Rice's return a long time coming
CHAMPAIGN — Rayvonte Rice’s first memory of attending an Illinois basketball game was sitting high atop the Assembly Hall stands in the late 1990s as Cory Bradford and Sergio McClain were wreaking havoc on Big Ten opponents.
“That’s what I grew up on. I lived and died Orange and Blue since I was little,” Rice said.
Years later, Rice attended an Illini game with his Champaign Edison Middle School basketball coach, Marc Changnon. Rice, wearing a replica Illinois jersey, was escorted to the tunnel after the game by Changnon where they posed for a photo with then-Illinois assistant coach Tracy Webster.
“I always dreamed of being an Illinois basketball player,” Rice said.
Friday night, Rice will run out of that same tunnel — wearing a real Illinois basketball jersey — to play his first regular season game as an Illini in the season opener against Alabama State (7 p.m.).
Changnon, who still has that photo of himself, Rice and Webster displayed prominently in his Unit 4 office, will be there Friday night to see the young man he thinks of as a son fulfill his lifetime wish.
“For me, it’s a thrill,” Changnon said.
Rice’s father wasn’t a part of his life. He was raised by his mom, Rhonda Rice, who worked multiple jobs to make sure her only son never wanted for anything.
“It was always just me and him; we did everything together, through thick and thin,” Rhonda Rice said.
But when Rayvonte started playing basketball in seventh grade at Edison, Changnon took an interest in a kid he says was shy. Changnon coached Rice’s teams in seventh and eighth grade and took over as the freshman coach at Centennial when Rice began high school.
The two bonded, Changnon driving Rayvonte home every night after practice.
He was the one who warned Rice there would be peers who’d try to bring him down in an effort to spoil his chance at making a better life for himself.
“He’s been the best male role model in Rayvonte’s life, without a doubt,” Rhonda said. “He’s stuck with him through everything. It’s meant so much to have him be a part of Rayvonte’s life. Marc and (Centennial assistant coach) Sonny Walker have meant a lot to us.”
Changnon will be at his normal perch in the B Section to see Rayvonte’s Illinois debut.
Mom will be there, too. She’s always been there. Despite the six-hour drive to Des Moines, Iowa, Rhonda made it to almost every game — home and away — when Rayvonte was starring at Drake for two seasons.
“I missed two games, and the only reason I didn’t make it to those is the weather was too bad,” said Rhonda, who would typically return to Champaign at 5 a.m. after attending a Drake game, get a couple hours of sleep and go to work as the manager at Prime Sole Shoes. “It hurt me so much not to be able to make it to those games.”
Illinois has trips to Las Vegas, Portland and Atlanta on this season’s schedule. Mom will be there.
“I’ve already booked the trip to Vegas,” said Rhonda, who works as a manager and driver for Quality Limo and Taxi in Champaign. “That’s my baby, of course, I’m going to go to every game I can. Just the fact that he sees my face in the crowd and he knows he has that support.”
Mom’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by her son. After Illinois’ two exhibition games at State Farm Center, Rayvonte made a point to locate his mom near the team bench and give her a kiss and a hug before heading to the locker room.
When he makes a three-pointer, he gestures with three fingers toward his head as a salute to her. “That’s our little thing,” Rhonda said.
“She’s meant everything. She worked a full-time job and was still able to make it to my games. That’s an incredible woman right there,” Rayvonte said. “It just has meant everything having her there.”
Rhonda and Changnon won’t be Rayvonte’s only fans in attendance. Rhonda’s been fielding ticket requests, and a number of former teachers, coaches, teammates, their parents and friends have said they’re looking forward to supporting Rayvonte.
“There’s so many people here who have been supporting me and having my back in everything I do. For them to come out to my games and support me like they have, that means a lot,” Rayvonte said.
His improvement on and off the basketball court since transferring to Illinois from Drake has been well-documented. He’s lost about 35 pounds while shedding some serious body fat. He was presented one of Illinois’ most-improved player awards while sitting out last season. And he registered a 3.8 grade-point average last semester.
Suspended one game at Drake for an incident in which he was accused of stealing socks from a shoe store, Rice has been on his best behavior in his hometown.
“He was hurt by that, he really was,” Rhonda said. “Everyone makes mistakes, and I just told him you have to choose the right people to be around. We all make mistakes.”
“He’s more disciplined. I think he’s grown academically, he’s grown as a person; I just think he’s gotten better in a lot of areas,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I think the culture that we have has brought out the best in him, ‘Hey, these guys believe in me, and they hold me accountable in personal and academic areas.’ I’ve seen a lot of growth there, too.”
Expectations are high for the 6-foot-4 power guard. The Illini will need him to score in bunches and be a lockdown perimeter defender.
No one is sure yet how it will all play out. But one thing you can count on is Mom being there every step of the way.
“I don’t know who’s more excited, her or me,” Rayvonte said. “I grew up coming to these games; she was there with me. It’s like a dream come true for both of us. I know how much this means to her.”