CHAMPAIGN — This stinks.
Instead of packing for Indianapolis and my first Big Ten tournament in years, I am banging out a column about an event that will never happen.
Then, a flash on the phone late Thursday afternoon: the NCAA tournament is canceled, too.
In a day, we went from the excitement of basketball tournaments to a break from sports. Of an undetermined length.
Sports have been my life for as long as I can remember. I started following college football at age 9 and baseball, basketball and the rest soon after.
I define special moments in my life with the sporting events that were going on at the time. My son was born the weekend of The Masters. My wedding coincided with the NBA Finals and O.J. Simpson’s Bronco ride (that counts as sports).
I remember where I was when Hank Aaron hit No. 715 (living room on 65th Street), when the U.S. beat the Russians in hockey (cooking pizza at Godfather’s) and when Sid Bream scored the game-winning run in the 1992 NLCS (News-Gazette newsroom).
I have been a sportswriter for most of four decades. It’s what I call myself. Proudly.
But there won’t be much sportswriting needed in the coming weeks.
Sports are going on hiatus. Like our favorite TV shows in the summer.
Thank goodness for streaming services, which keep “Seinfeld” and “24” alive. And thank goodness for DVD box sets. Time to watch “The Godfather” and “Homeland,” which I have been saving for a rainy day. The time is now.
This is not to complain. The decisions to shelve sports in the United States for the time being is 100 percent correct.
The nation needs to heal. As soon as possible. We all must do our part. Help a neighbor get food or medicine. Volunteer in the community. Listen to the folks in charge and follow instructions.
Mostly, I feel bad for the players and their families: For Illinois and the other 13 schools in the Big Ten. And the other 67 schools that would have been a part of March Madness.
In the Big Ten tournament, two games were played Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Minnesota beating Northwestern and Indiana knocking off Nebraska.
Those teams got to experience the joy of postseason basketball. For a moment at least.
The other 10 schools never even got to take a shot that counted.
Wash the gear — thoroughly. Then pack it up and store it for next season. And pray next season happens.
Think about all the time and effort the Illini, and every other team, put in to this point. It didn’t start in the fall. It goes way back before then.
Illinois went from a 21-loss team, the most in school history, to a Big Ten title contender. You don’t do that overnight.
Brad Underwood and his staff brought in the right set of players. Strength coach Adam Fletcher helped build their bodies. Trainer Paul Schmidt kept them healthy. (Ayo Dosunmu missed only one game after a scary-looking injury last month).
It took two years of losing, sometimes in a big way, before the team turned the corner. Which it did, ahead of everyone’s schedule ... other than the folks at Ubben.
Led by star Dosunmu and freshman phenom Kofi Cockburn, the team made Illini basketball relevant again. And fun. My brother, who lives in a faraway state, tuned in to every game. Just to see Dosunmu and pals.
Illinois finished a game behind Big Ten co-champions Wisconsin, Michigan State and Maryland. If the Illini had been able to hold on to a late lead at College Park, Md., back in December (boy, does that seem like eons ago) or in the final ticks at home against the Spartans, they could have won the Big Ten title. Oh-so-close.
It would have been nice to see the team compete for three more days. In Thursday’s paper, I picked the Illini to reach the Big Ten title game. Against Michigan State.
We will never know. But I think I was on to something.
In their corner
Consider all the time Dosunmu’s family put in this season, going to every game, home and away.
Cheering and encouraging. Quam and Jamarra have been fixtures in Big Ten arenas since their son arrived on campus.
They were ready and willing to follow Illinois to the NCAA tournament. Oh, well. Maybe next year.
The assumption has always been this would be Dosunmu’s final season of college basketball. And that still might be the case. He has time to make a decision. Dosunmu doesn’t need to declare for the draft until April 22.
Right now, there is no NBA. The league is taking an indefinite break. I’m very hopeful that pro basketball resumes. But if it doesn’t, could Illinois get its star back for another year? A question better left for another day.
The Illini didn’t become an NCAA tournament-worthy team on the strength of just two players. It took a village.
Senior Andres Feliz saved his best for last. After a solid junior season, the transfer from Northwest Florida State was third on the team in scoring.
Unafraid, he took the ball at the trees inside and made I-can’t-believe-he-did-that baskets.
On the Senior Day celebration at the Illini Rebounders luncheon last Friday, Feliz introduced his parents, Teresa and Rodolfo, who took the long trip from the Dominican Republic.
It was a cool moment, one of many for Feliz this season.
He turned into one of the most beloved players on the team. Fans liked his grit and fearlessness. Too bad we won’t get to see him play again in a Illinois uniform as Feliz will be talked about in Champaign-Urbana for years to come.
So will Da’Monte Williams, who has more time in college. The son of Illni legend Frank Williams, the soft-spoken Peorian plays like a senior. He does all the little things. Diving on the court for a loose ball, grabbing a clutch rebound and nailing a three-pointer when the offense is struggling.
His final season could be special.
The current Illinois team needs to celebrated. In a grand style.
But there is a problem: Crowds are discouraged. Rightfully so.
But they won’t be forever. The smart doctors and scientists across the country will figure it out. Perhaps a former Illini comes up with a solution.
When the time is right, invite the 2019-20 Illinois men’s basketball team back to campus for the party of all parties.
Open Memorial Stadium and tell anyone and everyone. Put the season highlights on the videoboard, introduce the players, coaches and their families and let the cheering begin.
And bring a banner that will later hang at the State Farm Center: NCAA tournament qualifiers.
Close the ceremony with a simple statement: “See you in November.”