Column: More than a ‘W’

By Jon Gluskin

“It’s only a game.”

“Keep things in perspective.”

“The sun will still rise tomorrow.”

If you’re like me, you’ve been told these expressions way too many times from parents, siblings and friends after obsessing over a game.

Most of the time with sports, they are true.

With Illinois’ season all but over with four minutes left Saturday, and as I fought back tears, these expressions weren’t true – it was more than a game.

Illinois’ dream season has meant more than 36 wins and just one loss. It’s meant more than taking down No. 1 seeds, snapping home winning streaks and manhandling opponents.

It’s given us all hope. It’s given all of Illinois something to cheer for.

As the tears started to come at Illinois’ 11th hour, it wasn’t because the Illini were on the verge of losing a basketball game.

The season was going to be over. The experience of a lifetime was going to be over.

The basketball team has been a common bond for sports fans – and non-sports fans – of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

A 30-something-year-old-man sat in the row in front of me at the game. Although he never went to Illinois, he was a big fan, enthusiastic throughout the entire game. He wore an orange and white striped shirt.

He said his clothing choice shocked his wife.

In all of his years of going to Cubs games, he’s never worn a Cubs hat or a Cubs shirt while attending.

“This is for our state,” he said.

A Peoria woman and her husband sat a few seats down from him. She works at Assembly Hall.

Her eyes were all teary-eyed as the game neared its end. While the rest of Section 208 at Allstate Arena was putting on their coats, ready to face the inevitable, this woman wasn’t quite so ready.

“It’s not over until the final whistle,” she said.

I’m not sure if she actually believed what she was saying, but she – like her beloved team – never gave up.

When Illinois chipped away at that 15-point deficit, it wasn’t just Dee, Deron, Luther, Roger and Jack – it was this Assembly Hall worker. It was this man in the orange and white shirt. It was me. It was you. It was everyone who’s put their hopes and dreams into this team and this season of destiny.

When Deron hit the three-pointer to tie the game with less than a minute remaining, and the crowd erupted, I knew there was a lot more riding on this game than a trip to the Final Four, getting points in my tournament pool and giving me something to do this upcoming weekend.

There were hugs and high-fives going around everywhere. The 6- or 7-year-old son of the man whom I bought my ticket off eBay from was going nuts, waving his No. 1 foam finger in the air, standing on his seat so he could see.

The man in front of me was jumping up and down. My friend next to me was jumping up and down. The whole stadium was jumping up and down.

When the final whistle in overtime did sound, and the Assembly Hall woman’s words did come true, pandemonium ensued and the community of orange and blue once again rejoiced.

We wouldn’t have to find something new to be obsessed with. We wouldn’t have to wake up Sunday with emptiness in our bodies. We wouldn’t have to find something new to believe in.

When the Bulls dominated the ’90s, they were supposed to win. We were spoiled and winning was the norm.

When the Cubs were good two seasons ago, many White Sox fans (like me) were unhappy with the success of their cross-town rivals.

This is different.

Everyone is rooting for the Illini. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of us. I don’t think I’ll ever again be a part of something this great, this special.

The next few days are going to be full of analyzing, matchups and breakdowns, all leading up to the Final Four. Illinois is just two victories shy of fulfilling all our hopes.

Only Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina can stop this from happening.

If the Illini do lose, the sun may still will rise the next morning.

It just won’t be as orange.