In recent years, State Farm Center — and many road arenas — included a whole bunch of Zach Griffith rooters.
Surely, they would have erupted Tuesday night when the pride of Fisher and senior walk-on for the No. 4 Illinois men’s basketball team scored a late bucket in the Illini’s 76-53 rout of No. 2 Michigan at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Or last Thursday night when the 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward started his first college game for the Illini on Senior Night against Nebraska.
Before the pandemic started, his mom Kim and her husband John never missed an Illinois game. Zach’s dad Steve was always there. So were Zach’s grandparents Bill and Jody and Bob and Gloria, Zach’s brother Nick, stepsister Cassidy (an Illinois student) and family friend James.
“We love it,” Kim told me this week. “We’ve been huge Illini fans all of our lives. To have him on the team has just been a blast to follow them and go everywhere.”
Unfortunately that hasn’t been possible this season.
COVID-19 didn’t wreck Zach’s senior year. He plays for one of the best teams in the country, which is on its way to a possible No. 1 seed in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013.
It’s a long way from ruined.
But different? And disappointing? Absolutely.
Zach, a former manager with Brad Underwood’s program, is in his third season on the Illini roster, playing college basketball at his dream school 25 minutes from home. And yet, he hasn’t seen his family since the summer. That’s eight months and counting.
Of course, Zach misses them all.
“It’s been tough,” Zach said. “They’ve come to every home game since I’ve played. They’ve obviously watched and followed along on TV (this season), but it’s been hard not seeing them in the stands.”
He is not alone among the Illini missing their families and friends.
“That’s for everybody. It’s actually helped our team grow closer together because we can’t really see anybody outside the program,” Zach said. “We’ve spent a lot of time together and had those conversations we haven’t been able to have in the past. It’s actually been positive in that aspect.”
Zach lives with teammate Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. The rest of the players are in the same apartment building.
“They go up and down to each other’s rooms,” Kim said. “They play cards, video games, watch TV. When the weather was good, they could go out on walks.”
Constant contactKim is the Vice President of Operations and IT at Champaign’s Health Alliance. She is in the middle of a busy stretch, working on a lengthy, important project.
But she always makes time for Zach. The two communicate daily by text. And on FaceTime when they can.
In the afternoon on game days, Kim and John both text Zach. So does Steve, who lives near Fisher.
As soon as the game ends, Kim and John text Zach again. Later, a “ding” means a reply from Zach.
Like all parents, Kim wishes she could see Zach in person. But she understands the reasons.
Zach did visit the house once in the fall. Briefly. Zach was in a wedding in Bloomington and, with Underwood’s blessing, was allowed to attend (then quarantine afterward).
Zach needed to pick up a pair of dress shoes, so he stopped home, quickly dashed to his room and was out the door. A quick “Hi. Bye.”
“That was the last time I visually saw him other than on TV,” Kim said. “I feel like I look at the bench as much as I watch the game, but that’s not really true.
“I love to see what he looks like. Does he look like he’s happy?”
The answer is a resounding “yes.”
With the exception of Tyler Underwood, none of the Illini families live closer to State Farm Center than Zach’s family.
The players are following the rules. Strictly.
“I’ll admit, there’s been a couple times, I’ve been, ‘Sure, we could connect for a minute here or there. Put a mask on and go eat at Billy Barooz,’” Kim said. “He’s like, ‘No, I can’t. What if something happens? That would be terrible.’ And I’m like, ‘It would be.’”
When Zach returned to the team in the summer, Kim was hopeful conditions would improve enough that she could attend the Illinois games this season.
Zach pictured a Senior Night like the one that ended the 2019-20 season, a raucous atmosphere during a close win against Iowa. That was the last time Kim attended an Illinois game.
Before COVID-19, game days for the family followed a routine. They would stop for a quick dinner in C-U, making sure to get to their seats an hour before tip.
Now, game days are spent at home in front of the TV.
At times, Kim stands during the action. She doesn’t yell much. John does.
“It’s pretty entertaining,” Kim said.
On Tuesday night, Kim and John watched Illinois dominate Michigan in a game that captivated the country’s attention. The fact her son had a late basket in the rout added to the satisfaction Kim has felt watching her son these last three seasons.
“I was on my feet already,” Kim said. “I jumped up and screamed, ‘Woohoo! He made it. Yay.’
“I got choked up a little bit.”
Circle the dates
Great news for Zach, Kim and the rest of the Griffith family: The isolation is winding down. If the Illini reach their ultimate goal and play for the national championship, the season is guaranteed to end April 5. In nearby Indianapolis.
If the big trophy heads two hours west, count on the socially distanced party of all parties in Fisher.
Kim is hoping to see Zach and the rest of the Illini on the court during the NCAA tournament, where fans will be allowed to attend. Parents and families of players and coaches are expected to be first on the list to receive tickets. Kim hasn’t heard any details about the tickets, but is planning ahead. She scheduled time off from work during the tournament and has hotels booked in Indianapolis for each round.
“I want to be at every single game,” Kim said.
In Indy, Kim knows she won’t get to visit with Zach before or after the games. The players will be locked down.
That’s OK. They’ll make sure Zach knows his family — and the Fisher community — is behind him.