Getting the talent back
SAVOY — Kendall Gill emerged from his black sport utility vehicle, shaking hands, posing for pictures and sharing hugs with fans and old friends.
The main attraction at Monday’s 25th Cunningham Children’s Home golf outing at the University of Illinois Golf Course, Gill didn’t mince words when the topic turned basketball.
The last two weeks, the former Fighting Illini great was meeting and greeting the new crop of NBA players calling summer league games in Orlando and Las Vegas for NBA TV. What struck Gill was he saw just one former Illini among them, Brandon Paul, a member of the Chicago Bulls’ summer league roster who didn’t dress while recovering from a shoulder injury.
Only two former Illini, Brooklyn’s Deron Williams and Portland’s Meyers Leonard, are currently on NBA rosters.
“Hopefully we can get some more guys in the league soon,” Gill said.
Gill, who spent 15 seasons in the NBA after an All-American career at Illinois, said it goes back to recruiting. But in recent years, the state’s top basketball talent — from Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor to others — has gone elsewhere. Gill, though, thinks he’s got a solution to the blue-chip drought.
“We’ve got to get the state tournament back in Champaign,” he said.
The IHSA tournament was held on the UI campus for seven decades before moving to Peoria’s Civic Center, where it’s been staged every year since 1996.
Last month the university and local tourism bureau, Visit Champaign County, announced they would be submitting a bid to the IHSA to host the tournament at State Farm Center starting in 2016.
“We all grew up, myself, Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty, Ben Wilson, Stephen Bardo, Lowell Hamilton, Kenny Battle, we all grew up watching the state tournament in that building,” Gill said. “It was the destination, the place we wanted to play. The kids these days don’t see that. They see it down at Peoria, and that’s not a destination for them. They want to go to a big school.
“I had dinner with Nick when I was in Orlando last week, and he said that’s the key because that’s where we wanted to end up. We wanted to play in Assembly Hall. That’s the key to getting our guys back. We grew up visualizing ourselves in the state tournament and getting there and playing there since we were 9 years old. We kind of had an allegiance to that place, and we’ve got to get that back.”
This is the 25th consecutive year that Gill has returned to the area to headline the Cunningham Children’s Home outing. He has helped raise more than $800,000 for children and adolescents with serious emotional and behavioral disabilities.
“Sam Banks was really key in getting me involved, and I just really felt passionate about helping children,” Gill said. “It means everything because when I committed to helping the Cunningham Children’s Home, I was committed and it was a lifelong commitment. This wasn’t just something to do for a couple of years. A lot of the people you see here now were here 25 years ago. It’s good that all of us stayed with it and continued to raise money for the Cunningham Children’s Home.”
Paul on the mend
Gill visited with Paul, a former Illini trying to crack an NBA roster over the weekend in Las Vegas. The 6-foot-4 Paul, a 2013 Illinois graduate, was assigned to compete with the Bulls this summer before an injury to his right shoulder sidelined him.
“Brandon told me he had been doing really well, and the report I got back from the Bulls was that he had been doing really well,” Gill said. “Hopefully he can come back from that injury and get an opportunity in the league.”
Paul spent the majority of the 2013-14 season playing professionally in Russia before returning to the States to play in the NBA’s Developmental League.