SAVOY — They had a cool nickname, a boatload of charisma and out-of-this world talent.
So, yes, the Flyin’ Illini would have been worth a bundle with today’s rules on names, image and likeness.
Don’t believe me? Ask one of the stars of the 1988-89 Final Four team.
“It would be great for us if the new rules existed back in 1989,” Kendall Gill said Monday before his annual golf outing to benefit Cunningham Children’s Home.
“I don’t know how much it would be worth, but we would be pretty comfortable college students anyway.”
Gill likes the new rules.
“NCAA players bring value,” Gill said. “Any time you can generate that amount of money, I think the athletes should have a piece of it. Yes, the scholarship is great. But in a lot of cases, it is not of equal value as what they bring in. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand.”
No team in school history had as strong of a following as the Flyin’ Illini. The notoriety stretched far beyond the state borders.
In early December 1988, Illinois plowed No. 19 Florida 97-67. That’s when ESPN announcer Dick Vitate came up with the nickname that endures all these years later.
“Once he gave us that name, you saw T-shirts everywhere,” Gill said. “You saw Flight 33 for Kenny Battle, Flight 25 Nick Anderson, Flight 45 Lowell Hamilton and so on, in bookstores.”
Somebody was making money off their name, image and likeness, just not the players.
“We’re walking past the bookstore and we’re watching everybody buy a T-shirt,” Gill said, “but we don’t get a dime.”
The 1988-89 Illini won a lot of games.
But it was more than that. They had a knack for the dramatic.
Think Anderson’s game-winner at Indiana or the comeback victory against Missouri.
“Any time you have the style of basketball that we played too, which everybody loved and which everybody can identify with, I think that even takes it up a notch,” Gill said. “You look at the 2005 team, a great team. I think everybody would have identified with Dee (Brown), with Deron (Williams), with Luther Head and all those guys. But when you talk about the Flyin’ Illini, we played up there (pointing high above an imaginary rim). That’s where everybody wanted to play.”
Spread the wealthThe Flyin’ Illini weren’t particularly tall. They were balanced, with different guys taking turns in starring roles.
They pushed each other. They pulled for each other.
“We were competitive on the court,” Gill said. “We loved each other. We still talk today. We all still get on Zoom calls today. Anytime you are with a special team, it turns into a family.
“When Coach (Lou) Henson passed away, when Coach (Jimmy) Collins passed away, we all got a on Zoom call just to share our favorite stories about each one of them. How many teams do that?”
If they get sick, they are on the phone. When Gill and Ervin Small got COVID-19, they heard from all their teammates.
“Other college teams, they probably don’t even keep in contact,” Gill said. “But we do.”
If current NIL rules had been in place back in the day, Gill said one teammate would have cleaned up: Battle.
“He was our engine, the guy that really made us go, the leader of our team,” Gill said. “Kenny would have benefited more than anybody because of his outward personality and his ability to lead, how hard he played.
“All of us would have done well. But (Battle) would have been the leader in getting endorsements.”
Had he been allowed to be on commercials, which local company would Gill have pitched for?
“Papa Del’s Pizza,” Gill said. “That’s the best pizza I’ve had ever. Every time I come back to Champaign, I go get one.”
Trim and fit to this day, the 53-year-old Gill doesn’t look like a guy who pounds a lot of pizza.
“I watched this movie called ‘The Game Changers’ and I became a vegeterian,” Gill said. “For three months, I haven’t eaten meat. But I can order a cheese one.”
Words of wisdomCurrently, 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn is deciding between a return to Illinois or a move to another school.
Naturally, Gill has thoughts on the subject.
“I would tell Kofi to come back to Illinois,” Gill said. “I was disappointed that he entered the portal. I understand there are a lot of shiny objects out there, other schools. I don’t think he’s ready for the NBA yet. Of course we know the center position in the NBA has changed. We’ve got centers shooting three-point shots now. But we also have center like Deandre Ayton still stick to the big-man game. If (Kofi) can develop a 15 to 17-foot jump shot, then I think he’ll have a long NBA career. He doesn’t have that yet. He needs to stay in school as long as he can. Preferably here at Illinois.”
The NIL rules will certainly work well for Cockburn, offering him a chance to pick up some spending money.
It figures to be more lucrative for Cockburn in C-U, where he has established a brand and identity. Have to think “Kofi 21” shirts will fly off the shelves locally. Not sure that is as likely in Lexington or Chapel Hill.
“I would hate to see Kofi in another uniform when I already think of him as an Illini,” Gill said. “I tell guys this all the time: ‘You don’t know how much of a benefit it is to graduate from the University of Illinois or attend the University of Illinois after you’re done playing.’ Kids don’t think about that. There is life after basketball.
‘”Thirty-something years later, any one of the Flyin’ Illini can walk down the street in Chicago and everybody will know who they are.”