t have any appropriate gear to wear they weren''t out of luck as the GameDay Spirit sports store set up a booth selling T-shirts ($20), sweatshirts ($38) and basketballs ($35) commemorating Illinois'' title.
"This is incredible," said Champaign realtor Tom Cain, who rode around on a Segway motorized scooter with a Dee Brown No. 11 T-shirt on the front while 9-year-old son Eric soaked in the atmosphere.
"Our community is such a big supporter when it comes to sporting activities. It''s incredible in a small town what can happen."
Kim Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln Trail School in Mahomet, sweated out the final minutes of the Illini''s victory Sunday, then headed to Willard with friends and family. Johnson had been to an Illinois airport celebration before but admits nothing could compare to Sunday''s festivities.
"I''m very surprised," Johnson said. "We watched the game, and we were going crazy. We just had to come out."
Johnson''s 9-year-old son, Ross, wore his Brown home jersey and had a block "I" painted on his face as he ran around dribbling a basketball with some friends.
"My mom was just talking and said, ''Hey, you want to go meet the team?'' and I said, ''Yeah,'' " Ross Johnson said.
The Illini''s plane touched down at 7:45 p.m., and the team, coaching staff and their families entered the hangar with Illinois senior Jerrance Howard hoisting the Big Ten championship trophy over his head.
A raucous chant of "Big Ten champs" by the fans who were lined up six to eight rows deep on either side of a roped-off walkway leading to a stage provided a serenade, along with the Illinois band and cheerleaders.
The celebration lasted about 20 minutes.
"It''s a tremendous reception," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who wore a Big Ten Champions T-shirt and entered with chants of "Coach of the Year."
"The fans have been unbelievable all year," he said. "The players said this is better than two years ago because this is an undisputed title; we don''t have to share it with anybody."
That''s what brought the fans out Sunday night, and more wins in the upcoming Big Ten tournament – which Illinois will open at 11 a.m. Friday in Indianapolis against the winner of the Indiana/Ohio State game – and the NCAA tournament might even attract more.
The fans waited long enough for this one, and they don''t want the celebration to end. And some even know who they would like the Illini to meet up with down the road. "I hope we get to play Kansas," Cain said. "Bill Self could never do this."
You can reach Jeff Mezydlo at (217) 351-5604 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.