Bertrand hopes to get last laugh
IOWA CITY, Iowa — After five years, you think you know Joseph Bertrand?
The guy who rarely cracks a smile on the court.
The one who comes off as shy in television interviews and appearances.
That’s not the real Joe.
The real Joe is funny, the funniest guy on the Illinois basketball team, in fact. His humor and wit is unassuming, much like the athleticism and the high-flying dunks he has showcased during a career that is coming to a close beginning with Saturday's Big Ten finale at Iowa (7:30 p.m., BTN).
“Joe’s sneaky funny,” teammate Jon Ekey said.
The Illini Rebounders fundraising group got a taste of it earlier this week during Joe’s farewell speech during the senior luncheon.
“Well, I came here as an immature freshman, and I’m leaving as an even more immature senior,” Joe deadpanned to the couple hundred in attendance as they burst into laughter.
Everyone associated with the Illinois basketball team has a story about Joe making them laugh or having a laugh of his own at their expense. Ask them their favorite story and they all start the same: “Where do I begin?”
When Nnanna Egwu’s extra jump shots in pregame warmups cut into the guards’ drills, Joe hit him with, “So, I can’t warm up today, but you can? You don’t want me to play well today?”
“He’s always so sarcastic, but it’s weird,” Egwu said. “That’s why I love Joe. That’s what makes him the way he is.”
On road trips, Joe has convinced guard Mike LaTulip that during film sessions at the team hotel, they always need to have an escape route planned in case an emergency occurs.
“We do this everywhere we go. We’ll be 12 floors up and we’ll plan to scale down a building, jump on one pole, jump to another roof or whatever,” LaTulip said. “His personality is unbelievable, just the way his mind works and how he comes up with some of this stuff.”
The grueling film sessions themselves provide Joe an opportunity to lighten the mood.
“He takes his criticism in strides, but he loves to point out everyone else’s mistakes,” assistant coach Paris Parham said.
Ekey, whom coaches praise for the few miscues he makes on film, isn’t immune to Joe’s critiques.
“If we’re watching film and I mess up, he’ll yell ‘Yes!’ really loud, and it’s just something you have to laugh at,” Ekey said. “He just does stuff to make you feel dumb.”
The stories about Joe began piling up during his first few years on campus, so former Illini Brandon Paul decided the rest of the world needed to be brought in on the fun. Paul created the #JoeTales hashtag on Twitter, relaying some of his favorite stories about Joe to the general public, and it took off.
“No one else really knew what kind of guy he was because he’s quiet around people he doesn’t know,” Paul said. “It just came to me to put it out there, and after it started it picked up pretty fast.”
Some of Paul’s favorite Joe Tales include the time Joe bought a pop from a vending machine and the machine didn’t give him his change. In an act of revenge, Joe unplugged the machine.
Another time they were walking down the street on campus when a young woman was walking toward them in their path. Paul moved aside to make room. Joe stayed on his path, not clearing space for the woman. When asked by Paul why he didn’t move, Joe responded, “She doesn’t know what I’ve been through” because they had just run suicides at practice.
Another time Paul saw Joe in a parking lot on campus sitting on his car. “He got out of class early and still had time on the meter, so he just sat there until the meter ran out because that was his time and his money on the meter,” Paul said.
For a while, Joe was the only player on the Illinois team without a Twitter account until Paul convinced him to join the social networking site.
“When I would ask him why he doesn’t have Twitter, he would say, ‘Because I get nervous when people follow me,’ ” Paul said.
It took a while before his teammates at Illinois got to see that side of Joe early on during his career. Once he gets to know you and gets more comfortable around you, be on your toes, because you might be on the receiving end of a prank or one of his jokes.
“It’s just how I am. I don’t even know how to explain it,” Joe said. “It’s all in fun. Everyone is kind of funny in their own way. Guys have different senses of humor. It loosens everybody up if we’re having a tough time. We can always be around each other and have a good time.”
He makes them nervous, but Joe’s departure from the program in the coming weeks will create a void in the Illinois locker room.
“It’s fun being around him. Being around a guy like that who’s always positive brings your energy up,” roommate Tracy Abrams said. “I’m going to miss that guy being around with that energy and being able to make me laugh.”