Column: A tough act

SAN DIEGO – As Dee Brown’s final shot as an Illini bounced off the backboard, the horn sounded and Brandon Roy pumped his first in celebration, one thought crossed my mind: this cannot be the end.

My memory filled with images of the Penn State game, when the Illini thought they had won but the victory was reassigned minutes later. Illinois had lost that game based on the refs doing the right thing in the last seconds. Surely these San Diego refs owed Illinois a post-game change of heart.

It was what I wanted, but knew I would not see. Part of me hoped Illinois would win just so I could go to Georgetown. I wanted to spend Spring Break hopping from one coast to the other. Part of me wanted Shira, our managing editor/ NCAA tournament photographer to get to shoot something; the cost of booking last-second airfare to San Diego had meant the Daily Illini could not send a photographer to the first two games. But a big part of me just could not believe this season would end so suddenly, so early.

Bruce Weber called the Washington game a “microcosm of the season.” As an unbiased reporter, I have to agree with him. Illinois had some tough breaks throughout the contest, but in the end could not apply the magic that carried the team to the National Championship game just 12 months ago. But as a student at the University of Illinois, as a classmate to these players and a fan of college basketball, I understood the disappointment in the coach’s voice when describing the short-lived season.

2005 spoiled the Illini Nation. Dee, Deron and Luther had a magical connection that carried the team from the depths of disappointment to the highest honors in college athletics. We learned about team play and reveling in success as those Illini pulled together in the Arizona game, rallied around their coach in the Big Ten tournament, and joined fans in the wave at each Assembly Hall blowout. We saw Deron playing with his daughter after games, heard stories about Roger Powell, Jr. giving his La Bamba to homeless guys and cheered for Jack Ingram to ace his engineering exam just hours before the season’s biggest game. Fans cursed Matt Sylvester after the Ohio State upset, joined the “Sean May, get your fat ass on a treadmill” Facebook group, and begged Dee and Deron for just one more year and a chance to make the magic last.

But, as Champaign has learned in 2006, all good things really must come to an end. That magical spark was gone this season. In its place was a team that prayed a pair of seniors could carry it back to the top. Where five classmates had come to campus in 2002, just two stand side-by-side in 2006. James Augustine and Dee Brown were supposed to be the catalysts that carried Illinois back to the Final Four – even Dick Vitale claimed it would happen. The problem is, two guys cannot carry a basketball team.

Augustine and Brown are two guys with opposite personalities. Brown is an outgoing workaholic who craves the spotlight. Weber has called him a “rock star,” and it’s really a good comparison. Dee has inspired junior high kids to don knee socks and headbands and has started trends among NBA players who copied his “jersey pop.” He is the undisputed face of Illinois basketball, with a big smile, magnetic personality and legitimate chance at achieving every kid’s dream of NBA stardom. He has a mile-long list of honors. He likely has signed more autographs than most B-list Hollywood celebrities. And he is feared by college basketball players around the country who know him as that kid who will run circles around you.

Augustine, on the other hand, is more reserved, more quiet, and comes across as much more serious. His personality is rooted in subtlety and sarcasm; he says fewer words than Brown but gets the same point across. He spent 2005 as the fifth guy people noticed behind the Brown-Head-Williams triple-threat and Rog “The Minister” Powell. But while everybody else was drawing big-time attention, Augustine amassed big-time stats, and will leave his name on almost every page of Illinois’ record books. I’d estimate he’s the most popular guy when the team hits C.O.’s or KAMS – he’s easiest to find, yes, but most girls I know list him as their favorite player anyway. He’s amassed more than a cult following, taking a backseat to more flamboyant teammates but building a pretty impressive fan base nonetheless.

To be honest, I hoped this week would be spent preparing for a return to the Final Four. Obviously, Illinois fell well short of that, but to say the season was a disappointment does not put it in the right context. Yes, Dee and James, your fans are sorry to see you could not carry them back to the top. But you set those expectations for yourselves. What we’ve seen during these four seasons has led everyone to expect big things out of our iconic seniors. You cannot blame the Illini Nation for expecting a lot. But you cannot blame two guys for failing to do what seven players did last season.

Dee and James will become the next Kenny Battle and Red Kerr. They’ll return to Assembly Hall in 10 or 20 or 40 years, and still receive standing ovations. They may not have ended their careers on top. But it is what you do in four seasons, not one game, that defines a college athlete. And these two will be defined by greatness.

Courtney Linehan is a senior in communications. She can be reached at [email protected]