ATLANTA — When the Illinois schedule — featuring two games in a five-day span in Atlanta — was released, perhaps no one was more excited than Ervin Small.
A regular on Lou Henson’s Flyin’ Illini, Small lives and works in private business here, keeping tabs on his Illini through the Internet and television.
On Tuesday, he watched in person as the Illini lost 67-64 to Georgia Tech. Sunday, he’ll be in attendance at Philips Arena for the Illini’s neutral-court game against Auburn (2 p.m., Fox Sports Midwest).
“I don’t ever get to see them play in person unless I come back to Champaign,” Small said while attending Illinois’ women’s game Wednesday at Georgia Tech. “I try to get back a couple times a year, but it’s real nice for me to have a couple of home games.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Small wandered about McCamish Pavilion proudly wearing a blue Illinois pullover. It wasn’t just a one-week display of school pride for the former Simeon standout. He represents the Illini throughout the year in his new home city.
The front license plate holder on his car features the Block I, and his Georgia license plate reads “BIG TEN.”
“I get into it with so many Georgia fans down here because of all my Illinois stuff,” Small said. “They think I’m crazy, but those are my roots; that’s who I am. Regardless if I live in Georgia or Illinois, I’m an Illini for life.”
His unwavering school pride is why he returned to C-U last month to support former teammate Stephen Bardo, who released a book documenting the Flyin’ Illini’s run to the 1989 Final Four.
The book, released Nov. 1, generated controversy because of never-before-told stories shared through Bardo’s words.
“I haven’t read it yet. I know there has been some controversy with him and a couple other guys. But when you write a tell-all book like that, you’ve got to expect that there’s going to be some dirt,” Small said. “I wish he would have done it a little more discreetly, but I guess that’s why you write a tell-all book.”
Small is planning to be back on campus for a Jan. 4 reunion celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Flyin’ Illini.
“We all still talk to each other quite a bit as it is. I talk to Kenny Battle once a week. I talk to Marcus (Liberty) once or twice a week,” Small said. “I talk to (Bardo) a lot. I talk to Ryan Baker a lot. I think getting us all together at the same place and the same time is going to be a good thing. I hope it’s a nice event, and I’m just looking forward to getting back on campus and seeing all that blue and orange.”
Small, who played in all 36 games of the 1988-89 season, often thinks about that magical season. Even when watching John Groce’s club play Tuesday, he had flashbacks to his playing days.
“I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but the game that got us to No. 1 in the country was against Georgia Tech,” he said. “That’s all I could think about watching them play. Kendall (Gill) broke his foot, and I think that was one of the games that brought us closer as a team. We were rallying around Kendall. We had a really huge win at our place, and it took us into that Big Ten season.”
Small’s impressed with the progress of Groce and his staff. He’s especially pleased with the contribution of Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, who was a classmate of Small’s daughter at Centennial.
“Rice is really good. I didn’t think he was this good when I saw him on the AAU circuit a few years ago, but he’s gotten better,” Small said of Illinois’ top scorer (18.0 ppg).
The program, according to Small, though, isn’t where it should be.
“I think we’re one or two recruits away from being a top program again. I think we get a good post player and we get somebody else who can score the ball, we’ll be all right,” he said.
The Simeon graduate likes the presence of fellow Wolverine alums Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate on the roster. They’ll soon be joined by 2015 commit D.J. Williams.
“I was telling someone that there’s almost been a guy or two on the Illinois roster from Simeon for a long stretch of time. It’s been a long stretch of guys,” Small said. “Me and Nick (Anderson) and then Deon Thomas. Bryant Notree, Kevin Turner. There’s been a lot of us, and most tend to do well.”
Tate has been solid through the first eight games of his collegiate career. Small expects Nunn to make a significant contribution sooner rather than later. He watched Nunn regularly during his high school career, and there were times when he felt the 6-foot-3 guard was better than teammate Jabari Parker, a freshman star at Duke.
“Once he gets going, that’s going to help because he’s a phenomenal player. They’ve just got to figure out where to use him and how to use him, and that’s going to be key for their success at the guard position,” Small said. “I like the team; we’re just one or two players away from being that dominant force again like Illinois should be.”