Former Illini Brian Randle returns home for historic exhibition

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Former Illini Brian Randle returns home for historic exhibition

By Alex Roux

When Illinois basketball star Tal Brody chose to play professionally in Israel instead of with the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks in 1966, it was the beginning of a hoops renaissance in the Holy Land.

Brody’s stellar play for the Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv for over a decade and a half made him a national hero in Israel, and the game’s popularity swelled in a country where basketball had never previously been a primary sport. Maccabi Tel Aviv is now wildly popular throughout Israel and other parts of Europe, and Brody’s contributions to the game have helped put another Illini alum in position for a unique opportunity nearly 50 years later.

Brian Randle played for Illinois from 2003-07, and has since enjoyed a successful career playing professionally overseas. Randle, a Peoria, Ill., native, is now preparing for his second season with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Maccabi Tel Aviv’s preseason schedule includes a United States tour this year, which has become commonplace for high-level European teams who want to prepare for their seasons by scrimmaging NBA teams. But this year, Tel Aviv’s U.S. tour has a wrinkle. 

They’ll participate in the first-ever matchup between two Turkish Airlines Euroleague teams on U.S. soil when they play two games against longtime rival Emporio Armani Milan as part of the Euroleague Basketball World Tour.

Maccabi Tel Aviv and Emporio Armani Milan will face each other in Chicago at United Center at 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 before heading to New York City for an Oct. 4 matchup at Madison Square Garden. For Randle, the game at United Center means a rare chance to play as a pro in front of friends and family.

“It’s great to be able to share the European basketball experience with family and friends,” Randle said via email from Israel. “When I’m gone and when I return home in the summers, I get asked a lot of questions and even when I answer them, people still have a look like they need to see it to understand.”

Randle knows he’ll have a contingent waiting for him Thursday in Chicago, but the exact size of his cheering section will be a surprise.

“According to my wife, we are going to have a pretty full family and friends section,” Randle said. “She won’t tell me how many, so I’m guessing I’ll be well represented. (It’s) pretty cool.”

Randle was a high school standout at Peoria Notre Dame before playing for Bruce Weber and the Illini, and going undrafted in the 2008 NBA Draft. He had a chance to compete for a roster spot with the Atlanta Hawks, but instead elected to begin a career overseas. He’s spent all but two months of his career playing for five Israeli teams (he played with a German team for two months), which required a major lifestyle adjustment after departing Illinois.

“Being an independent college student is an important life adjustment, but leaving everything you know and love to live alone and abroad was a shock to my system,” Randle said. “I wanted to go home almost every day for the first three months of the season; well, almost the entire season I wanted to go home. It got pretty lonely, but the time alone gave me plenty of time to reflect and evaluate my life moving forward.” 

Randle has since carved out a niche as a utility player on one of Europe’s premier teams, averaging 12 points and 5.6 rebounds for Maccabi last season. Playing in Israel means playing in front of raucous crowds who are passionate about their teams, thanks in large part to Brody’s impact for the better part of two decades.

“The fans in Maccabi are amazing and they love the club,” Randle said. “No matter where we travel in Europe, we always have a cheering section and they are loud and proud to be cheering for Maccabi. It’s amazing and humbling to be a part of.”

Basketball has taken Randle all over the world, and on Thursday it will nearly bring him home.

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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brian Randle went to Peoria Manual High School. He went to Peoria Notre Dame. The Daily Illini regrets this error.