Women on court without Chief

 

 

By Dave Fultz

Although the Illinois women’s basketball team has what are probably its two most important games of the season left, the games are getting lost in the whirlwind of coverage on the retirement of Chief Illiniwek.

The Illini’s NCAA Tournament hopes likely hinge on Thursday night’s meeting with No. 20 Michigan State and Sunday afternoon’s Senior Day contest with No. 15 Purdue.

Yet the focus has remained on the fact that for the first time in the 33-year existence of the women’s basketball program at the University, Chief Illiniwek will not dance at halftime.

Dave Chestnut, 49, is the president of the Courtsiders, the official support group for the University of Illinois women’s basketball team, and protested the decision to discontinue the dance before the conclusion of the women’s season.

Chestnut, a resident of Mahomet, Ill., sent an e-mail regarding his position on the matter to University spokesman Thomas Hardy shortly after the Feb. 16 decision was made to retire the Chief.

“The Chief has performed at women’s basketball games for the past 30 years,” Chestnut said in the e-mail. “I find it very short-sighted on the part of (Chairman of the Board of Trustees Lawrence Eppley) and the Board of Trustees to not allow the Chief’s final performances at the end of the entire University of Illinois basketball season.”

Chestnut continued to bring up the larger issues of equality and discrimination that hang over the whole debate.

“While women’s athletics have strived for years to battle inequality issues here and with the NCAA in general, in my mind this is another slap at the inequality that still exists,” Chestnut said in the e-mail. “I would ask Mr. Eppley to reconsider the final performance date, if possible, and, if not feasible, answer why the women’s basketball program was excluded from retaining the tradition of the Chief in their final games.”

At press time, neither Hardy nor Eppley had responded to Chestnut’s concerns.

“It’s definitely a sensitive issue,” sophomore guard Lori Bjork said. “We surely would’ve liked to have been a part of the end of the tradition, but that’s not how it worked out. We’ve got games to win now and we can’t worry about that.”

Despite the controversy, the women’s basketball team spent the week preparing for its toughest and most important games of the season. At this point in the season, the Illini (17-9,7-7) need to do all they can to try and secure a berth to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2002-03 season. No. 20 Michigan State (21-6,12-2) beat the Illini by just 10 in East Lansing when the two teams met on Feb. 4.

With No. 15 Purdue also coming to Champaign this weekend, the Illini will have their hands full.

“Certainly (making the NCAA Tournament) has been a goal for us all year,” head coach Theresa Grentz said. “It comes down to these last two games, and we know what is at stake. It’s just a matter of keeping our eye on the prize.”