SAVOY — Kendall and Phoenix Gill were driving to a basketball tournament when the call from one of Phoenix’s basketball coaches came in.
A wide smile flashed across Kendall’s face when he learned that his alma mater, the University of Illinois, presented Phoenix with his first college offer.
”Ever since he was a little boy, he’s an Illinois guy,” Kendall said. “Watches all the games, doesn’t say ‘Illinois,’ he says ‘we’ when he watches the games. I’m just hoping he continues to say ‘we’ over the next two or three years.”
The Gill family was back in Savoy for the 33rd annual Kendall Gill Golf Benefit at the University of Illinois Golf Course on Monday afternoon.
Brad Underwood and Mary Henson were among those on hand for the fundraiser, which featured more than 160 golfers and raised north of $40,000 for the Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana.
Now a sophomore at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, Phoenix and younger brother Kota were on hand for the event as they have been for years.
“I love coming here,” Phoenix said. “Of course, my brother plays golf now. So I’m trying to compete with him. It’s a great event for everybody in the Cunningham Children’s Home.”
Phoenix played seven games during his freshman season at St. Ignatius as the Wolfpack made a run to the Class 3A state tournament at State Farm Center in Champaign. The Wolfpack’s run culminated with a win over Simeon and a third-place finish.
Gill didn’t enter either game the Wolfpack played on Lou Henson Court. The chance to play in the same arena his father called home for four seasons wasn’t lost on him, though.
”It was crazy,” Gill said. “Seeing my dad in the rafters was just surreal.”
Kendall earned his place there following his standout tenure under coach Lou Henson from 1986 through 1990, where he was the fourth-leading scorer on the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini team that went 31-5 and advanced to the Final Four.
Mary Henson had a front-row seat for much of Kendall’s college career, which blossomed under the direction of her late husband. The Charlotte Hornets selected Gill with the fifth overall pick in 1990.
”We’re so proud of the Gills, all of them,” Henson said Monday. “(Phoenix and Kota) came to this outing all during the years, and here they are golfing with their father and that is such a wonderful blessing for an old gal like me to observe.”
As Gill’s involvement with the outing increased, starting with the first outing in 1989 and continuing when he was invited back after his rookie season in 1991, the Hensons became more involved.
It was a wonderful time as the 85-year-old Mary recalls now, often entailing the couple greeting golfers as they made their way to the first hole.
Watching the Gill children grow up has been an added bonus.
”I’d stay alive for a long time if I could watch Phoenix play,” Henson said.
Kendall’s 15-year NBA career included a season with the Chicago Bulls in the 2003-04 season. He still works for the Bulls as a color analyst, a role on NBC Sports Chicago that let him see plenty of former Illini Ayo Dosunmu during his rookie season.
Dosunmu — whose aunt and uncle live next-door to the Gills — has helped key a shift in the conversation surrounding Illini basketball in the Chicagoland area.
“I remember, maybe seven, eight years ago, I’m listening to the radio and they were discussing whether we were a mid-major,” Kendall said. “It really ticked me off. But at the time, we weren’t at the level that we should have been. Now I think we’ve returned to that level. I don’t hear any radio show talking about us as a mid-major.”
Mid-majors and bluebloods will likely continue to court Phoenix as his recruitment continues.
The road ahead will be long — Phoenix hasn’t yet started his sophomore year and faces a landscape routinely altered by conference realignment and name, image and likeness deals, something Kendall noted he’s interested in.
But the Gills’ interest in Illinois is plainly visible. Kendall didn’t mince words when asked what advice he had at the onset of the recruiting process for his oldest son.
”Sign with Illinois,” Kendall said with a subtle smile. “We were very appreciative of the offer that he got from Illinois. And I told him that you didn’t get this because of me, you got this because of your talent.”
Time will tell if Phoenix’s first offer becomes his best.
”It’s a great process,” Phoenix said. “I’ll be looking in on all the offers of course, but I think Illinois is probably the frontrunner right now.”