1,906 Miles

Feb 22, 2022

Planes? Nope - just couldn't get the numbers to work. Three flights and two rental cars added up quickly. Trains? Negative. The New Jersey to East Lansing trip would be a train up to New York and then another train to Toledo and then a bus up to Detroit and another train to East Lansing. Nah. Automobiles? That's the ticket.

As I've said before, I much prefer the train for a road trip. This trip to the Rutgers game on Wednesday and the Michigan State game on Saturday included around 30 hours of driving. If I'm on the train, those 30 hours can be spent researching and writing, not holding the steering wheel listening to podcats.

That was supposed to say "podcasts." Instead I typed "podcats." Gonna leave it. And I'm going to now go see if there's a Kentucky basketball podcast called Podcats.

There is not. I found a 9-episode podcast called "PodCats" which is "an in-depth exploration of the ineffable, effable, effanineffable history of the movie and musical behemoth Cats." And I also found an Instagram account called PodCats with holy crap 1.8 million followers which seems to be an account in Portuguese promoting Brazilian YouTube star Camila Loures. Tried to give you a great idea for a podcast name, random Kentucky fan reading this, but it looks like PodCats is already taken.

ANYWAY, I rented a car and drove this trip. When I turned in the rental car, I had racked up 1,906 miles. The image above says 1,848 miles (when I mapped it out on Google Maps), but that doesn't include the trip from my hotel to the NBA Rising Stars game and back on Friday night. Or my trip to get a gourmet hot dog at 11:00 pm on Wednesday night in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Want me to tell you about my entire trip? No? Well I'm going to tell you anyway.

I left the house at 7:19 on Tuesday morning. I considered skipping one hotel night and just driving the 12.5 hours on the day of the game. But with the game starting at 7:00 EST and me losing an hour as soon as I pass Danville, I figured I would have had to leave at 4:30 am and then hope for no traffic issues. Just wasn't worth it. So I planned a stop in Pittsburgh overnight. Well, outside of Pittsburgh. Still on I-70. Doesn't matter.

The only thing that happened on Tuesday night was that I saw the weather forecast for the general Detroit area on Thursday, realized that I was going to be driving into the teeth of the storm on Thursday afternoon and evening (on my trip from New Jersey to East Lansing), and so I changed my hotel from East Lansing to Cleveland. That way I could stop before I got to the storm and then drive the final four hours on Friday once the storm had rolled through.

The trip really begins on Wednesday. Let's get going here.


I drove the rest of the way to Piscataway. I've driven that route three times in the last 16 months - once for the Rutgers football game in November of 2020, once for the Rutgers basketball game the following month, and now for another Rutgers basketball game. So I'm coming to learn the Pennsylvania Turnpike quite well. Four tunnels, three of them perfectly fine, the fourth one makes you contemplate that Sylvester Stallone movie and ask yourself "so if I see the ceiling caving in up ahead, do I spin around and then try to dodge oncoming traffic heading back out before I'm trapped inside?" Fortunately, they appear to be repairing the walls and ceiling of that tunnel.

I get to New Jersey, check into my hotel, do a quick Zoom call with Brumby (because of a pressing website issue, not because I check in with him while on the road, although who wouldn't want to). After the Zoom, I take a shower and get ready to head to Jersey Mike's Arena. I head out to the parking lot, get in my rental car, and... wait, did someone steal my charging cable? I look in the back seat. SOMEONE STOLE MY COAT??

I look around at the inside of the car. There's the Enterprise Rent-A-Car "this car has been sanitized" thing which I pulled down from the mirror and tossed on the passenger floorboard. There's the thing of Clorox wipes they give you in case you need to wipe something down yourself. I heard it beep when I hit the clicker, so this is my car. Someone really stole my stuff?

I decide to check the trunk. Did they take the bag I had back there as well? I walk to the back of the car and hit the "hold to open trunk" button on the key fob. The trunk two cars over opens up.


I had walked out of the hotel. Pulled the clicker out of my pocket. Hit the unlock button, heard the beep (from two cars away), and got in someone else's unlocked and identical car. And not only was it an identical car, it was also an Enterprise rental with the Clorox thingy in the cup holder and the "this car has been sanitized" thing on the passenger floorboard. I went to plug my phone in, the cord was gone, I thought someone had robbed me, and then, after the truck clicker thing, I very quickly got my computer bag out of the front seat, got out, and closed the door quietly (no idea why).

I then got in my actual rental car (hey look, my charging cable and my coat!), realized I needed a photo of this, and walked back behind the cars to take a picture. I've blocked out the license plates but here you go. Two identical rental cars. Both rented from Enterprise. The one with the door open is mine.

It's such a sheepish feeling. WAS SOMEONE IN MY CAR??? No, I was in someone's car.

From there it was just one big disaster after another (including the game). I've mentioned before that I am a Rule Follower. If the gas station says to wear a mask and the 23 people inside are not wearing masks, I'm wearing my mask. Not because of Covid or some theory I have about when masks should be worn but because the sign says to. If the sign said "hopscotch across the floor tiles once you enter this building", you better believe I'm hoppin'.

Because of this, seating charts are an oasis for me. The sign says sit in seat 9? I sit in seat 9. There's such comfort in a seating chart. Roaming through the night to find my place in this world.

For this game, relief came early: an emailed seating chart. I could study it (and study the seating layout) so I'd know right where to go once I got there. I need to look for PB4B, seat 9.

I go to seat 9 and... there's someone in seat 9. Of course there's someone in seat 9. Why wouldn't there be someone in seat 9?

It's not someone I recognize, and my intuition tells me that this is more of a "first come, first served" kind of thing, so I just need to find an open seat. 95% of you would just sit in an open seat and then deal with "hey man, you're in my seat" with your own "hey man, he's in my seat". But I'm a 5%er, so I will be filled with "am I in the right seat?' when seated anywhere besides seat 9.

I make a decision to sit in seat 7. That's Rob McColley's seat. But I know that he sits with the photographers all game, so he likely won't be showing up in row PB4B, seat 7. At least I'll know the person who gives me the "hey man, you're in my seat".

But here's the thing about Seat 7:

Seat 7 has a barstool instead of an office chair (so you can see over the cameras), but when you do that, your knees are above the desk and the whole point behind a desk is to type on your laptop. So if I sat in the highboy, I'd have to put my laptop in my lap. And my stomach takes up my 41% of my lap.

So I swap out the highchair for an empty desk chair. Maybe I'll stand once the game starts. Maybe I'll just move. But for now, I have a spot. I look down at the guy in seat 9 and he has camera blockage as well. Not really worth doing the "sorry sir but I think your in my seat" to just get more camera blockage.

But let me tell you what a Rule Follower does in this instance. A Rule Follower studies the rules over and over and over again to see if he missed something. And I notice something. The row in front of me, on the chart above, says that it's broadcast cameras in seats 1, 2, and 3. And then Brandon Gaudin and Jess Settles (calling the game for BTN) in seats 4 and 5 with their stat guy in seat 6. I can clearly see the cameras and Gaudin/Settles. And the seat numbers are.. backwards? The cameras are not in spots 1-2-3. They're in spots 4-5-6 (more like spread out between 4-5, 6-7, and 8-9). And Gaudin and Settles (and their stats guy) are supposed to be in 4-5-6 but they're clearly in the seats labeled 1-2-3.

So then it starts to all come together for me. I'm sitting in seat 7. Clearly says so right in front of me:

(Behold the $268 Chromebook which has produced nearly every word since I moved here. 13 hours of battery life. More or less a brick without wifi.)

But Seat 7 isn't really seat 7. I'm in seat 3. They flipped the numbers (for whatever reason), and I'm guessing they used to lay down place cards but after a while the Rutgers media just got used to it (9 is 1, 8 is 2) and so they don't put down the new numbers anymore. Visiting media might get confused? Meh. Who covers a Rutgers game?

So now I understand what's going on. These Rutgers guys aren't in my seat. They're in seats "1" and "2" behind the cameras. I'm supposed to be at the other end.

Can I go down to the other end? No. That's where BTN sets up their cameras and lights to film the pregame with Gaudin and Settles:

At the start of the game, they break down those cameras. Now there's three empty seats. Including seat 2. Which is really seat 9. Which is where I'm supposed to be. (Which doesn't have any cameras in front of it.)

So I move down to the other end but now there's another problem. Wifi keeps fading in and out. I like to think that it's Rutgers' fault, the entire rest of the world might think that it's the fault of my $268 Chromebook, but I keep trying to tweet things during the first half and they keep sending six minutes later when my Chromebook finally grabs the wifi. I try just switching to my phone and using the cell signal but...

I'm just about to give up at this point. Had to solve an escape room puzzle to find out that seat 9 was actually labeled "seat 2." Trying to tweet and I can't get wifi or a cell signal. Rutgers is up 26-15 about 12 minutes in and we're absolutely sleepwalking out there (and shooting like 0-10 from three on our way to a 1-14 first half). The crowd is amazing (like seriously amazing) and I absolutely hate it. Rutgers? We're letting Rutgers do this to us?

The score is 33-24 at halftime and guess who is back? The BTN guys start setting up all around me for the halftime shot. I have to go to the restroom anyway, so before they can ask me to leave, I shut my laptop lid and leave. I'm just gonna go somewhere else for the second half.

(Not somewhere else in Piscataway, somewhere else in Jersey Mike's Arena.)

I head to the restroom. Uh, let's just say Rutgers didn't really ever plan for the RAC to be sold out:

(That's after about 5 minutes in the restroom line. Took around 15 minutes altogether.)

I needed to find a spot to watch the second half. The press pass around my neck would give me access to the lower bowl, but I really didn't want to do that. Feels like cheating if I don't have a spot down there. RULE FOLLOWING FOREVER.

And I was pretty much disgusted with the game at this point. Party atmosphere in the crowd. Sleepwalking Illini team confusing me, the coaches, and all of you. And Paul Mulcahy doing, well, anything.

So I chose to post up here:

Do you know why I chose that spot? Wait - I think you do. I think I shared this on Twitter. I chose that spot because I could only watch Illinois on offense. I just didn't want to watch Rutgers grab another offensive rebound (or hit a three, or Paul Mulcahy do something), so I found a spot where I could only watch "our" game.

And, well, you know how it went. At one point we were down 60-37, the crowd was going bonkers (including everyone standing to my left and my right), and I tweeted the following:

That's 100% true. I've never been more miserable watching the Illini on the road than that moment. In the driver's seat for the Big Ten title and now we're down 60-36 at Rutgers with New Jersey fans all around me doing very New Jersey things and worshipping Paul Mulcahy, the Patron Saint of Smirks. Fifth ring of hell.

Eventually we made a run. Rutgers is a five-man team, and they started to tire, and we cut the 23 point lead down to 9. But it was too little, too late, and, as I said on Twitter, Rutgers finished me off with a 7x-5x score. Could the score have been a respectable 69-60? No. it had to be 70-59.

I went back to PB4B, grabbed my stuff, and left. DB had told me about a hot dog place in New Brunswick, so I decided to head there for a very late dinner. I found their website, ordered a to-go order, and GPS'd my way to New Brunswick (probably closer to Rutgers than downtown Piscataway). The only issue at the hot dog place (called Destination Dogs) - parking. New Brunswick was built in 1493 (a slight exaggeration) so the streets are about 14 feet wide. You get two cars passing and no parking spaces.

I parked in the parking garage across the street (you climb three stories and then take your ticket on the fourth level - it's weird), found my way back down to the street, got my dogs from Destination Dogs, and went back to the lobby of the parking garage (it's the old "pay before you go back to your car" thing). I paid, got my stub, and walked over to the elevator. While riding back up three levels, looked at the side wall and saw this:

That actually kind of helped? Like, they're trying to help people with real problems. I'm mad because my hoopyball team lost.

I drove back to my hotel, ate my dog, wrote my article, and went to sleep.

At least the hot dog was good.

Bread was amazing. So was the bite on the dog. The game... wasn't.


On Thursday, as mentioned above, I drove from Piscataway to Cleveland. And this was my sightseeing day. I decided to check out the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville, PA.

If you're an Orange Tier or Seventeen Club subscriber to IlliniBoard, you already know about this. For those tiers I write a newsletter (two per month) where I sometimes cover the Illini and sometimes write about other topics. On Friday I wrote about the Flight 93 Memorial.

There was a very positive reception from newsletter recipients, and I don't think I've done the "here's what you get if you subscribe at that level" thing a single time these last 18 months, so I'm going to reprint (reprint?) the newsletter below. Here's what you get when you subscribe at that level:

Design On The Land

I'm trying to be a little more "when the moment strikes me" with the newsletter this year. As I noted when I started doing this ("this" being "deliver a newsletter directly to my Orange Tier and Seventeen Club subscribers"), not all of these newsletters will be about the Illini. Some will be essays. Some will dive in on the business of college athletics. And others will be "Robert puts his Bachelor Of Landscape Architecture degree to use by reviewing a National Memorial he visited yesterday."

Yes, it's Bachelor Of Landscape Architecture. I have a BLA degree from UIUC. It's not Bachelor Of Fine Arts - Industrial Design" or any other BA or BS degree where the diploma says "Bachelor Of Science" and then "Finance." BLA is its own little thing. I graduated with maybe 22 other BLA and MLA recipients in a ceremony at Allerton Park in Monticello. I would have had more people cheering for me than just my mom, sister, and brother-in-law but my aunt and uncle (and another aunt) hit a deer between Altamont and Effingham on their way up and missed the ceremony. It was a whole thing.

I used that BLA degree for 24 years in St. Louis. And then I quit and moved to Champaign to write about the Illini on the Internet (and in a newsletter). And now I'm using that newsletter to write about Landscape Architecture.

My current road trip: Champaign to Piscataway to East Lansing to Champaign. I looked into a train (just not possible given all the stops), I looked into flying (possible, but very expensive and with several long layovers). I could have flown Newark to Detroit, for example, but the two-day rental car in Detroit was going to cost more than the rental car I'm using for this entire trip. So driving was the choice.

And driving more or less gave me a free day. I woke up in a New Jersey hotel room Thursday morning and my next "appointment" was to be at the Breslin Center at noon EST (11:00 CST) on Saturday for the Michigan State game. I chose to take my time getting from Piscataway to East Lansing. And in taking my time, I stopped at the Flight 93 National Memorial outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I had read about this memorial in Landscape Architecture magazine. Any time there's going to be a national memorial built outside, not inside, every person with a BLA degree sits up in their chair. Finally, another national example we can use to say "see, THAT'S Landscape Architecture, not the shrubs next to your garage."

For those of us with BLA degrees, that's 39% of our lives. Yes, I said "Landscape Architect." No, it's really the same as your brother-in-law's landscaping business. Yes, I actually have a degree in that - from Illinois, no less. No, I don't have a "plow on my truck for the winter." Have you been to that overlook above the Mississippi River in South County? I designed all of that. No, not the trees and bushes around it. The overlook and the trail back to the parking lot and the parking lot itself and the lighting and the signage and the bike racks and even the modular restroom. That's what I do.

Well, did.

I much prefer what I do now, but I do still enjoy some solid design on the land. (That's not my phrase, by the way. It's a well-known book that most all Landscape Architecture departments require their students to read. It was written in 1971 and helped define everything I just wrote above.) And let me tell you, the Flight 93 Memorial is some solid design on the land.

The thing that has stayed with me - the thing I was thinking about last night as I drifted off to sleep and one of the very first things I thought about this morning when I woke up - was the flight path. The entire memorial is built around the flight path. It is, to me, in a word, brilliant.

I'm sure nearly all of you know the story, but since it's been more than 20 years and a few of you are very young, I'll just go through the basics. There was a fourth hijacked flight on 9/11. The first two hit the Twin Towers in New York City. The third hit the Pentagon. And the fourth took of from Newark Airport in New Jersey, was hijacked near Cleveland, and was turned and pointed straight for DC. The investigation showed that with near certainty it was headed for the US Capitol building, but there was a slight chance it was headed for the White House. Either way, a fourth target.

There were only 40 passengers and crew on this flight from Newark to San Francisco (on an airplane that seats 240). Once hijacked, the passengers were sent to the very back of the airplane. While back there - in less than a half an hour - they use the Airphones (there used to be telephones in the seatbacks on many planes) to call family and friends. Their family members informed them of the Twin Towers being hit. So they all quickly realized that they were on a weaponized airplane headed for another target.

In those 25 minutes or so, they develop a plan. Get into the cockpit and overtake the hijackers. The hijackers did not have guns - only box-cutter knives and a fake bomb - so the passengers and flight attendants formed weapons of their own. They heated coffeepots with boiling water to throw on the hijackers. They used a beverage cart as a battering ram. In their fight with the hijackers to overtake the airplane, the hijackers at the controls (as heard on the cockpit voice recorder) agreed to "put it down" and placed the airplane into an inverted dive. It impacted the site at 10:03 am on September 11th, 2001.

How many lives were saved because of this? We don't really know. The flight was 18 minutes flying time from Washington DC. Reports that fighter jets would have taken the plane down before it reached its target were proven incorrect because the fighter jets were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base at 10:38 and United 93 would have reached Washington DC at 10:21. Initial reports suggested that the target was the White House, but the investigations since (including an interview with Osama Bin Laden's driver after Bin Laden's death) have stated that the Capitol was the target.

I'm sharing all of these details (mostly from the exhibits at the memorial, but some from articles I read once reaching my hotel room) because they're the reason the Flight 93 Memorial design is so brilliant. The entire exhibit emphasized the flight path. It is more-or-less one very large arrow, "painted" on the ground, pointing towards Washington DC. In less than 20 minutes, this airplane was going to destroy the US Capitol Building. And the passengers took it down.

If you want to talk "impactful design", there's no more impactful design than my immediate research once I reached my hotel room. The exhibits did not stick with me - the little artifacts recovered from the airplane and put on display in the Visitor Center. The thing that stuck with me was the flight path.

Let's get to my visit. It was raining the entire time I was there, so my photos won't look very good. But that's OK. Perhaps even better. I'm not going for "look good" here. I'm simply relaying my experience.

We shall begin with the overall design. This image is both displayed at the memorial site and placed in the brochure:

There are two main structures on the site. The Visitor Center (with the indoor exhibits) and the Memorial Plaza below at the crash site. As you will see from my photos, they were built in a way to emphasize one thing: the flight path.

When you arrive and park at the Visitor Center complex, you are greeted with this path:

The black granite, you're told at the start of the memorial, depicts the flight path of Flight 93. And the design of the building perfectly emphasizes this with the gap leading to the overlook. You're at the top of the hill here, and when you reach the overlook, you're looking down at the crash site. This is the view standing at that railing:

Let me try to zoom in on that photo and show you what you can see at the bottom of the hill.

The boulder in the snow in the distance? That's the impact site. (And I realize as I'm typing "impact site" that I'm being a bit cold here. This is a memorial for an airplane crash, and 40 people lost their lives at that spot, so I'll try to be careful as I describe all of this. But it will likely make some of you a bit queasy.)

This overlook is the point of the memorial. You just walked the flight path to the crest of the hill. As you reach the railing, you're looking down a long slope to a single boulder depicting the crash site. And everything between you and the crash site further emphasizes the flight path. A wooden gate. The alignment of the Memorial Plaza. The mow-strip between the Memorial Plaza and the crash site.

Which makes you look up. And out. And know that somewhere, off in the distance, is Washington DC. And you can't help but focus on it: 40 lives saved hundreds if not thousands.

Again, the black granite walkway is such a fantastic design. Even from different angles, you're reminded of the flight path. Here's a photo near the entrance to the Visitor Center (and all the exhibits) which shows how the black granite path (on the right, headed for the gap) is constantly reminding you of the flight path:

After spending some time inside the Visitor Center (no photography allowed), I went back to my car and drove down to the lower portion of the memorial. You can see the loop road on the map above, looping around outside the Allee (now there's a word from my LA 234 class), the tree-lined circular walkway which links the 40 memorial groves.

At the bottom of the hill I park and walk to the Memorial Plaza. The walkway follows the old fence line which kept the public away from what was originally an FBI Crime Scene and then became a makeshift memorial fence. One note about the FBI investigation that I did not know before yesterday: one of the hijackers had a debit card on him. That debit card remained intact and was found in the grove of hemlock trees just beyond the crash site. The number on that card helped the FBI begin to unravel the financial side of the 9/11 attacks.

Upon reaching the Memorial Plaza, once again, the flight path is the only thing on your mind. This is the gate you saw in the photo above:

More black granite, once again emphasizing the flight path. On the right, marble panels with the names of the 40 passengers and crew:

And when you walk up to the gate, you can peer through to see the boulder and the crash site:

I then turned around and looked all the way back up the hill. This was the moment I felt the true impact of the memorial. Let me see if I can describe it.

I was standing here, looking back up to the overlook (and the gap in the building). You're looking up into the sky here…

…and you can't help but picture it. This really happened. In this spot. If I had been standing there on that Tuesday morning and heard the airplane, it would have appeared over that hill, headed towards Washington DC, flying fairly low (perhaps 5,500 feet above the ground at that point according to the data recorded). It would have been rising and then falling at this point in a second attempt to keep the passengers out of the cockpit (after attempting to throw them off by rocking side to side). As it approached me it would have tried one final climb, then a roll to the right, and then, upside down, in a steep angle towards the ground, it would have struck the spot just behind me, 125 miles short of it's target.

When you stand there picturing the flight path, you can't help but focus on what was prevented. Perhaps I can best say it this way.

You might have heard the story of Heather Penney and Marc Sasseville, the two pilots who were scrambled (too late) to intercept Flight 93. They took off from Andrews Air Force Base at 10:38 to attempt to intercept a flight that they knew was hijacked but hadn't been confirmed as the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania. So they were in the air for one mission: if United 93 was still on its way to DC, they were to take it out.

They did not have any missiles loaded on their fighter jets, however. Their mission, were they to intercept Flight 93, would be to fly into the cockpit and tail to take the plane down. Both pilots knew they were on a suicide mission when they took off from Andrews Air Force Base.

But it wasn't a suicide mission at all. 35 minutes before those jets were scrambled, the passengers of Flight 93 put together their own suicide mission. They knew that if the airplane reached its target they would all die. So their only choice was to rush the cockpit. They did, and the hijackers directed the airplane to the ground, and the sickening mission failed.

For whatever reason, until standing there and seeing that flight path - and that's even having watched the movie United 93 - it never truly dawned on me that these passengers performed the equivalent of the suicide mission described above. Watching the movie, I was caught up in "oh man, had they only gained control of the airplane in time to level it off…", not realizing that both pilots likely had their throats slashed and there was no way for the passengers to land the plane had they been successful in gaining control. Maybe it was because it was a movie that I was expecting a Hemsworth brother to then land the plane with no pilot training at all (and then get the girl).

Standing there, looking at the flight path, I finally felt the true impact of the passengers rushing the cockpit. They were riding on a weapon sent to destroy the US Capitol. And they reached into the control panel, scrambled the wires, and took it down.

I then walked back to my car. The rain was much heavier now, and as I was walking the path, I looked to my right and saw fog rising from the snow by the boulder. Having just watched videos in the Visitor Center showing the smoldering crater after the crash, it was quite moving to view the crash site like this:

When I got back to the parking lot to leave, I decided to take a video of the full view from the lower lot back up to the Visitor Center. And as I was filming the video, I could hear a jet passing directly overhead. I'll let you watch the video and listen for the jet, but I can barely make it out myself. All I can hear are the raindrops and my breathing. But at the very end you can kinda sorta maybe hear the airplane overhead:

I then got in my car and pulled up my Plane Finder app to see what airplane was flying overhead. Given how loud it was, up there above the clouds somewhere, I wasn't surprised to find that the airplane had flown directly over the Memorial. In the image below, the Flight 93 Memorial is directly above the "S" in "Shanksville", right about where it intersects the line.

I clicked on the airplane in the app and that brings up the data you see there at the bottom.

United Airlines. From Newark Airport. Headed to Columbus, Ohio.

It landed safely in Columbus at 5:14 pm.


I spent nearly the entire day on Friday writing and re-writing that (^^^). Which is one of the reasons I went ahead and canceled my Friday night East Lansing hotel and extended my Cleveland hotel an additional night. The other reason. Ayo was in Cleveland on Friday night.

I learned this while doing one of my "bored while driving so I just record a podcast of me talking while driving" things. One of the questions asked if I was going to go see Ayo in Cleveland on Friday night. I didn't even realize that Ayo was in Cleveland on Friday night. When I read the question I thought it meant that the Bulls were playing the Cavs. But then I learned that it was the Rising Stars game. Don't mind if I do.

Let me give you more insight into myself. Any time I change hotels like this, even though it's on an app with a room I booked that can be canceled up to 24 hours before check-in, I always feel like I'm disappointing someone. No joke. I guess in my mind, every hotel is some Mom & Pop shop where they're looking at the latest booking updates online (written in pencil on a ledger) and saying "oh man, that Robert Rosenthal guy canceled his room".

For this one, I canceled on Mom and Pop three times. When I originally booked the hotel in East Lansing, I booked for three nights. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Then the start time for the MSU game was moved from 2:30 EST to 12:00 EST. With a 2:30 start, game is over around 4:45, I'm out of there at 7:30 if I write as fast as I can, and then I have a 5-5.5 hour drive to Champaign. So I had booked for Saturday night because I didn't want to get home super late. But then the game moved to noon EST, and I figured I could cover the game, write about it, and still get home at a decent time.

That was three nights down to two nights. Then I saw the weather forecast while I was in Pittsburgh and I reduced from two nights down to one night. Then I found out that Ayo was in Cleveland and I decided to just stay in Cleveland an extra night and then drive the 3.5 hours to East Lansing first thing Saturday morning. Three nights to two nights to one nights to completely canceled. And in my head, in the hotel somewhere, Mom tells Pop "now he just canceled and isn't staying with us at all!" I'm really sorry, Mom & Pop. I promise to stay an extra few days next year.

I write all day, take a shower, and head out for downtown Cleveland. I had purchased a single seat ticket on SeatGeek in the morning but I had one more financial hit coming: parking in downtown Cleveland during All Star Weekend. I was guessing I might be able to find a $50 parking garage. Close: I parked about four blocks away and paid $60. $70-something for the ticket after taxes and fees, $60 for parking.

On my walk from the parking garage to Rocket Mortgage Arena (in the coldest wind to ever blow in off a lake in human history), I'm walking next to this couple. The street is packed, so every crosswalk is "should we go because every single car is stopped or should we wait until these cars halfway through their turn complete their turn?" I usually wait (rule follower). This couple, stacked up behind me at one point, urge me to just go. I just go.

After we cross the street a car full of youths (Schmidt voice) starts yelling to the couple I'm walking next to. "Hey man, you better put a ring on that finger. You're never going to find someone better than her. Ring her NOW." The guy was talking to her while the kids were yelling, and she kind of half-heard them, but he didn't acknowledge them. She asked him "did you hear what they said?" and he said "no, were they talking to you?" She tried to explain what they were saying but he didn't seem to think the youths were talking to them (they were). Felt like I needed to step in so that she can have this moment.

"They said 'you better put a ring on that finger - you're never going to find someone better'," I offer.

She laughed out loud. He said "that's what they said? To me?"

"Yep. Said you should 'ring her now'."

"Well?", she says.

"I guess I have a lot to think about," he says. We all laugh and I head left at the corner while they go straight.

I enter the arena and go through what was a four step process.

  1. Prove that I actually have a ticket so that I can enter the gated area around the arena.
  2. Go inside and head though the metal detectors (my belt set it off so I got wanded off to the side).
  3. Go up the stairs and get my ticket scanned to enter the outer arena.
  4. Show my vax card and ID so I can get a wristband that gets me into the inner arena.

More on the wrist band later.

I headed to the restroom and... can I share some additional neuroses? I worried about how to dress for this thing. I honestly haven't worried about what I'm wearing since maybe a wedding back in October. I basically wear Illini gear every single day of my life except for when I'm covering a game and then I wear non-Illini gear because I'm not going to be that guy wearing Illini gear on press row. But this game - this was an NBA game and I felt like I needed to look like I belonged. So I dressed like my sons dress.

No joke, I went through my clothes and chose the clothing that would most look like what they would wear to an NBA Rising Stars game. I even took a photo in the Rocket Mortgage Arena bathroom to send to them and ask how I did. (I didn't send it. Too embarrassed that I was in an NBA bathroom taking selfies in the mirror. But hey, why not share it here?)

Flannel coat with the hoodie under the flannel. So hot right now.

And yes, that faucet was a splash factory. Doubled as a power washer.

And yes, I took my mask off for that photo. Guess I'm not that much of a rule follower after all.

I made my way to my seat and was happy with my view:

As I mentioned on Twitter, I was 100% in parent mode on Friday night. I'm there to see my guy, I don't care what happens in the game or the shooting contest because all I want to see is my guy on the floor. And I sat with my camera ready (from 100 yards away) in case there was something I needed to capture.

I'm joking about that, but not really. Those were my emotions. Ayo story is so unique, and as an Illini fan, I'll probably always view him a bit differently.

He committed to the program when it was at its lowest point in 35 years, saying that he did so to bring his home state school back to prominence. He should have been a 5-star, but he ended up as a high 4-star. He should have been a McDonald's All American, but he wasn't chosen. He proved his worth for USA Basketball, though, helping the U18 team win gold (playing ahead of several 5-stars).

In college, all he did was take a team from 12-21 to 21-10 (#21 in the polls when the pandemic hit) to 24-7 and a one-seed. He became the first ever Illini 1st-Team AP All American but then was doubted again. He fell to 38th in the draft.

No matter. He outplayed the 5-stars for USA Basketball and now he's outplaying the lottery picks and getting selected for the Rising Stars game. I need to go dig up that Board Room tweet that listed the draft picks selected for the Rising Stars game.

Here it is:

8 of the top 9, then 13, 16, 35, and 38. That's so Ayo. If you ever wondered why I'd go as far as making a tribute video, well, he's just that dude. Delivered on his promise, brought my basketball team back, and now continues to prove people wrong in the NBA.

So I sat there, camera at the ready. Even did the parent thing of zooming all the way in on my iPhone thinking that I could capture a solid photo at 8.2x or whatever:

There was a father and son seated behind me during the game. It was my favorite part of the whole event. Reminded me of going to a baseball game with my dad in 1980 (Jim Kaat was on the bump), except this father and son discussed the NBA like my dad and I discussed baseball. I didn't know one-third of the player names in this game, but they knew every single one. If Ayo ever makes the All Star game (he will - he's just that dude), I'd honestly pay these two to go with me. I learned so much just sitting there listening to them talk about the players.

So when they discussed Ayo, I was bursting. Ayo's game was second (they split the rookies and the sophomores into four teams and then played two games to 50 and then one championship game to 25), and so I had listened to them discuss all of the players in the first game and I couldn't wait to hear what they said about Ayo in the second game.

Ayo comes out and scores 5 of the first 10 points for his team. And I got what I was waiting for: "He clean" said the father to the son when Ayo hit the finger roll. "BUCKETS" said the son while Ayo's three was in the air (it splashed). I resisted the urge to turn around and say "that's my guy!!" because explaining how he's "mine" would have been awkward.

Those ended up being Ayo's only points. 5 points on 2 of 4 shooting (1 for 2 from deep), 2 assists and a steal. Ayo's team had some guys who, uh, weren't afraid to shoot (who is Bones Hyland and why is he taking 10 shots in a game to 50?) and Team (Rick) Barry built a lead over Ayo's Team (Gary) Payton.

But Team Payton made a push and actually had a chance late. The game was first-to-50, and Ayo's team trailed 48-47 with the ball. A three would win it. You know what I'm thinking. Michigan State 2019, Ohio State 2019, Wisconsin 2020, Michigan 2020, Northwestern 2021, Ohio State 2021 - I know just the guy to hit this shot.

MISS L. Ball 25' Pullup 3PT
MISS B. Hyland Step Back 3PT
J. Tate Driving Finger Roll Layup GOOD

Ayo's team loses.

I stuck around for everything else. The shooting contest. The "final" between the two winning teams. The award ceremony where Cade Cunningham got the MVP for... being the #1 pick.

As I was getting up to leave, the father and son were having a discussion with the couple next to them. They were trying to figure out who the third guy was on the TV set. The one next to Grant Hill. As I'm putting my coat on, the father taps me on the shoulder. "Do you know who that guy is on the TV set down there? Played for the Mavs." I looked (maybe my college basketball knowledge comes in handy here?) but didn't recognize him told the guy I didn't know. "This is killing me," he said. "What is his NAMME?"

The son has googled a Mavs roster from 2013 or so and is reading the names to his dad. "Wayne Ellington? Monta Ellis? Jae Crowder?" None of those.

I decide I can maybe help. So I just search Twitter for "Grant Hill" and click on "recent." Surely there's someone on Twitter at this very moment tweeting about Grant Hill and the guy sitting next to him. There was. Someone saying "did you see the look that Grant Hill and Brendan Haywood gave the host when he asked that question?"

"Brendan Haywood?", I say.

"THANK you." says the dad. "You saved me an hour of trying to come up with his name. You know your NBA."

I didn't tell him.


I saved this part for Saturday since it technically happened on Saturday. I got back to my hotel room well after midnight and still had to write the "So, How We Doin'?" post. I then got ready for bed and realized I was still wearing the wristband they gave out to mark that your vaccine card had been verified.

I try sliding it over my wrist and no luck. I try un-doing the little connection thingy and it won't budge. I try snapping the thing by pulling as hard as I can but nothing. Seems like it's just getting tighter. I don't have scissors, I'm in a hotel room - is this thing ever coming off my arm?

I dig through my dop kit (it's a dop kit, not a toiletry bag who carries a toiletry bag) and I find my nail clippers. And I slowly cut across the band. Took me at least eight snips, and each time I had to press down with as much pressure as I could provide to cut through the fabric, but finally I got the thing off my wrist.

Tired - zip ties
Wired - these babies:

I'm not kidding. Cinch that thing tight and no one is ever getting their hands free. The harder your pull the worse it gets.

(Can you believe I got this far before I had my first "wait, why am I telling you this?" moment?)

As I mentioned in my Michigan State article, I woke up before my alarm. For whatever reason, I was really excited for this game. I grabbed a breakfast sandwich and a coffee (two hazelnut creamers, two regular creamers, one Splenda) from the continental breakfast and I hit the road. Left a little bit after my planned departure time of 7:15, but the GPS said I'd arrive at Breslin at 10:56 for a noon EST tipoff. I arrived right at 10:56 even with my stop for gas.

I forget how close some of these cities are. I don't know why, but in my mind, they're much further apart. Toledo to Ann Arbor? 50 minutes or so. Ann Arbor to East Lansing? Maybe 55 minutes. I really need to learn my Big Ten geography. I still can't get over the fact that Maryland is closer to Penn State than Rutgers is to Penn State. In my mind, DC is due south of NYC.

I get to East Lansing, pick up my credential and my parking pass, and go park in the garage. I go to pull my credential out of the envelope and I notice that they didn't provide a lanyard. I always forget to pack a spare lanyard. Always travel with a lanyard, kids.

I did have my Rutgers credential with me, and it came with an elastic string thing, so I'll just untie the string from the Rutgers credential and tie it to the MSU credential. A bunch of Michigan State fans are walking past me in the parking garage and there I am yelling at the knot in the tiny elastic string that won't untie.

The problem: my fingers. Scroll back up and look at my hands in that bathroom selfie. Do you think those chicken sausages are made for untying a tiny knot? They are not.

I finally got it untied, tied it to my MSU credential, and headed inside. Once inside I went downstairs to put my coat in the media room and I notice that I should have been more patient:

Whoever is patient and waits for the lanyard to be provided has great understanding, but one who is quick tempered and starts screaming at the knot in the elastic string while trying to untie it inside a car inside a parking garage displays great folly. Proverbs 14:29.

I get to my seat in press row, it's crowded, there's an empty back row, so I go back there. There's no one there, mostly because it has a restricted view:

But this is perfect for me. I'm the only one back there, so I can stand. I can pace if I need to. It's a raised platform so even when I'm standing next to the table my laptop is at typing height. Perfect media viewing for me. Absolutely perfect.

(I just realized that you can see the top of my computer screen there. Now I need to zoom in to see what tabs I had open just in case I was googling something embarrassing like "are bobcats and mountain lions the same thing?" Looks like the in-game stats, Twitter, AJ Hoggard's recruiting page (I looked him up to see where he was ranked in HS), the current Illini season statistics, and Gmail. Whew. The photo stays.

This game was just a fantastic experience. The exact opposite of Rutgers on Wednesday. At Rutgers I have no wifi and the BTN cameras keep kicking me out of my seat. At MSU I have a row to myself where I can stand most of the game and pace when necessary. At Rutgers the crowd was deafening until the final five minutes (our fake rally). At MSU the crowd was shockingly silent until the final five minutes (and then gave the world's largest "UGH" when Trent's three went in). At Rutgers I watched Paul Mulcahy take photos with kids after the game. At MSU I watched Trent Frazier take photos with kids after the game:

There I am with my 6.4x camera zoom on my phone again, thinking it will take a good photo.

I stood there taking more photos with super mega zoom. And then it dawned on me. Hey idiot. You have a credential around your neck (hanging from a fantastic lanyard). It gives you access to the floor after games. You can actually walk down there and take a photo at 1.0 zoom.

Like this one of a friendship that will forever warm my heart:

While down there, I also took a video with Giorgi:

And then I headed out. I wanted to write, but they were cleaning up the media row in the stands and I didn't want to sit in the basement media room and write (too cubicle-farm-y). So I drove down the interstate about 30 miles and found a Culvers (shockingly good wifi, always a quiet booth in some corner) and had me a chicken sammich, some curds, and a Diet Pepsi. And then I regretted the curds because I didn't immediately clean my hands before beginning to type and left curd grease all over my keyboard. I doubt it comes off for weeks.

When I finished writing I got in my rental car (the correct rental car - I verified every single time) and drove the final 304 miles of my 1,906 mile journey. On the last 65 miles or so, I opened up a Twitter Spaces and just talked about the game for 55 minutes live on Twitter because my brain was exploding with Illini thoughts.

I recorded that one, so you can just go click this link and listen if you want:

Actually, if you have three minutes (and why wouldn't you after reading all of this?), just click on that link, click play, and drag the scroll bar forward to the final three minutes. The last question, from a younger Illini fan. I stuck the landing.

Which was the perfect way to end my trip. 1,906 miles from home to Piscataway to Cleveland to East Lansing to home. Five days, one snowstorm, an entire tank of washer fluid, three meals at gas stations, and four consecutive free continental breakfasts. Also, one loss, one win, and one Ayo. Next up? Ann Arbor on Sunday.

I'm taking the train.


detlef on February 22, 2022 @ 05:31 PM

Great stuff! Beat Ohio State!

HNLINI on February 22, 2022 @ 08:23 PM

Wow, Robert, Living the Dream!

If someone would have told you while you were sitting at your desk at the landscape firm six years ago that your week six years ahead would look like it did (watching the first place BBall Illini play twice on the road, watching IL not-yet-commit Ayo in the rising stars game, driving to each game as part of your job), I'm guessing that you would have either said, "Yeah, right" or "Can I have some of what you are smoking?" Thanks for taking us along on the ride.

San Joaquin on February 23, 2022 @ 09:23 AM

Excellent stuff. I appreciate the Illini travel summaries.

Robert and others would know much more than me, but Georgi really is that engaging. My son went up to him after an NBA summer league game last August, and within a minute or so, Georgi took selfies with him, gave him a bro hug, and without prompting threw shine on an Illini grad assistant who was visiting him at the time (I think it was Marcus Anderson) by explaining how important he was to the program.

Robert on February 23, 2022 @ 02:32 PM

Three of you made it to the end!

BigRedIllini on February 23, 2022 @ 04:35 PM

Make that four :)

Shemp89 on February 23, 2022 @ 05:01 PM

Long but great. Loved every word. So this is what we entry-level subscribers are missing! Fully aware that this is a 99% Illini site, but at least from my view I thoroughly enjoy your writing, regardless of topic. Thanks for this.

ktal on February 25, 2022 @ 06:39 AM

The video of Kofi and Giorgi greeting each other after the game was truly heart warming. Its so easy to love these guys.

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