CHICAGO — Giorgi Bezhanishvili had a simple message for the elbow-to-elbow crowd packed into the Park Grill Plaza at Millennium Park: There’s no such thing as a bad dancer, the Illini sophomore told the fans in attendance at Illini Fest.
Then Bezhanishvili got down to business. The Georgian big man broke down some salsa dance steps while making two things abundantly clear. It was all about the hips and feet. After his quick lesson, Bezhanishvili got several fans on stage to help him demonstrate the moves.
“Really simple,” Bezhanishvili said about his lesson. “I showed them a couple really, really basic moves that everybody can do and have fun and feel great.”
Bezhanishivili was one of the hit attractions to Thursday’s Illini Fest, which was scheduled in conjunction with Big Ten football media day in Chicago. Illinois football coach Lovie Smith, players Reggie Corbin, Alex Palczewski and Nate Hobbs and athletic director Josh Whitman also made appearances.
“It was a great opportunity to show what I do — put on a show for people, entertain them and have fun,” Bezhanishvili said.
Illini Fest wasn’t just an Illinois athletics event. Several different academic programs had tables set up, and Chancellor Robert Jones was in attendance and spoke to the crowd after Bezhanishvili’s salsa lesson.
An hour after Wednesday morning’s practice concluded, Ayo Dosunmu was still getting shots up under the watchful eye of assistant coach Chin Coleman.
“It really was a concerted effort by all parts of the university to come together in one place in one time for a three-hour period to celebrate all that’s the University of Illinois,” Jones said. “It’s about all the university coming in to remind our alums that we’re still a pretty outstanding university and to remind others in Chicago of the value proposition and the innovation and economic vitality the university has brought to the entire state and the city of Chicago.”
Cassie Arner coordinated the DIA portion of the event. Bringing in Bezhanishvili, the associate athletic director for marketing, fan development and strategic communication said, was an easy choice.
“I had to ask one time, and that was it and he was on board,” Arner said. “It makes sense to bring your athletes up, but if you can have them do something that shows their personality and what kind of people they are that’s what endears them to the fan base. Giorgi is, I think, so much more than a basketball player to our fans, and it’s because he’s got such a great personality. He’s well rounded. There’s more to him than just playing hoops.”
Jon Rothstein - college basketball insider for CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated as well as an AP Top 25 voter - has Illinois ranked at No. 7 in the Big Ten.
Hard rains on Thursday had Arner a little concerned — particularly about the sound system set up — but the skies cleared by afternoon. The temperature in Chicago spiked during the three-hour event, but plenty of food and drink was available for the fans in attendance.
“This has been amazing,” Arner said about the turnout. “I think what’s been great about it is every unit on campus has had some play in putting this together. It’s not just athletics and it’s not just public affairs. You see something from every college — every unit — we have.”
Illinois offered Class of 2021 prospect JT Thor - the fourth this month for the Illini along with Class of 2020 guards Dalen Terry, Ishmael Leggett and Sardaar Calhoun.
Fans packed the Park Grill Plaza — in the shadow of the Bean — within a half hour of the 3 p.m. start, with more filing in as the afternoon progressed. That type of crowd is something Bezhanishvili said he expected.
“As I said in our interviews last year, we have a top five fan base in the country,” he said. “All the alumni always come back to school events like this. Like I always say, it’s a family thing. It’s great to see the big, orange family here.”