Illinois seemed headed for glory in ’89, but Michigan prevailed
BY STEVE GREENBERG Staff Reporter April 1, 2014 10:19PM
Illinois' Kendall Gill, right, moves the ball around Northwestern's Walker Lambiotte, left, during first half action in Evanston, Ill., Jan. 19, 1989. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell)
Coach: Lou Henson.
Conference: 14-4, 2nd in Big Ten.
26 UIC W, 85-59
29 Metro State W, 86-55
3 Mississippi W, 91-79
6 Florida W, 97-67
9 Duquesne W, 112-81
10 Arkansas-Little Rock W, 107-88
17 Tennessee Tech W, 105-77
19 Missouri W, 87-84
22 at Louisiana State W, 127-100
27 Tulsa W, 85-58
28 Georgia Tech W, 80-75
29 at Hawaii W, 96-87
7 Michigan State W, 71-54
12 Wisconsin W, 103-80
14 Michigan W, 96-84
19 at Northwestern W, 75-70
22 Georgia Tech W, 103-92
26 at Minnesota L, 69-62
28 Indiana W, 75-65
2 at Purdue L, 76-72
5 at Iowa L, 86-82
9 Ohio State W, 62-60
11 Northwestern W, 86-69
16 at Michigan State W, 75-56
18 at Wisconsin L, 72-52
20 Purdue W, 102-75
26 at Ohio State W, 94-71
2 Minnesota W, 63-58
5 at Indiana W, 70-67
8 Iowa W, 118-94
11 at Michigan W, 89-73
No. 1 seed in Midwest Regional
1st round: McNeese State W, 77-71
2nd round: Ball State W, 72-60
Reg. semifinal: Louisville W, 83-69
Regional final: Syracuse W, 89-86
National semifinal: Michigan L, 83-81
Updated: April 1, 2014 10:44PM
One afternoon during the long offseason of 1988, Kendall Gill gathered his teammates for a private conversation. They’d just finished lifting weights, but Gill wasn’t ready to cool down. Cutting straight to the point, Gill, a 6-5 guard from Rich Central preparing for his junior season, declared that the time had come for Illinois basketball to go from good to great.
“You know what, guys? We have a lot of talent here,” Gill began. “I want to make some money. I know you guys want to make some money. All of us can make some money. We can do that by winning big this season.”
Multiple members of the 1988-89 Flying Illini still recall the conversation that ensued as being one of the key moments in the team’s dramatic rise from Big Ten also-ran to national phenomenon and the program’s first trip to the Final Four in nearly four decades.
Twenty-five years after that season ended with a surprising defeat in the national semifinals at the Kingdome in Seattle, Lowell Hamilton wishes he could go back and address the team before it took the court to face Michigan.
“I would probably repeat Kendall’s words,” said Hamilton, the team’s undersized but agile center from Providence-St. Mel. “And then I would add, ‘And no way can we let someone come and take that away.’ ”
Loss still haunts
If you feel certain about what’s going to unfold at the 2014 Final Four in Arlington, Texas, you shouldn’t. Twenty-five years ago, there was no way to see Illinois’ 83-81 loss to Michigan coming. The top-seeded Illini had drilled the Wolverines twice already, once by 12 at Assembly Hall in January and again by 16 in Ann Arbor in the regular-season finale.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the opportunity we had to win the whole thing,” said Kenny Battle, an electrifying forward from West Aurora and, along with Hamilton, a senior co-captain.
“As competitive as I am? It [ticks] me off to [remember] that we worked so hard all year, then lost to a team we blew out at their place the last game of the year, as well as at our place. To lose by two? It’ll always be there. I’ll never forget it.”
Today, Battle, 49, who lives in Plainfield, works with the NBA Retired Players Association and is involved with various camps and clinics for young basketball players. Hamilton, 47, coaches high school basketball in northeast Georgia.
Gill, 45, who was fired in 2013 from his job as a Bulls analyst for Comcast SportsNet after a workplace altercation, lives on the South Side and calls himself “retired — a dad, a husband.” He says he couldn’t watch a recording of the Michigan game until after his 15-year NBA career was over.
“I feel we were the best team never to win the national championship,” Gill said.
Ruefully, most Illini fans likely remember the Michigan game for one play. In an 81-81 game, Sean Higgins rose over Illini star Nick Anderson for an offensive rebound and put-back with two seconds left.
The play itself endures as a surprise. Anderson, a powerhouse 6-6 guard from Simeon, was the team’s top scorer, leading rebounder and strongest player.
“A man-child,” Gill called him. “Talented in every way. He was strong, fast. He was like LeBron James, but in college. Physically, nobody could handle him.”
Like Gill, Anderson, went on to have a long, successful NBA career, most of it with the Orlando Magic. Now 46, he works for the Magic in community relations.
“I think about [the Michigan game] and still think we should’ve won it,” Anderson said. “You try to play back everything in your mind, the play you could’ve made, should’ve made, wish you would’ve made. It plays like a movie over and over and over. You say to yourself, ‘What if?’ ”
Asked what would’ve happened if, after Michigan had finished off its national-title drive with a victory over Seton Hall, the Illini and Wolverines had played an NBA-style best-of-seven series, Anderson had a quick answer.
“We’d have killed them,” he said.
Said Gill: “We would’ve won easily.”
And Battle: “They would win one game, if one game.”
Some others from that Illini team give Michigan — which was led by future NBA first-round draft picks Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills and Loy Vaught — more credit.
“I think we would’ve come out on top, but they had some talented players as well,” said Marcus Liberty, 45, a former star forward from King who coaches high school basketball in Sarasota, Fla.
Stephen Bardo, who’ll turn 46 on Saturday, was the Flying Illini’s starting point guard. Now an analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network, Bardo, whose book The Flyin’ Illini was released in 2013, believes Michigan — which fired coach Bill Frieder at regular season’s end and replaced him with assistant Steve Fisher — was a different team in Seattle than the one Illinois had seen.
“I think eventually we would figure out a way,” Bardo said, “but I believe it would be 4-3 because of Steve Fisher, who never got enough credit. He got everybody on the same page. I don’t think Bill Frieder was able to do that.
“And [Fisher] made two adjustments in that game that we hadn’t seen. One was cutting off the baseline to Nick, who was probably the best at working the baseline in the country that season. The other was making sure Glen Rice touched the ball every time down the court.”
Bardo no longer rues the one that got away. Time has sharpened his sense of how special ’88-89 was.
“It would’ve been great to win the national title,” he said. “Many thought we were the most talented bunch not to do so. To not realize the ultimate goal was a little bit disappointing for years.
“But [since] I got into broadcasting, I’m often reminded of how successful that team was and how that team made people feel. Coaches tell me all the time: That was one of the great teams.”