Shooting a dream

By Derek Barichello

It was love at first sight.

Introduced to the game by her older brother and sister on a miniature Dr. J hoop in the basement at the age of four, basketball became her passion.

All Lori Bjork ever needed was a hoop and a ball. From then on, she spent her childhood shooting away the Iowa daylight in her driveway, most of the time alone.

“I could go play in my own little world,” Lori said.

The hours flew by like seconds and the shots piled up like mountains for a girl who wished those shots would someday be in front of thousands in a first-class arena.

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“I wanted to play Division-I college basketball,” Lori said. “That’s my competitive nature. I’ve always wanted to prove that I could make it.”

To get there, it took a lot of time and hard work. On her walks to and from grade school, she would dribble a basketball.

“When she crossed the street, the crossing guard would make her walk it across,” her mother, Louila Bjork said.

When it came time for the Bjork family to buy a new house, one preference was a must.

“I told the contractor to get the driveway flat as possible so Lori could play,” Lori’s father, Alan said.

As Lori grew older, her love for basketball continued to grow. She played in more organized leagues and even competed with boys.

“It taught her how to pass and defend,” Alan said. “It’s always easier to learn when everyone you are playing against is just as good or better.”

Lori’s family was always supportive of her goal, especially her father, a former player himself at a small liberal arts college.

He coached her in elementary school and would take her across the state when she was in junior high school to play in tournaments.

“She said to me once, ‘Dad, don’t you ever get tired of driving me places?’ And I told her I would if you didn’t care,” Alan said. “But when you love somebody, it’s so enjoyable to see them doing something that they love.”

After junior high school, Lori took her game to new heights, starring at her small hometown high school. Her dream was starting to take shape.

Lori made the All-State team her junior and senior years, and averaged 18.3 points on 46 percent shooting (38 percent from beyond the arc) in her senior year. She was ranked the 130th-best player in the country by All-Star Girls Report.

Lori was happy to hear her favorite team, Drake, was interested. Her parents had season tickets to the men’s games and she was a ball girl for the women’s team.

But she could not turn down the spotlight of a Big Ten school. She chose Illinois.

“She said to me that Christmas before leaving, ‘Mom, I did it. My dream had come true,'” Louila said.

On Oct. 30, she put on the Orange and Blue and took the floor for the first time.

It did not take long for her character to be felt. After a poor start in an exhibition game on Nov. 7, Lori kept shooting until she found her stroke and finished the game with a game-high 11 points, nine of those coming from downtown.

In the press conference after the game, when asked why she kept shooting, she said it gave her confidence knowing she could get a shot wedged between the rim and the backboard, to which head coach Theresa Grentz smiled at her and said “never change.”

Lori is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy season for the Illini women. She averages 9.6 points per game in only her freshman year, showing her potential on Feb. 9 against Wisconsin.

In that game, she shot 4-of-8 from three point land, torching the Badgers for a career-high 27 points. More importantly, she refused to give up when the team fell behind by double digits and brought them within four, before eventually losing.

Her recent success has Grentz calling Lori the team’s go-to player.

“It’s not fair to put a freshman, someone that young, in this situation,” Grentz said. “At the same time, this is the situation that life presents and this is what we need to do. Lori has worked very hard. I have all the confidence in the world that I’ll give her the ball.”

Given Lori’s past, it’s no surprise Grentz feels Lori is someone that can lead the Illini to greener pastures in the future.

“She’s someone who cares; she has a lot of pride,” Grentz said. “As time goes on she’ll learn that it hurts, she doesn’t want to feel (losing) too many more times and will do something about it.”

Lori’s next goal is to become one of the premiere players in the conference.

“Right now, I need to develop more consistency,” Bjork said. “If my jump shot isn’t falling, what else can I do for the team?”

Her achievements and work ethic have proved to her hometown of Johnston, Iowa that anything is possible, even coming from a town most people do not know exists.

“She went to the public library when she was home,” Louila said. “The librarian told her, ‘I’ve been following you.’ A lot of people in the community are pulling for her. It’s an inspiration to a lot of people.

“I’m so proud of her. She showed to everyone that dreams can come true.”