Garris still pained by loss

Fifteen feet from the basket, Kiwane Garris stood alone.

Fifteen feet that lasted 20 years. And will remain with him until his final days.

“It seems like we just played that game,” Garris said.

In 1993, Illinois-Missouri basketball was a big deal. Kentucky-Indiana big. Duke-North Carolina big.

“It was one of the most exciting games I ever played in,” Garris said. “You heard so much about the game from past players and fans and coaches. The teams were even.”

They played the annual game in neutral St. Louis. Just like today.

The 1993 version was special. It was held for the final time at the St. Louis Arena before moving to then-Kiel Center.

Garris found himself in the middle of a classic. The 108-107 triple-overtime win by Missouri is considered the best in series history. At least, from the Tigers’ standpoint.

Not for Garris.

The freshman point guard finished with 31 points. A great night at the start of what would be a great career.

The indelible memory of Garris from that game goes straight to the end of the second overtime.

The score was tied as Garris drove the lane. Missouri’s Julian Winfield banged into him, and the official properly called the foul.

Nothing but zeroes on the clock, which meant the lanes had to be cleared of Tigers and Illini.

Leaving Garris as the only player on his side of the court.

He remembers it like it was yesterday. The quiet from the Illinois fans and the screams of the Missouri rooters. The kind of situation players dream about: game on the line, ball in your hands. A shot he sank endless times in practice.

Just not this night.

“I rushed them,” Garris said. “The first one went in and out. The second one, I missed.

“My focus was to just make one and be done with it.”

He wasn’t nervous. He had been practicing free throws from the time he first picked up a ball.

“I’d just say I was real anxious to get the game over with,” Garris said. “As far as a loss, that was as bad as I ever felt. I take a lot of stuff personally. But I didn’t let it linger on.”

Garris doesn’t hold a grudge against the Tigers. “But I don’t want them to win at all,” he said. “That’s the competitive part of it. You want to beat them bad.”

Today, the 39-year-old lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, R&B singer Syleena Johnson. They have three sons, Kiwane Jr., Kai and Kingston.

Garris knows Illinois-Missouri is scheduled for Saturday. He will watch with his family.

He thinks about the series “all the time. It’s one of those games you keep in your memory because there were so many exciting and thrilling games.”

Garris went 2-2 against Missouri during his career. The wins are overshadowed by the 1993 game. Too bad.

Garris finished his Illinois career as the school’s No. 2 all-time scorer.

“It’s always good to feel important and wanted and feel like you are a part of a family,” Garris said. “Illinois is one of the best institutions out there.”

He took shots at the NBA before settling into a long pro career overseas.

Basketball is still an important part of his life. Garris trains kids ages 5 to 18 in the game he learned growing up in Chicago.

Garris doesn’t get back to C-U often. But he stays in contact with former coaches Lou Henson, Mark Coomes and Jimmy Collins. He also keeps in touch with ex-teammates Deon Thomas, T.J. Wheeler, Tom Michael, Jerry Hester and Kevin Turner.

“I pretty much talk to everybody,” Garris said.

Not far removed from his pro career, Garris remains in great shape. Give him another year of college eligibility and he would be ready to suit up in St. Louis.

“I definitely can play right now,” he said.

Garris follows the current Illini and coach John Groce. He saw Illinois lose at Georgia Tech earlier in the season.

“They pass the ball around, and they play good defense,” Garris said. “They just had to finish out both halves, and they would be fine.”

At some point, Garris will get back to his old building. The one with the new name: State Farm Center.

Garris is glad to see the Assembly Hall is getting a makeover.

“It looks like it’s going to be an awesome place to play,” Garris said. “Change is always good.”

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westcoast wrote on December 21, 2013 at 11:12 am

Great to hear about Kiwane. One of favorite Illini. Always gave great effort and was so solid with the ball and driving the lane.  Good idea on the article, and well written, but the headline is inconsistent with what he is quoted as saying. He says he did not let the missed free throws linger on.  The headline conveys the opposite impression. 

illinieddy wrote on December 22, 2013 at 10:12 am

Not sure if Kiwane's jersey is hanging in the hall, but it should be! Maybe when they re-open the hall then do it! Along with Efrem Winters, Cory Bradford.....should I keep going?

Love Kiwane!