SAVOY — When Kendall Gill was wearing an Illinois basketball uniform in the late 1980s, the program was universally considered one of the nation's best.
There have been flashes of that same brilliance since Gill and the Flyin' Illini reached the Final Four in 1989 — most notably the national runner-up team in 2005 — but the perception of Illinois basketball these days is far less favorable, and Gill recognizes that.
"It has been damaged a little bit. We can always restore it. The big knock on the university is we can't keep our homegrown talent, and that's somewhat true. We have to get back to recruiting the guys and wooing them back to the University of Illinois," said Gill, who on Monday hosted the 23rd Cunningham Children's Home Golf Outing at the UI Orange Course.
Stephen Bardo, a former Illini guard and current ESPN college basketball analyst, joined Gill as a special guest at Monday's event. Gill, an analyst with NBA-TV and Comcast SportsNet in Chicago, thinks the success he and Bardo have enjoyed after their professional basketball careers ended can be a selling point in convincing the top in-state talent to pick Illinois.
"Look at myself, I'm still benefiting from going to this institution, and Stephen Bardo is benefiting," said Gill, who spent 15 years in the NBA with eight teams. "(Former basketball manager) Ryan Baker (the sports director at CBS 2 in Chicago), Nick Anderson down in Orlando. Just because we went to the University of Illinois, it has its benefits, and that's one of the things that needs to be addressed with the Jabari Parkers of the world, the Derrick Roses who went to Memphis and all those guys.
"I'm looking forward to putting our program back on the map, and all the help I can give, I'm going to give. ... I just want to put U of I back on the map with our football program, basketball program, everything, and the first step starts now."
That being said, Gill is pleased with what he's seen so far in new coach John Groce. Groce and Gill have spoken frequently on the phone since Groce took over the program from Bruce Weber in March, but Monday was their first face-to-face meeting. It's the latest example of Groce reaching out to former players. Last week he spent time with Deron Williams and Jerry Colangelo at the USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas.
"It's huge. For myself and my staff to be able to connect with them is critical," Groce said. "Deron Williams, Jerry Colangelo, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, those guys are a huge part of the tradition of Illinois basketball. What them and all our former players and coaches and managers and support staff are what made Illinois basketball what it is today. "One of the things that attracted me to the job was the big-time tradition of coaches and players and the great success over the years that the program has had, and to be able to meet those guys is a special opportunity."
That Gill, Bardo and so many former players take an interest in the community and use their celebrity in charity is a lesson Groce often drives home with the current Illini.
"It's a great example for our players because we talk all the time about paying forward. It's not just about now; it's bigger than that. It's about the University of Illinois, and it's about giving back to their respective communities, whether that's back at home or Champaign-Urbana," Groce said. "I think it shows you what type of person that Kendall is."
Gill, 44, has hosted the event since 1991. He's returned every year since to catch up with old friends. Monday's turnout included former Illinois coach Lou Henson and his wife, Mary. But the Cunningham Children's Home is an organization that means a great deal to Gill.
"It's so important because it helps so many kids out," said Gill, who was joined Monday by wife Wendy and sons Phoenix, 5, and Kota, 3. "This is our 23rd year, and I've been doing it for so long and the gratitude I get is when I see these kids as adults and the come up to me and say, 'I was back at the Cunningham Children's Home 20-something years ago, and it helped me out so much.' That's why I like coming back."