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Book on Illinois’ 1989 Final Four team interesting, controversial

Former Illinois guard Stephen Bardo has written book about 1989 Final Four team thhas left Lou Hensfeeling hurt Ken Norman

Former Illinois guard Stephen Bardo has written a book about the 1989 Final Four team that has left Lou Henson feeling hurt and Ken Norman enraged. | Getty Images

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Updated: January 16, 2014 6:45AM

Well, this is awkward. At first glance, The Flyin’ Illini: The Untold Story of One of College Basketball’s Elite Teams figures to be a nice look back at Illinois’ 1989 Final Four team. And, in many ways, it is.

The problem is, Stephen Bardo’s self-published remembrance has left Lou Henson feeling hurt and Ken ‘‘Snake’’ Norman understandably enraged — and Norman wasn’t even on the ’89 team.

Everyone else in orange and blue presumably is taking sides. Or, better yet, wishing all this would go away.

In other words, it should be an interesting 25-year reunion when the Flyin’ Illini gather Jan. 3-4 in Champaign and Bardo, who started at guard, reconnects with teammates and coaches.

‘‘The subtitle says, ‘Untold Story,’ ’’ Bardo told me. ‘‘I didn’t want to write something people could get from Wikipedia or Google. I wanted to give an insight into the personality conflicts and struggles that even great teams have.’’

A couple of glaring factual errors about Norman, who was the senior star when Bardo was a freshman in 1987, point out the perils of self-publishing. In one anecdote, Bardo mentions a rumor that Norman almost had killed someone in high school, which is patently false.

In another yarn, Bardo says Norman had started using ‘‘Norman’’ as his last name to avoid prosecution. The truth was, that was the name on his birth certificate. So Norman, who had been using his mother’s surname, reverted to Norman, his father’s surname, when he committed to Illinois.

‘‘I couldn’t sleep the first night after I saw this,’’ Norman, who spent more than a decade in the NBA, told the Champaign News-Gazette. ‘‘What Steve said about me is untrue. . . . It’s garbage.’’

Bardo, who knows he screwed up, doesn’t disagree. He said he overreached in trying to make the point that Norman was an intimidator.

‘‘I tried to call Ken, and he hung up the phone on me,’’ Bardo told me. ‘‘Tried again, but he wouldn’t take my call. . . . In hindsight, I should have tried to protect my teammate better than that. But it’s out there now.’’

There are no doubt more embellishments and memory lapses in The Flyin’ Illini. That’s unfortunate because there also are a lot of behind-the-scenes glimpses of a top program during a tumultuous time.

What really has ruffled feathers, though, are all the shots Bardo takes at Henson. The little digs continue, the Henson camp contends, when Bardo, who works for the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports, is calling games.

Even though the book takes some harsh views, Bardo said his view of Henson has softened.

‘‘Now I understand how hardheaded I was and the lack of perspective that I had,’’ he said. ‘‘I didn’t understand how much pressure coach Henson was under. Now, as the 45-year-old father of two sons, I get it much more than I did then.’’

When I talked with Henson by phone from his home in Las Cruces, N.M., he said he hasn’t — and won’t — comment on Bardo’s observations. But some of Henson’s friends told me Bardo’s contention that he and Henson didn’t get along was news to Henson. Nor does Henson remember ordering Bardo to curb his offensive enthusiasm by not shooting and not driving to the basket.

But the friends said that what really bothers Henson are some anecdotes that seem meant to embarrass him and Bardo’s unrestrained criticism of him. That includes Bardo’s assertions that Kendall Gill had to dig deep to find confidence because Henson didn’t build up players and that Marcus Liberty would have been better off playing somewhere else, where his skills could have been better used.

The opinion stuff is open to debate. And a lot of the tension Bardo felt is what often happens between coaches and players, especially in the era he played in.

‘‘Every coach wants his legacy to be unchecked,’’ Bardo said. ‘‘If you put out anything negative about a coach — or even players — people don’t like that. They feel like you’ve broken the locker-room code. But I’ve never been politically correct. That puts me in a bad position at times.’’

He’ll get few arguments about those last two points.

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