How will Randle be remembered?

 

 

By Jeff LaBelle

Slowly, Brian Randle’s head and neck started to slink forward as his sentences came to an end. The words just stopped coming all of a sudden, it was as simple as that, and even though he had already talked about almost everything he could – the injuries, his dad, leaving everything behind – it sounded as if there could have been so much more to say. So much more than, “It went fast,” and, “It’s all gone, I guess.”

Maybe it was just that he wanted to say everything again, one more time, or live the last five years of his life once more – but differently. He wouldn’t have punched that padded wall that broke his hand the year the Illini went to the Final Four. He would have wished for a better season this time around, too. The look on his face said everything, a kind of nervous stare to go along with a staggered chuckle: Is this all really happening?

The “senior day” banner was waving in his mind, marking Saturday’s home game against Minnesota the last in his college career at Assembly Hall. With a stare and chuckle he muttered a few words, “A couple games, a couple games, it’s crazy,” before parting.

In this final stretch of games, including the Big Ten Tournament, Randle will put the closing signature on a career that has been, in many ways, open-ended. Although the contest against Minnesota and its outcome do not mean much with Illinois assured of a losing season, the end of his, center Shaun Pruitt’s and guard Chris Hicks’ era stamps the occasion.

“Everyone says college goes so fast – you get in and the next thing you know you’re out,” Randle said. “Even though I’ve been here five years, it feels like it’s my freshman, sophomore year. So, it’s kind of bittersweet. It’s nice to be done with the conditioning and all of that, but the camaraderie, being able to represent this University and program, really is about to end in a matter of games, a few weeks. I don’t know, it’s tough.”

Randle never rose to prominence the way many envisioned, never catapulted himself into one of the elite players in the country as his coach had hoped. After his sophomore season, Randle found himself on the Wooden watch list, getting invites to Nike camps and hearing interest from pro scouts. He was coming off a healthy season in which the team, led by Dee Brown, finished 25-7 as Randle contributed 8.5 points per game. But a preseason injury brought him back to reality his junior year, and the “ifs” started to dominate.

What if Randle had been healthy enough to develop? What if he had found his rhythm? He missed all of the 2004-2005 season with a medical redshirt and 16 other games in his tenure. His inconsistencies in production were often confused for lack of heart or maturity. Although Randle’s parting nods are assured to be on a different scale entirely than Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head – three that have risen to legendary status in recent years – Randle, less of a vocal leader and more of a good-hearted man by his own admission, hopes to leave his own brand of legacy behind.

“I hope people remember me as an ambassador to the program, to the University. Not Brian Randle that had a bunch of surgeries, not Brian Randle who’s athletic and can dunk, had this dunk and that dunk,” he said. “I just want to be remembered as a good player or a great player, however you want to describe me, and as a good student, a good man and somebody who represented himself, his family and his program in a way that can be looked up to and commended.

“I’m not anybody’s daddy, it’s not like that,” he added. “I’ve had my spots where I spoke up. Obviously, we had some setbacks in terms of certain guys, and I’ve been there however I could offering my support. I think I try to stake my claim in what needs to be done, what’s expected.”

Had Randle participated in pre-draft camps last summer, as Pruitt did, he would have tested in the top tier alongside potential NBA lottery players in terms of athleticism. He said he’s tried not to think past these next few games – the most important thing to him right now – or give up time to search for career opportunities beyond this season.

He’s watched many friends embark on the journey he is nearing, when he’ll lose everything familiar, enter an all-around mystery of a world and start from the beginning all over again. Some of his friends have entered dental school or law school and are in the middle of climbing career ladders. There’s an important difference between them and him, though.

“One of my friends, he’s getting to the pinnacle of where he can get to, realizing his dream as a lawyer. For me, it’s realizing my dream as a professional athlete, whether that be in (the) NBA or Europe,” Randle said. “I don’t know how it’s going to pan out but I can tell you this, there’s a greater demand for lawyers than there are spots for professional athletes.”

Not that Randle’s been searching, though. Pruitt, his teammate, has a pre-draft camp arranged on Apr. 9-12 in Portsmouth, Va., mostly a guard-oriented camp that will see a bunch of players “jack up a ton of shots,” Pruitt said, “but I’ll try my best to get rebounds.” There, Pruitt will meet with representatives from every NBA team and then move on to Orlando, the next stage in the pre-draft process.

But what about Randle?

“I’ve been completely focused on this season from day one, on Illinois, trying to make this season successful. Obviously it hasn’t worked out the way we wanted but I’m still invested,” Randle said. “I’m not going to coaches or my family asking, ‘What’s out there for me, who’s looking at me?’ Really, in my mind, if that’s there now then it should be in a couple games, too. I’m invested in this team. I’m trying to get back, working hard for them so we can win a few games and hopefully that Big Ten Tournament.”

Pruitt says Randle should “definitely stay on track, keep pushing to play ball” in the NBA or in Europe after this season. It’s a tough situation for Randle, though, seeing as how he was never able to put his talents on display consistently for an entire year. With his athleticism, though, he should get a shot somewhere, but in times like these, when Randle is in a bind, he knows exactly where to look for help.

A smile breaks out on the face of the Peoria, Ill., native when he’s asked where he goes for support, who he looks to for inspiration. His hands uncross and he starts to smile with his eyes. He says in his dad, Charles, a former wrestler and football player whose “coordination isn’t all there,” he has a friend and mentor who “never pushed me to the brink.”

“I go to my dad a lot. I go to my mom and my sister, but my dad tends to be a very deep person to the point that when we talk I don’t even really have to say anything a lot of times,” Randle said. “He can convey enough to me that any question I could have, after the first, is already answered. We can sit in the garage and hang out or go eat something, maybe mess around and go play the Wii or something like that. We’re able to connect, and he’s able to keep me at peace.

“I know his expectations and he knows mine. He’s been a great balance for me and hands down the person I admire the most and aspire to be like. There weren’t too many games from six years old to now that he’s missed. Between him, my mom, my sister, I’ve got easily the best support system in the world.”

This is by no means the way Randle would have chosen to go out – in a losing season, under the influence of an injury and with the fate of his team in the merciless hands of the Big Ten elite. But he has no choice now. He says the Illini are confident going into the tournament and aren’t sitting back hoping to luck into a win or two.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, I hope we pull this one out,'” he said.

Randle will remain, no matter the events of the coming days – whether the final showings fizzle out or if the unexpected occurs – a man whose love of basketball led him to the Illini and whose passion continues to set him apart. He walks away, his silhouette standing strong in the lit gym, leaving stats, friendships and failures behind.

But when the fabric of the last few seasons is pulled away and he appears as a random blip popping in and out of the stat sheets, remember underneath the radar, underneath the jersey and off the court, was the mark of a leader, the ambassador. Remember the day he struggled to say goodbye. And remember, lastly, what it was that made him speechless.