Brokeback Illini


Sometimes, it’s hard to realize you’re in an abusive relationship. And that’s not to diminish abuse, but sports relationships, emotionally, can be just as abusive to those who take sports seriously.

And yes, I’m one of those people who take it too seriously. I know that. But it means a lot to me, and in a way that has nothing to do with work.

I thought I could quit you, Illinois basketball. Not in a professional way, but as a fan.

I thought it would be especially easy after you quit on yourselves at home against Purdue.

But…Illinois…you orange…you blue…

I just can’t quit you.

I have been an Illinois fan for a long time. I remember going to games with my mom and my dad and my cousin Brian when he and I were around five years old. Maybe we were six. It was during the Kenny Norman-Scott Meents days (Scott Meents was not a huge Illini legend, but he was from Herscher, Illinois,  right near my home town…and no, we won’t be talking about where he is right now. Not one bit.).

I remember an Indiana-Illinois game at the Assembly Hall in Champaign, when Bobby Knight was still the coach, and me and Brian were keeping score. Every time the Hoosiers made a shot, we yelled “Banana Balls!!!”

Every time the Illini score we yelled “Super Balls!!!”

We were young. It was a while ago.

But yeah, I’ve been in this for a long time.

I suffered through the 1989-1990 Flyin’ Illini Final Four game against Michigan…a team we had beaten twice that season. And yes, Steven Bardo was fouled. He damn sure was.

I stood through the entire 2005 National Championship game. I threw my hands in the air on Luther Head’s wide open three-pointer that was just a hair too long…and didn’t make a sound as I fell to my knees in that position. I called my mom and dad shortly after that game with tears in my eyes and said, “It isn’t going to ever happen for us, is it?”

Maybe part of that comes from being a Cubs fan AND an Illinois football and basketball fan. And obviously, fan is short for fanatic, which has some pretty negative connotations.

It’s been hard being an Illinois fanatic over the past several seasons. There was the black-eye-to-end-all-black-eyes, the Jamar Smith incident. There were some gawd-awful teams that led to the Illini missing two of the last three NCAA tournaments.

And then, there’s this year’s team.

Maybe I bought in too early. I follow all of the team on Twitter, and I saw before the season how they all talked about getting to Houston, and tweeted with the hashtag #houston2011. I was as hyped about this team as I have ever been.

I thought this could be the team that didn’t break our hearts.

I thought this would be the team that lived up to the lofty expectations.

Not only was I wrong, I was so spectacularly wrong that I am almost broken hearted about it.

I am right now up to the point in the movie where Ennis visits Jack’s parents’ house and finds the two blood-soaked shirts in Jack’s closet. He always kept them. Ennis sat on the bed and cried, and held Jack’s bloodied shirt to his face.

I’m doing that right now with my bright orange shirts.

I feel bloodied and beaten, though I know that I’m still coming back.

The end of the movie features Ennis with the two shirts and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain in his closet, still unable to say the words that everyone knows he feels.

Myself, I’m left with a Kenny Battle and Dee Brown jersey, and that postcard of the orangeorangeorange Assembly Hall that everyone has…the one right before the tipoff of the Wake Forest game in late 2004.

I’m looking at the jerseys, and I’m looking at the postcard, and I can finish the sentence that Ennis couldn’t.

“Illini, I swear…I’ll love you no matter what.”

I just can’t quit you.

Paul Schmidt is a senior contributor and media relations director for the Sports Bank, and is entering his tenth year of writing about sports in Chicago and Illinois.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more! nicely done Paul S.
    I’ve had bone marrow biopsies that are more fun than watching this team grossly udnerachieve all year

  2. Sigh!

  3. Sigh indeed.

    And no bone marrow biopsies here. Just sad pandas.

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