Ekey says goodbye to State Farm Center after 1 year

Illinois’ Jon Ekey drives to the hoop during the game against Michigan State at the Breslin Student Events Center on Saturday.

Joseph Bertrand remembers playing against Jon Ekey in November of 2011. Illinois travelled to Cancun, Mexico, to play in the Cancun Challenge over Thanksgiving break.

They traveled all the way to Mexico and ended up facing a team that plays its home games 45 minutes from campus. Bertrand’s Illini met Ekey and Illinois State in the championship game of that tournament.

Two years later, when Bertrand learned his team was adding a transfer from Illinois State, he went back and looked at the tape of that game. What he saw was a 6-foot-7 forward who knocked down three 3-pointers against Illinois and finished with 14 points and six rebounds.

“He was a big part of their system there,” Bertrand said. “I’m really glad he was able to come here.”

But the thing that Bertrand likes to point out about that game is that Illinois won 63-59.

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“You can tell him I said that,” Bertrand joked with the media prior to practice at State Farm Center on Monday.

While Bertrand, a fifth-year senior, has been committed to Illinois since Oct. 12, 2007, Ekey announced his transfer destination five and a half years later, on April 16, 2013. Both will play their final game in State Farm Center as teammates on senior night Tuesday.

The Missouri native took advantage of the graduate student transfer rule, allowing him to play his final year of eligibility at Illinois without sitting out a year because he had already graduated from Illinois State. Head coach John Groce has loved having such an experienced player, especially with a young team.

“It’d be great to have Jon any year,” Groce said. “But it’s great to have him when you have five freshmen and nine newcomers. You can point to him and Joe and say: ‘Do what they do academically and you’ll be fine. Practice like they do, and you’ll be fine. Do what they do.’”

Nothing speaks to how much Ekey’s teammates like him more than the fact that he was voted a team captain this summer, despite having never worn an orange and blue jersey in a game. He has led Illinois all year in ‘Matto’ points — the Illinois program’s name for hustle points, both in games and in practice.

In early February, he was moved from the starting lineup to the bench in favor of those freshmen for whom he has been a role model. It didn’t matter to Ekey; he didn’t complain. Neither did Bertrand, who has been in a similar position.

“Coach said it’s the best for the team,” Bertrand said. “So me and Ekey sat down and cheered from the bench and provided a spark. And we got some wins out of it.”

Talking to Ekey, one would never know he lost his starting spot. He is always willing to answer questions and does so with a smile.

He smiles, too, when he’s asked if he will watch the Missouri Valley tournament this week.

“I’ll be watching those guys and keep an eye on my friends I have over there,” Ekey said. Illinois State is scheduled to play Friday against Missouri State.

Years from now, Ekey will remember this year for the friends and the memories he has made. He will remember playing in the Braggin’ Rights game. He will remember the arenas he’s played in. He will remember the grind of the Big Ten season, which the Missouri Valley could never equal.  

But he will remember his time at Illinois State, too. The Redbirds will always have a special place in his heart.

And he will remember the way the Illini graciously accepted him onto their team.

“The way I got here and people had open arms,” Ekey said. “I’ll follow these guys, I’ll always be their friend, I’ll always talk to them. That’s one of the great things about basketball, lifetime friendships are made.”

Ekey and Bertrand will play their last home game Tuesday and their season will end sometime in the near future. They first encountered each other as foes one night in 2011, but three years later they will go out as teammates. 

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.