Illustration by Mitch Handsone

Illini in the Air

EVEN NONVIOLENT FANATICISM can be irritating, from the donning of chicken suits and cheese-wedge hats to the pathological staring at a televised basketball game (on my right) while (on my left) auto-updates, play-by-play, the same game: Illinois basketball versus anyone. I’m an addict. I haven’t lived in Champaign, Illinois, since 1978 and did not attend the university there, but from each late autumn to the following spring, I enter into a series of trances — once or twice a week, two hours or so at a time — during which the quality of my life is inseparable from the quality of the University of Illinois men’s basketball team. In such states of mind, I even ignore the team’s ridiculous, racist name: The Fighting Illini!

It helps to know I’m not alone. This year my addiction feels less shameful than usual, because so many others are paying attention to the same thing. The 2004-2005 season is Illini basketball’s 100th, and the team is exceptional. Much energy and synergy and talent; graceful, selfless, smart, powerful, connected; when they’re in rhythm, it’s almost ballet. As of this writing, they’re 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in all major polls; of the 560 minutes of basketball they’ve played so far this season, they’ve trailed for only 21 minutes, 32 seconds.

And then the trance ends, and I’m left wondering whether it’s a blessing or a curse or, like most mysteries, a bit of each.


THE GIANT GLOWING WHITE FLYING SAUCER docked on the south side of Champaign-Urbana was called Assembly Hall. Completed in 1963, architect Max Abramovitz’s majestic concrete dome loomed 128 feet high and 400 feet in diameter, supported by a 614-mile wrap of quarter-inch steel wire, with comfortable seating for 16,000 inside. Assembly Hall was where we watched basketball.

Hessel Park was where we played it. From early spring through autumn and into the first few snows, we played outdoors, in the park. And in winter we walked a mile or so or drove with parents to watch the Illini play indoors, in the flying saucer.

Between sixth and seventh grade, I stood just 59 inches high but hadn’t yet dismissed the possibility of becoming a professional basketball player. I was fast, was an excellent passer and ball handler, and had a mean high-arcing perimeter shot; MVP of my sixth-grade team, even. Under 5 feet, with a joosh last name. That’s confidence. In seventh grade, I’d reach 62 inches, but the coach wouldn’t even let me try out, citing health concerns: "You’ll get murdered out there! Not on my watch!" (Asshole. I can get murdered anywhere; at least out there it would’ve been fun.)

Probably just as well. Indoor basketball, on wood, in a gymnasium, was a different game, with a different music to it, as if a vital part of the experience was the timbre of the ball hitting the asphalt and caressing the chain-link net. Playing on indoor courts, with their harsh echoes and hecklers and anti-whip nylon nets, was like playing a different instrument.

(Seriously — MVP of my sixth-grade team. I’m gonna get so laid.)


NO SPECIFIC TIME TO SHOW UP at Hessel Park, no schedule. You’d just show up. Show up and shoot around, and pretty soon someone else would show up — Phil Brown, generally, or Curtis McFarland, or both — and you’d go one-on-one, rotating, until Curtis’ older twin brothers, Laurence and Clarence, arrived, at which time it went to two-on-two, until Darrell Hines, Richie Turner and Ernie "Flapjacks" Rivers showed up, followed by Kevin Wenzel, sometimes, or Bill Taylor, or some new kid. Sometimes even James Beberman. We’d play all day, breaking only for McDonald’s and minor injuries.

Laurence and Clarence McFarland were the best guys out there. Then Curtis, then me, then everyone else. Flapjacks Rivers — so named because when he sat down with his shirt off, his belly fat looked like the side view of a stack of pancakes — was the Fat Albert of the bunch, but much quicker than you’d think to look at him; an excellent psychological weapon against roving gangs of basketball-wielding foreigners.

James Beberman was also quite good. Like me, short and fast, with a joosh last name. Neither James nor I knew how to actually be joosh (James thought it was called filtered, rather than gefilte, fish), but our last names gave us license, we felt, to taunt one another with faux-stereotypic joosh basketball banter, courtside.

"Shlomo — again with the double-dribble, already?"

"Dunk, Ira! Dunk!"

James’ father, Max, was a pre-eminent mathematician, one of the leaders of the "new math" movement. Max died while teaching in London, and the surviving Bebermans returned to Champaign, to a big stone house way up on Highland Avenue. The Beberman castle — it really felt like a small, humble castle — was a great mess, always. No rotting food or animal poo, but books all over the place, papers everywhere, boxes stacked and furniture strewn in pathways. And a wandering pet duck named Ducky.

One of James’ older brothers owned multiple copies of every issue of Playboy published since the dawn of airbrushed nipples, and these filled the built-in bookcases on either side of the fireplace in the basement. There was also a beat-up piano down there, somewhere, under some boxes and books, and a television that seemed to receive only Los Angeles Lakers basketball games.

While living in London, you see, young James Beberman had somehow become a huge Lakers fan. "Man oh man oh man oh man!" James would chant/shout in his slightly English accent as we sat on the floor watching the amazing early-’70s Lakers. "The Lakers are God!" I’d sort of admired the Bucks and the Knicks — especially Oscar Robertson and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe — but I really didn’t consider any team to be "my" team.

So it was James’ fault. He got me addicted to his Lakers. We’d hang out there in the castle basement, watching Chamberlain, Goodrich, West et al., drinking strawberry sodas, eating candy bars and browsing ancient Playboys at halftime. I began to lose interest in the Illini.


THE TRANCES BEGAN YEARS LATER, after I’d moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t have the money for Lakers tickets, but I watched them on television, and the whole spectacle seemed rather drab and rehearsed. Maybe I never really cared about the Lakers, I only cared about the Lakers in Beberman’s basement, among the musty magazines and the ghosts in the picture tube.

But then one evening an Illini basketball game came on — a home game, televised from my beloved old flying saucer. And even with the harsh sounds and dorky commentators, I could somehow hear the ball bouncing on the asphalt, could smell the grass of Hessel Park — and I couldn’t turn it off.

Speaking of which: I gotta go. SportsCenter’s on. Gotta see highlights. Gotta.


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