When I was a sophomore in high school, Illinois went to the Final Four. I had my license for only a few months but I begged my parents to allow for one exception to their "no driving out of town yet" rule so that I could drive to St. Clair Square and buy this Illini t-shirt I saw at school. They caved, and I immediately drove to the mall to buy the shirt.
I just went searching for an image of the shirt I bought, but apparently, when you put "awesome Illinois basketball" in quotes in a Google image search, it just takes you to the two other posts where I already told this story. Let's just cut and paste from one of those articles so I can get on with this article.
That January/February is so vivid in my memory. I got my driver's license in December, and I broke through my parents' "you're only allowed to drive in town for the first few months" restriction by begging them to let me go to St. Clair Square mall to buy this "Awesome Illinois Basketball" shirt I had seen. That was the whole shirt. Block letters that said "Illinois Basketball" at the bottom with some basketball scene above and the very rad 1980's font which said "AWESOME" across the image. Awesome, Illinois Basketball.
I went to the Wisconsin game in January. We won and scored over 100 points. We had climbed to #2 at that point, and everything felt so invincible. Dunk after dunk after dunk. It was all we talked about at school around the lunch table, it was all I wanted to talk about at home during "how was your day at school today" at the dinner table... January-February-March of 1989 was 100% Flyin' Illini.
The basketball rim my dad had put up in the back yard was adjustable so we'd lower it to eight feet and pretend to be Kendall Gill going down the lane with a left-hand jam. I remember the spot over by the picnic table which was approximately the same spot where Nick Anderson hit the shot against Indiana so we'd take turns shooting from there (Andersonnnnnn). Everything centered around this team. You'd wear your "Battle to Seattle" shirt one day and then "Awesome Illinois Basketball" the next.
2005 was great, but 1989 was the season for me. I was a high school sophomore. I wasn't just a fan - Kenny Battle was my hero. There's just something different about cheering for a top-5 team when you're in high school. I'll never forget that season.
And Hudson Coady will probably never forget this past season. He's a sophomore at Urbana High School and an Illini basketball junkie. How do I know he's an Illini basketball junkie? Because last year, when he was hoping that Ayo would return for one more season in Champaign, he did this:
Just a Freshman at Urbana High School training for Cross Country, while campaigning for his favorite Illini player to come back.🔷🔶🔷🔶🔷🔶@JWerner247 @ALionEye @AyoDos_11 @athleticsurbana @IlliniMBB pic.twitter.com/zxuw57kuAF— Hudson Coady (@HudsonCoady) June 19, 2020
The following month, as you may be aware, Ayo announced he was returning for one more season. And then he was our first-ever 1st-team AP All American. So maybe Hudson should literally run it back?
He tagged me in this tweet today:
Once again, just a sophomore at Urbana High School training for cross country while hoping his favorite Illini basketball player will come back for some unfinished business. (I’d buy your shirts😉) @ALionEye @kxng_alpha @IlliniMBB @athleticsurbana pic.twitter.com/Vx7lMIUmw4— Hudson Coady (@HudsonCoady) July 10, 2021
It spread around the internet fairly quickly - linked by Bleacher Report here and on other Twitter accounts like this one. I was curious about how he came up with the idea, so I set up an interview with him (after checking with his dad to make sure that was OK with the family).
We started by discussing the "We Want Ayo" run from last year. Where'd he get the idea?
"The original idea came from training for cross country my freshman year", he began. "My coach sent different routes that we could run. And then another runner on the team sent a route that was traced like a duck. And I thought that that was interesting at the moment."
"There was one day where we were supposed to do a long run by ourselves and I thought, 'Oh, I wonder if there was something I could do like that.' And then obviously, I'm a big Illini fan, so I was following this Ayo and Kofi decision. Originally, I was actually going to do 'We want Kofi' that year because Ayo was more like 100% in the draft. He had said that. But then the first time I ran it, I messed up somewhere. So it didn't turn out correct. So then I tried, 'We want Ayo' and that worked out great. And then I tweeted it and then the rest happened."
Fast-forwarded to this year. When did he have the idea to do it again?
"Well, it had been in the back of my mind pretty much ever since when Illinois lost, when I knew that Kofi was going to have a decision. And the time where it really was like, 'Okay, now it's the time to do it' is when he decided to come out of the draft and stayed in the transfer portal. And I actually just came back from vacation. So, today was the first day I was able to do it."
I then moved on to the "how" questions, and the answers were quite simple. He uses his Apple Watch to track the route, and that gives him the readout when he's finished. And the pre-planned route? He prints off a map and carries it with him when he runs. Knowing that one bad turn screws up the entire map, it has to be intimidating, right?
"Yeah, it definitely is. I would say the most difficult part was just trying to not make a wrong turn. What I try to do is just take it one step at a time and just make sure that I know this is the street that I'm turning on and that's what you've got to focus on."
I asked him if he considered running through any yards to make the "K" look right (he didn't), and I asked him if he ran out in front of any cars while looking down at his map (he didn't). Before we got off the phone, I asked if there was anything else he wanted to add.
"Nothing really comes to mind."
"You said it all with your feet?", I asked.
"Yeah, you could say that."
When we got off the phone, I couldn't help but think of the innocence here. Let me slow down a bit because I want to make sure I say this correctly.
College athletics are changing. The options available to Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle when I was a high school sophomore are not the same as the options available to Kofi Cockburn during Hudson's sophomore year. As I said last week, I support these changes, and there's part of me that's happy that Kofi now has a full range of options to further his dream. I can't help but think there's a little innocence lost, though.
When I was cheering for Anderson and Battle, I did so without the threat that they might be playing for Kentucky next season. I'll work through it if Kofi decides to go elsewhere, but I wouldn't have handled it well if Kendall Gill was an LSU Tiger in 1990. So my mind goes to Hudson and every other high school sophomore Illini fan. The Kofis of the world are still heroes at that age, and now there's the risk that those heroes switch sides in the middle of the war. O' beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening.
Hudson is doing what I would have done at that age: pleading with Kofi to stay. I can't think of a 1989 equivalent (drive to New York with a We Want Kendall sign and hold it up outside the Today Show window?), but I would have probably done whatever it took if I faced the same threat to my boyhood team. I fully understand the business side of things and Kofi making the best decision for his future (and his family), but from my side of things - who cares about my side, from Hudson's side - the thought of Kofi in another college jersey has to be devastating. Illini fans might be asked to watch the first-ever transfer of an All American to another school. Can you imagine? I don't want to.
Hudson doesn't want to, either. He wants to see Kofi return for one more year.
So he took to the streets of Urbana to do something about it.