A Former Player’s Reaction

After a year hiatus, the NCAA Tournament has definitely provided ‘Madness’ this March.

Everyone loves to see a big upset…until it happens to your team!

My team, the Fighting Illini, was playing as well as anyone in the country. They’d only lost one game since mid-January. They won the BigTen Tournament Championship the week prior and were clicking on all cylinders as a #1 seed. I picked them to win the whole thing. A little bit of bias? Maybe. But they were legit contenders. 

Then they got upset, losing to 8-seeded Loyola Chicago 58-71 in the Round of 32. The season for one of Illinois’ best teams in its storied history came to an abrupt end. March Madness can be cruel. 

I’ve been able to do radio and tv work for the team throughout the season, and I have had many people ask how I’m feeling since the disappointing finish. Some thoughts…

No one hurts as much as the players and coaches do. We may feel invested from the stands or our couches at home, but it doesn’t compare to the blood, sweat, and tears the players have put in. They’ve invested years of their life and sacrificed much to compete at this level.

I don’t stress over games. As a former player, I’ve been on that roller-coaster before. I know what it’s like to live with every win/good performance and die with every loss/bad performance. At some point in my career, I discovered that the more I could distance myself from the outcome, the more I could enjoy the journey…and life in general. I also discovered when I wasn’t caught up with results, I played with more freedom and ultimately performed better. As a pro, my play paid the bills, so why would I now lose sleep over someone else’s play?

More than a game. I’d be lying if I said, “It’s just a game.” Sports matter. They bring people together. They provide opportunities for growth, entertainment, employment, and more. In a college town like Champaign, the success of the University of Illinois’s sports teams brings attention, revenue, and lifted spirits to the entire community. That said, sports aren’t everything. There are far more important things, and I try to maintain that perspective.

What you want is the opportunity. A year ago, Illinois’s basketball team was red hot at the end of the season. They had the momentum and the ability to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, the tournament was called off because of Covid. No opportunity. Ultimately, what you want is the opportunity to step between the lines and compete. As a player, I wanted to be in the game. As a fan, I’m just thankful to be able to enjoy the games.

Fan, not frontrunner. Fans support their team through the good and bad. And it’s after a loss or poor performance when the players benefit from true fans most. This doesn’t mean you can’t be critical, but please never attack the person because of their play. I did some analyst work this season, and I’m okay with saying, “He needs to step up,” or “They got out-played/coached/toughed today.” Win or lose, I’m going to support my Fighting Illini. But I’m also cheering for the game overall. I love to hear the stories of how an individual improved through years of hard work and how a team bonded together through adversity. In the end, I’m a fan of the game and desire to see it continue to progress, benefiting more and more people on the way.

The gyms aren’t packed with fans, but basketball (and the NCAA Tournament) are back. No matter the outcomes or how busted your bracket, that is a kind of madness to enjoy!

Don’t look too close at my bracket!

Here’s another piece I wrote in my local newspaper (The News-Gazette) last week on the Illini basketball team and what I’ve taken from them.

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