BLOOMINGTON — Christian Romine’s basketball career has taken him on quite a few stops.
To a near state tournament appearance in high school.
To signing with a Division I program guided by a former NBA coach.
To joining another Division I team closer to his hometown of Mahomet.
To a mental hospital. Yes, a mental hospital.
“I ended up sitting out the first semester dealing with depression,” Romine said of his transfer from Texas El Paso to Illinois State in 2016, “and I went to a mental hospital in Chicago.”
To back on the basketball court. Albeit at an NAIA Division II program, far away from the lights of Division I.
To an abrupt ending with his college career because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To now possibly pursuing a chance to play professionally.
If it seems like a lot, well, it is. But the last time Romine played a competitive basketball game, he had a storybook ending.
“It was definitely one of the best moments of my life,” he said.
Here’s his story.
Making new memories
It was a good flashback for Romine. One of the best the 6-foot-9, 205-pound forward could possibly ask for.
Plenty of photos document Romine’s happiness on the night of March 6, 2015. The reason why?
Romine and his Mahomet-Seymour boys’ basketball teammates had just defeated Centennial 75-59 on the Bulldogs’ home floor to win a Class 3A regional championship.
It was the only regional championship Romine won in his prep career, with the Bulldogs falling just one win shy of the 3A state semifinals five years ago. M-S lost to a loaded Belleville Althoff team — led by 2016 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year Jordan Goodwin — during a 3A super-sectional game.
In the aftermath of that regional final triumph, though, Romine delivered an emphatic hug with coach Chad Benedict and wept tears of joy amid the throngs of fans who celebrated around him.
Almost exactly five years later — on March 1, 2020 — Romine experienced a similar feeling.
“It was chaos,” Romine said. “It brought back memories of my regional championship at Mahomet and just the atmosphere of a smaller gym and just being packed and loud.”
Romine is describing the 72-71 triumph by the Lincoln College men’s basketball team over Collage of Ozarks during the Association of Independent Institutions tournaments championship game in Lincoln almost four months ago.
The victory qualified the Lynx for the NAIA Division II national tournament, the first such postseason qualification for Romine in his well-traveled college career and the program’s first-ever apperance.
Not only that, but the Lynx surpassed the Bobcats because Romine tipped in a Montez Crumble missed shot at the buzzer to give Lincoln its historic win.
“After I made it, I just started screaming,” Romine said, “and everybody — all the fans, our student section — rushed the court.”
This is the sort of moment Romine had dreamt of for years. Through his trials and tribulations in previous hoops stops at Texas-El Paso and Illinois State. During the time he was out of college basketball altogether.
But Romine, like so many other individuals around the United States, couldn’t avoid the effect of COVID-19 on athletics.
Romine’s moment in a national-tournament spotlight ended before it could truly begin. The latest hurdle in a college basketball career full of them.
“It’s a difficult way to end the season, especially not having any sort of control over what happened and how the season ended,” Romine said. “It was very difficult to deal with and hard to come to grasp with.”
Romine committed to Tim Floyd’s UTEP men’s basketball program in September 2014, before Romine’s senior season at M-S.
The plan was for Romine to redshirt. But injuries throughout Floyd’s lineup resulted in Romine getting some minutes as a true freshman during the 2015-16 season.
By April 2016, though, Romine had announced he was transferring from UTEP. The next month, Romine signed with Illinois State. A new college home, however, didn’t mean all was well in Romine’s world.
Romine returned to Normal for the second semester of classes after his struggles with mental illness. By the time that school year ended, Romine was an Illinois State student only and not an athlete. He never played a single game with coach Dan Muller’s program.
“I had a meeting with Coach Muller and kind of just talked about what the future was going to look like,” Romine said, “and I decided it would be best for me to just stop basketball and just focus on academics.”
The business major said he had “no real intention of playing again.” The itch still was there — Romine pointed to a summer 2019 conversation with his father in which the younger Romine admitted he still wished to suit up — but Romine also was prepared to move on with his life.
He completed his junior year of academics at Illinois State. Then, at the outset of the first semester of his senior year, Lincoln College assistant coach Edwind McGhee contacted Romine.
The Lynx wanted see if Romine was interested in playing basketball again.
He’d received one last shot.
“I called him that night and just got the process rolling,” Romine said. “Played an open gym with the team and got enrolled in classes (the following week), and I’ve just been there ever since.”
McGhee told Romine he would receive key minutes as a scholarship player for head coach Pat Lepper’s Lynx, who were coming off a 22-8 record during the 2018-19 season.
“It just sounded like the opportunity I’ve been really wanting,” Romine said. “That’s all I could really imagine doing.”
Romine made the decision to continue living on the Illinois State campus, commuting from Normal to Lincoln so he wouldn’t break his housing lease.
Romine didn’t even get to compete during his first semester as Lincoln struggled to a 5-10 mark through the end of 2019.
“We would have 6 a.m. practice most days … and just getting adjusted to those early-morning practices and learning different coverage calls for screens and different things (was difficult),” Romine said. “About a month into it, I started getting a little better flow in practice and started to really elevate my game.”
Romine made his first appearance for the Lynx on Jan. 1 and nearly posted a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds in an 82-66 win over St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
Romine started in all but two of the 18 games for which he was eligible. And he was making a legitimate impact for Lincoln, which lost only three games in that stretch.
“It’s honestly very hard to put into words — the amount of stuff that I’ve gone through in the past three years with mental depression and fighting through all that,” Romine said. “Just imagining (10) months ago, I wasn’t even thinking about playing basketball. I was thinking about what I’m going to do after I graduate from ISU. So it’s honestly just a huge life-turner, and I just can’t thank God enough.”
Benedict had occasional conversations with Romine between Romine’s high school graduation and his arrival at Lincoln. Benedict, no longer the M-S boys’ basketball coach, was thrilled when Romine decided to transfer closer to home at Illinois State.
And he was just as happy to see Romine return to the hardwood with the Lynx.
“His journey was a little different than some,” said Benedict, currently the principal at M-S. “It becomes different when you’re one of the parents sitting in the stands and you coached him and you’re not on the sideline with him. Just to see him compete again and have fun doing it, I’m just super proud of him.”
Benedict surprised Romine by showing up to the Association of Independent Institutions conference final to watch the game.
“I had no clue that they were coming to the game,” Romine said of Benedict and current M-S boys’ assistant coach Ryan Martin. “I was really happy to see them.”
Everyone associated with and cheering for Lincoln was happy that Romine managed to get his fingers on that loose basketball to produce the game-winning points during the memorable finish.
“He was on the bottom of the pile, and I was kind of worried about him,” Benedict said. “He’s been through a lot. The thing I admire about him is he’s been pretty open and honest about it. He hasn’t shied away from it. That’s good for people to see and read about. There are probably people who have been in his situation at one time or another.”
Romine and his Lincoln teammates drew an difficult assignment in the NAIA D-II tournament’s first round, as an eighth seed against top seed Olivet Nazarene.
But the Lynx had at least one game regardless of the outcome. It was scheduled to tip at noon on March 12.
Romine and Co. departed Lincoln on March 9 and practiced at the University of Iowa that day on their way to Sioux Falls, S.D.
The party arrived at their ultimate destination that evening, then practiced the following two days.
On March 12, the Lynx ate breakfast at a nearby IHOP around 9 a.m. They arrived at the Sanford Pentagon, home of the tournament, and took some photos. The team was in a hallway, waiting for a signal to take the floor after the preceding game, when Lepper told the men to return to their locker room.
“And he told us they canceled the tournament because of the coronavirus,” Romine said. “It was definitely out of the blue. I was not expecting that to happen.”
Just like that, Romine’s basketball career hit another stumbling block.
“But I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason,” Romine said. “I don’t want to get too upset about it.”
Lepper addressed his team, letting his athletes know how proud he was of them, before the outfit hopped back on its bus and returned to Lincoln that night.
“I do wish that we were able to play in the tournament,” Romine said, “so we were able to put our name even more on the map and shock the world. I’m still very happy with how the season ended.”
The 2019-2020 season technically was Romine’s final season, since he never fully redshirted at UTEP and simply didn’t play during the subsequent three seasons.
Prior to the NAIA D-II tournament, Romine said he had one semester of eligibility remaining but was working on getting another. After the event’s cancellation, though, Romine spoke more about finishing up classwork online and then turning his attention to basketball camps and getting his name out to professional teams overseas.
So the future is uncertain for Romine. Par for the course in his time once he stopped playing for Mahomet-Seymour.
And yet, Romine came out on the other side.
Who’s to say more hoops accolades aren’t in store?
“His route has been a valley of ups and downs,” Benedict said. “It’s just really hard to put into words. I get goosebumps thinking about it. He’s a special kid.”