Second-chance opportunity for Black

Second-chance opportunity for Black

CHAMPAIGN — Leron Black attended church services the third weekend of February 2016. That, in itself, isn't exactly notable. The Memphis native has a strong faith and grew up in the church.

But the timing was.

Those services came in the days after he was arrested for pulling a knife on a bouncer at an Urbana nightclub and was indefinitely suspended from the Illinois men's basketball team. After he was charged with aggravated assault, a Class 4 felony.

The theme of the sermon that weekend was "Grace changes people." Those were words Black needed. Words that still resonate with him to this day — 17 months from one of the most trying times in his life.

Every Instagram post from Black now includes the hashtag #gracechangespeople.

"He showed me grace and He blessed me to have this second chance," Black said. "It helped change me as a person, changed my life. Growing up, my faith was always big in my life and was something that I always made sure I had with me. I feel like without God I'm not nothing."

Black admits he made a mistake that night in February. He's owned up to that from the start.

Black completed the necessary community service with 20 hours at Garden Hills Elementary before it was even court ordered. That and paying a $200 fine allowed him to plead down to a misdemeanor with 12 months of conditional discharge — a form of probation that doesn't require regularly reporting to a probation officer — as part of the Champaign County Second Chance Felony Diversion Program.

"Everybody makes mistakes, and I know I made a big mistake," Black said. "I feel like I've changed a lot since then. I've tried to do a lot of things to make sure I keep myself out of those types of situations. You just learn a lot going through that type of stuff and grow as a person. As a man, for me, I feel like I've grown a lot in my time here at college."

Black said how he's responded to the Feb. 2016 incident is just as important as learning from it. It's not something the 21-year-old Black is letting hold him down or hold him back.

"Of course it's always going to be there — people are always going to talk about it — but the past is the past," Black said. "You've got to move on and keep pushing, but always keep in mind what the feeling was.

"Always know that God forgives, and I'm blessed He gave me a second chance. I pray every night, and I know He's working with me and helping me. I just thank Him so much to give me this second chance to continue my experience here."

That experience at Illinois is both on and off the basketball court.

Black averaged career highs in scoring (8.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg) last season as a redshirt sophomore after missing most of the 2015-16 season with a lingering knee injury. He introduced a three-point shot into his game and stayed on the court longer, starting to limit the foul trouble that plagued him as a true freshman in 2014-15.

Black, a communications major, was also an Academic All-Big Ten selection in 2016-17. He's on pace to graduate this May.

"Growing up, I never would have thought I'd graduate college at a school like this," Black said. "It's a great feeling."

Black said he didn't think he would be able to handle college basketball and earning a degree when he was a freshman.

That year, he admitted, was difficult. Better time management and the assistance of academic counselor Jessica Goerke, he said, helped get his academics in order.

"I was new to everything," Black said, thinking back to his freshman year. "Now, I feel like I got used to it. I know what's going on. I know how to keep my grades up and know what I need to do."

With graduation approaching, Black said his family is "real excited."

"They're all happy," he continued. "My mom and my grandma, especially, just love the fact I'm graduating college. They love seeing me doing so well in school because we all thought it was going to be pretty difficult for me. Being able to graduate from such a high major college is a great feeling."

Before that, of course, Black has his Illini career to finish, starting with the 2017-18 season — the first under new coach Brad Underwood. Black called the last four months "a lot of fun" with the changes in the program.

"I remember (Underwood) saying, 'Why not us?' " Black said about one of his first meetings with his new coach. "We should be able to do all the things we see these other teams are doing. He's got a positive outlook on everything.

"It was real encouraging to see he believes in us and he hadn't been with us one day yet. He's willing to help us and make sure we all get better."

For Black, getting better means improving his passing, ball handling and shooting — staples for every player in Underwood's system. Fully extending his range past the three-point line after making 11 of 37 (29.7 percent) last season is a primary focus.

"I've been putting a lot of time in shooting threes on 'The Gun' to get my shot better than what it was last year," Black said. "It's repetition. I'm getting more and more comfortable every time I shoot it."

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jjohnson wrote on July 30, 2017 at 9:07 am

While I surely believe Josh Whitman made the only decision that could be made with John Groce, that Groce is a good man is shown by the way he dealt with Leron Black. Leron was, indeed, treated as a "child of God" and not a disposable piece of athletic flesh, and everyone should be pleased at the outcome.