Whatever happened to ... a Hollywood ending for the Illini

Whatever happened to ... a Hollywood ending for the Illini

Twenty-five years ago today — Feb. 4, 1993 — Illinois and Iowa played a game they'll still be talking about in 2093. Staff writer Bob Asmussen, who covered the game, caught up with the principals and asked them for a look back - movie style.

Tagline

You can't make this stuff up

Plot

Bitter rivals, fueled by Iowa's allegations of NCAA rules violations at Illinois, settle their differences on the court.

Stars

It seemed so simple.

Give the ball to the high school quarterback. Have him scramble on the baseline and let it fly like Jeff George.

At the other end waits Mr. Clutch. The guy you are 100 percent sure will make the shot.

But it almost never happens that way. The throw goes too long or the shooter fires the ball over the basket.

With 1.5 seconds left against No. 9 Iowa and his team trailing by two points, Illinois' T.J. Wheeler took the ball from the official.

The previous two days in practice, legendary coach Lou Henson had the team working on the same last-second play. With no luck.

"You could hear the coaches mumble, 'We're not going to be able to run this play,' because I couldn't throw it straight," Wheeler said.

It only had to work once.

"Coach Henson was always prepared for any situation," Illini assistant Jimmy Collins said.

"He sensed it or knew it was going to come down to the last shot," Wheeler said.

At first, Iowa had two players in front of Wheeler, which would have made the pass more difficult. But 6-foot-10 Acie Earl dropped back, leaving Jay Webb — still a big target to throw over since he checked in at 6-8 — as the only defender in front of the 6-4 Wheeler.

But Illini guard Rennie Clemons helped out, setting a screen on Webb, giving Wheeler a clear look down the court.

"I remember Coach yelling at Rennie to come and set the pick," Wheeler said.

There were two options: Deon Thomas in the opposite lane or Andy Kaufmann just past midcourt.

"Andy broke open," Thomas said. "That was a better path than trying to throw it to me."

All the practice paid off for Wheeler, who hit Kaufmann in stride.

"T.J. threw it perfectly," Kaufmann said. "I wanted to get a good shot instead of a desperate one. The shot went back to basics where it was all about form."

Kaufmann followed his plan. One "gather me" dribble and a shot. Swish.

Bedlam at Assembly Hall and a thrilling 78-77 victory for the Illini.

"That game was like the basketball gods telling us, 'Hey, it's going to be all right,' " Collins said. "When the shot left his hand, it looked like it was going in slow motion, but it always looked as if it was going in."

"The team that was supposed to win won," Thomas said.

After the shot, Kaufmann was buried by teammates and fans.

"Andy did get squished, and I thought we broke his arm," Thomas said.

"I got pinned," Kaufmann said. "The weight got heavier and heavier. I couldn't move. I was just waiting for people to get off. I was helpless to whatever happened."

Wheeler, who threw the winning pass, hugged Collins. In front of the Iowa bench.

"I wasn't getting in that pile," Wheeler said. "We're jumping and celebrating.

When the pile cleared, the players sprinted off to the locker room.

* * * 

Being forever linked is a good thing for Kaufmann and Wheeler.

"Me and Andy got really close," Wheeler said. "My first couple years here, he helped me out a lot. We roomed together on the road. I got to know him and his family."

Twenty-five years later, Wheeler can't believe the way the game ended.

"There were so many crazy, freakish plays that happened in five seconds," Wheeler said.

Now, the secret can be told: On his final pass, Wheeler thinks he stepped on the end line. Today, with replay, the basket might have been waved off.

* * * 

Wheeler's parents, Tom and Linda, were at the Assembly Hall that night. They usually left quickly after the game, stopping for a slice of pizza at Garcia's on Green Street. Then, the 21 / 2-hour drive home to Christopher in southern Illinois.

"In four years, mom and dad missed one home game because of a blizzard," Wheeler said.

Wheeler, 45, now lives in Tolono. His son, J.T., is a senior boys' basketball standout at Unity.

Wheeler has never tried to replicate the play.

"I don't think I could get it to halfcourt now," Wheeler said. "J.T. was like, 'Dad, you want to throw some out here?' I was like, 'No, I might hurt myself.' "

* * * 

On most game days during his Illinois career, Kaufmann would go home for a nap. This time, he changed his routine.

"I decided I was going to clean my car out," he said. "Maybe I should have been doing that my whole career."

The Illini had their pregame meal on the fourth floor of the Chancellor Hotel at the corner of Neil and Kirby.

"I always had a steak, baked potato and salad," Wheeler said.

Then, wearing sweats, they went to the Assembly Hall a half-mile away, to shoot free throws.

"Nothing like in today's game where they damn near have a practice," Wheeler said.

Kaufmann's brother Chad, sister Paula and Paula's husband Peter drove over from Winchester.

Andy's late father, William, was at the game. On the way home, he told Chad, "At least Andy had a signature moment people will remember him by."

After the game, the family went to dinner at the White Horse Inn on Green Street.

"The whole place stood up and cheered for him," his sister said.

Later that night, it was off to Champaign's Tumble Inn.

"When I came in the door, everybody came up to me and said something," Kaufmann said. "Everybody was in a good mood."

Kaufmann, 48, doesn't play much basketball these days. He lives in Winchester with his wife Brittney and kids Annika, Andrew and Adrienne.

Back story

It wasn't just another game. Bruce Pearl made sure of that. And he wasn't even in the building.

In the late 1980s, then-Iowa assistant coach Pearl taped a phone conversation with Thomas, a star at Chicago Simeon. Pearl asked Thomas if Illinois had offered him cash and a car. Pearl forwarded the tape to the NCAA, setting off a lengthy investigation.

Collins, Henson's assistant, was implicated.

Ultimately, Thomas sat out his freshman season in 1989-90. The next year, Illinois was cited for lack of institutional control and banned from the NCAA tournament. It finished 21-10, with Thomas averaging 15 points per game.

Two years later, as the teams lined up for a Thursday night game in Champaign, the hard feelings remained.

"There definitely was a lot of hype," Thomas said. "There was a lot of animosity built up. For me, all that did was elevate the importance of that game. It made me hungrier than I already was. I already hate losing."

Think of the scene in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" with Forest Whitaker playing angry Charles Jefferson.

"It was totally like that," Thomas said. "Every time I played against those guys, I wanted to make sure I did my absolute best that they did not win."

Playing Iowa was different for Collins, too.

"As a rule, games are games," Collins said. "But there was so much negative emotion surrounding that contest. When there's that kind of emotional feelings placed in a game, you want to come out on the winning end."

Most of Thomas' anger was directed at Pearl, who left Iowa before the 1992-93 season.

"This was someone who attempted to take something away from me that I wanted. I wanted to play for the University of Illinois," Thomas said. "My thought process of Pearl was, 'Because I don't want to go to your school, you want to destroy something I've wanted since I was a kid.' That's a hard pill to swallow."

Nothing during gameday stands out for Thomas, "outside the fact that you knew you were playing Iowa."

Collins avoided reading the papers and stayed away from TV and radio.

"I wouldn't have been any help to the team if I spent all my time thinking about Bruce Pearl," Collins said.

Playing the Hawkeyes at home added to Collins' comfort.

"The people of Champaign knew me," he said. "They knew as a recruiter and as an assistant coach, I cherished the job. I would have never done anything to throw mud on that program."

The Illini wanted to win their home games against Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten.

But Iowa meant more.

"Iowa went way off a cliff to destroy not only two people, but to destroy a program and a Hall of Fame coach (in Henson)," Collins said.

"It was that much times 10 when it came to Iowa coming into your house," Thomas said.

Thomas was near the basket when Kaufmann let loose his shot. The shot seemed to take forever.

"I was frozen in time," he said.

He didn't make any gestures toward the Hawkeyes. That was not his style.

The win provided enough vindication.

"You have to sit back and listen to people lie about you and lie about people you care about," Thomas said. "Even though Acie Earl and those guys had nothing to do with it, they still wore that black and gold uniform."

Thomas has no memory of the postgame frenzy.

"Everything's a blur after Andy made that shot," Thomas said. "I don't know if that's good or bad."

The celebrating didn't last long.

"You know how Coach Henson is," Thomas said. " 'It's OK. That's over. Let's get back to work.' "

Illinois hosted Northwestern two days later, beating the Wildcats 82-67 in Champaign.

* * * 

Thomas said he no longer holds a grudge against Iowa.

His late grandmother, Berniece McGary, helped Thomas move on.

"She would always say, 'You forgive people. Because if you don't forgive them, they will hold control over you for the rest of your life,' " Thomas recalled. "I've never wanted to allow people to have control over me."

It took a while.

"I'm not Jesus," Thomas said.

At the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans, Thomas bumped into Pearl near Emeril Lagasse's restaurant.

"He stopped my wife and I and he apologized to me," Thomas said. "He said, 'I am so sorry. I was an overzealous, young recruiter, blah, blah, blah.' I told him, 'Coach, that was over 20 years ago. I accept your apology, but I've moved on from that.' "

Earlier the same night, Pearl bumped into Collins. The coaches had a similar exchange.

"He came up and apologized for the trouble that he caused," Collins said. "He extended his hand. I don't think we shook hands. But I said, 'Yeah, OK.' Then he walked away."

That was the last time "they shared words."

Collins and Pearl coached against each other in the Horizon League, Collins at Illinois-Chicago and Pearl at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. No hand shakes there, either.

"I've tried to put it under the bridge," Collins said. "I have never forgotten it. And I know Deon hasn't.

"Being spiritual, you forgive. Holding a grudge that long does not hurt him, it hurts you."

You won't see Collins rooting for Auburn, Pearl's current team.

"They're playing good ball," Collins said. "I have never said that Pearl was a bad coach. I think he's done a great job with his coaching ability. But I'll still say to this day he's a lousy person."

Collins, 71, lives in Flossmoor. He still follows Illinois.

"I like Brad Underwood," Collins said. "I like the emotion he displays. I like the offense that he runs. To be where the Flyin' Illini was, you need to get some more flyers."

Thomas, 46, is keeping busy. He works as an announcer on the Fighting Illini Sports Network and on BTN. He is also the community coordinator for the UI system with an office in Chicago.

Supporting cast

In 30 years as a major college basketball official, Phil Bova worked more than 1,000 games. Many of them in the Big Ten. Including Illinois-Iowa in 1993.

"There was a lot of tension in that game," Bova said. "You have to have experience on games like that because there is so much at stake."

On Kaufmann's winning shot, Bova was trailing the play. Both hands shot up signaling a three-pointer. Good if it goes.

* * * 

Bova took small planes to many of his assignments. He liked the trips to Champaign-Urbana from his Cleveland-area home.

"Illinois was always a great place to work. The crowd was always into the game," Bova said. "I think the world of Lou Henson."

The 1993 Illinois-Iowa game wasn't the highest-profile moment in Bova's career. That came in 1985 when he was part of the officiating crew when Indiana coach Bob Knight threw a chair across the Assembly Hall court. All of the officials ejected Knight at the same time.

"That was a no-brainer," Bova said. "That was the easiest ejection.

"In pregame, you talk about the unexpected. You certainly don't expect that to happen. He just got caught up in the moment."

Now 71, the 44-year school administrator has been retired from officiating since 2006. All those games, and his own athletic career (he played football, basketball and baseball) took a toll on Bova's legs. He just had his second knee replacement.

Married for 51 years to Donna, Bova has three kids and nine grandkids.

He continues to run his annual baseball camp, which enters its 45th year.

* * * 

The winning basket would have never happened without Richard Keene. The guard hit his fifth three-pointer of the game with less than a minute left to tie the score at 75.

The night before at the Chancellor, Keene hung out with Iowa freshman Kenyon Murray. They were roommates at the 1992 McDonald's All-American Game in Atlanta.

"That was our first game getting to play each other," Keene said. "I had a good relationship with him."

Keene wasn't on the court for Kaufmann's game-winner. Wheeler replaced him, so Keene was on the Illinois bench next to Tom Michael.

"We went sprinting out on the court and that's when everybody rushed the floor," Keene said. "I went to the bottom. Me and Tom Michael joke because there's a picture and you can just see my arm hanging out. The band was on top of me. I think everyone was on top of me. Tom was trying to tug me out of the bottom of the pile."

Keene, 44, lives in The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston. He works in the oil and gas business.

Sara and Richard have three kids. The oldest, 15-year-old R.J., might follow dad into Division I basketball. Just a freshman, he starts for his high school team and scored 27 points in a recent game.

"He's going to have a shot to go pretty high-level," Keene said. "He can shoot it."

His daughter Sophia plays volleyball. His 10-year-old son Howie is named after Keene's dad.

The foil

Jim Bartels played just six minutes that night. He scored five points and had two rebounds. Another role player for the Hawkeyes, right? Hardly.

With the game tied at 75, Earl tried to give his team the lead, but his shot hit the rim and bounced away. Bartels, an Iowa forward, battled with Thomas for the rebound.

Bartels got his hand on the ball, which hit Thomas in the shoulder. Somehow, the ball went off the backboard and into the basket. Iowa 77-75.

"I was reading an article in the paper right afterward and it said that it went off my head," Bartels said.

Not true.

Recently, Bartels found a YouTube video of the play. It confirmed what he remembered.

"I slow mo'd it. I pushed my hands through Deon's arms. It hit on my left hand and his right arm," Bartels said.

Thomas worried he had cost his team the game.

"I felt devastated," Thomas said. "I guess I didn't box out the way I should have. All of that weight fell on me. I took it personally. It was one of the worst feelings in my whole career."

The Hawkeyes celebrated.

"We thought we won," Bartels said. "The clock ran out."

They ran off the court, through the Illinois band. Toward the locker room.

"It was kind of fun," Bartels said.

Not for long. They were told to wait for a minute to see if time was going to be put back on the clock.

Officials Bova, Ted Valentine and Jody Silvester set the clock at 1.5 seconds. The Hawkeyes returned to the court. Bartels was subbed out, leaving Webb to stand tall in front of Wheeler, trying to take away a long pass.

"Our job on the bench was to yell out to Jay not to get a foul running over the screener," Bartels said. "What we should have had was another player to take his spot on the person who was screening, but we were playing a zone on the back end of it."

Kaufmann's shot sent the Hawkeyes back to the locker room. In disbelief.

"I remember thinking, '1.5 seconds ago, we thought we won,' " Bartels said. "A lot of guys were angry that we didn't at least get a hand up or make it a little bit more difficult for Kaufmann to make the shot.

"All the credit in the world to him for making it."

It was Thursday night, and the Hawkeyes flew home immediately afterward.

"It was pretty subdued and quiet," Bartels said. "Everyone sat and didn't say too much to anyone until we got back to Iowa City."

The Iowa players didn't talk about the controversy. Pearl had moved on to Southern Indiana as head coach.

"Coach (Tom) Davis always did a good job of teaching and coaching his players not to get too involved in the newspaper articles or watch too much stuff on TV," Bartels said. "It was out of our control."

The Hawkeyes had no time to rest. They hosted No. 1 Indiana two days later and dropped a 73-66 decision. The hangover lasted another game, with the Hawkeyes losing a close game at Minnesota.

Bartels and friends then ran off five wins in a row and took eight of their last 10, including a 12-point home win against Illinois. The Hawkeyes qualified for the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed and lost in the second round to Wake Forest.

Two weeks before the game at Illinois, Iowa star Chris Street died in a car accident.

"It was very difficult to get over it," Bartels said. "He was part of the family. You're missing a friend. Chris and I were in the same recruiting class. We got to know each other really well."

Bartels, 46, grew up in Freedom, Wis., and lives near his hometown. He is a regional manager for Bolingbrook-based ATI Physical Therapy. Bartels and his wife Rhonda have two daughters.

Voiceovers

Longtime public-address announcer Jim Sheppard needed an assist from the late official scorekeeper Tony Clements after Kaufmann's game-winner.

"It's rather embarrassing," Sheppard said. "I did not actually see Andy getting the shot off because I was blocked by one of Illinois' assistants.

"I see ball go in and the place exploded. I don't know what I was thinking. I turned to Tony and said, 'Did he hit it?' I realized what a dumb question that was. Of course he hit it because the place went crazy."

Clements' reaction?

"He kind of laughed," Sheppard said.

Sheppard composed himself and went back to work.

"My closing statement was, 'We thank you for your attendance. Have a safe journey home.' "

* * * 

Former Illini Doug Altenberger called the game that night on Raycom with Steve Kelly.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Altenberger said. "It was a great game and both teams played really well. It was the most intense rivalry of all the Big Ten schools because of what happened. You still had the players there."

Before the final shot, Kelly set up his partner. In a good way.

"Steve turned to me and said, 'Well, 1.5 seconds.' I said, 'That's a lifetime. You can get a good shot off.' "

Altenberger told the TV audience that the key was the inbounds pass. Good call.

"It was really cool," Altenberger said. "I'm a fan. I'm going crazy, too. As a player, it's what you practice for your whole life. People to this day come up to me and talk about the Andy Kaufmann shot against Iowa."

End credits

Illinois 78, Iowa 77

IOWA (14-4, 3-2 Big Ten)

min fg-fga 3p-3pa ft-fta pf rb a tp

Earl 34 7-18 0-0 5-5 4 6 0 19

Lookingbill 24 5-5 2-2 2-2 1 2 4 14

Barnes 33 4-13 0-3 2-2 1 2 1 10

Winters 16 4-7 0-0 0-0 4 6 0 8

Smith 28 2-4 0-1 0-0 2 0 5 4

Murray 24 2-3 0-0 3-4 2 6 2 7

Webb 11 1-4 0-0 4-4 1 2 2 6

Bartels 6 2-2 1-1 0-0 0 2 0 5

Millard 12 1-3 0-1 2-2 1 3 0 4

Glasper 11 0-0 0-0 0-0 1 1 2 0

Skillett 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 1 0 0 0

Team 1

Totals 200 28-59 3-8 18-19 18 31 16 77

Field goal pct.: 47.5; 3-pt. pct.: 37.5; free throw pct.: 94.7

ILLINOIS (13-6, 6-2 Big Ten)

min fg-fga 3p-3pa ft-fta pf rb a tp

Kaufmann 34 9-16 4-8 3-4 3 0 3 25

Clemons 32 6-9 1-1 2-5 2 5 8 15

Keene 32 5-7 5-7 0-0 3 0 3 15

Bennett 31 3-4 0-0 0-1 4 9 0 6

Michael 4 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0

Thomas 32 6-13 0-0 2-4 3 3 3 14

Wheeler 17 1-6 1-5 0-0 1 2 3 3

Davidson 11 0-0 0-0 0-2 2 4 0 0

Taylor 7 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 0 2 0

Team 4

Totals 200 30-57 11-21 7-16 18 27 22 78

Field goal pct.: 52.6; 3-pt. pct.: 52.4; free throw pct.: 43.8

Halftime score: Illini 44, Hawkeyes 39

Turnovers: Hawkeyes 13 (Earl 5, Barnes, Murray, Smith, Webb, Winters); Illini 14 (Keene 4, Kaufmann 3, Thomas 3, Bennett, Clemons, Davidson, team)

Blocked shots: Hawkeyes 1 (Murray); Illini 4 (Thomas 3, Taylor)

Steals: Hawkeyes 4 (Murray 3, Earl); Illini 6 (Keene 2, Clemons, Kaufmann, Thomas, Wheeler)

Technical fouls: None

Attendance: 14,985

Officials: Phil Bova, Jody Silvester, Ted Valentine

Comments

News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

annabellissimo wrote on February 06, 2018 at 3:02 pm

Maybe an update someday soon could cover the ways in which big issues of ethics, corruption, integrity have followed Bruce Pearl wherever he has gone, including now Auburn. He is no longer the "overzealous, young recruiter," he self-described to Thomas, and even if one chooses to accept his description, it still wouldn't be an acceptable rationale for corrupt behavior.

What so many incidents that have gone against the University of Illinois illustrate - to me anyway - are the many unjust punishments that have been meted out by the NCAA to Illinois while the notoriously debased and corrupt incidents at other schools get a slap on the wrist, a wink and nod, and a "tsk tsk."

Why does Bruce Pearl continue to get hired as a coach? One bad incident, maybe some might say, "oh well, give another chance...." but when they continue, even unto this day? When does a COACH get held accountable?